Originally published on Lib Dem Voice on 28th October 2016 (www.libdemvoice.org)
I was disappointed that the working group on welfare at the recent Brighton conference decided not to back a Universal Basic Income (UBI). An amendment (defeated) put forward by members from Calderdale called for negative income tax. But actually, fundamentally, a UBI is both far more essentially liberal and—in any case–the current societal context and demographic trends demand that we should look far more closely at this, especially as we are a progressive party.
The current welfare system, introduced just after the Second World War, has become complex, bureaucratic, top-down and increasingly intrusive—note that all these descriptors are fundamentally illiberal. Remarkable as it was at the time in terms of its radical policies, and essential in modernising our society, now it is out of date and struggling to cope with 21st century society.
The two huge current issues we cannot ignore are the nature and rate of technological change, and the fact that we have an increasingly ageing society. Though full employment should be the goal of any society, increasingly it is not looking like it will ever be achievable again in the UK in a globalised world, especially the concept of full employment with an adequate, living wage for all workers. This is, at the most simplistic level, mainly because of: outsourcing basic, non-specialist work to cheaper labour markets in emerging economies; and advances in technology which will increasingly automate many forms of work undertaken by people.
Low wages have become a stubborn factor in the UK since the 1990s, and it is difficult to see how these can be shifted upwards anytime in the near future. The “gig economy” looks like it is here to stay for lots of us, with the accompanying lack of financial stability that it brings to many households.
The RSA has been investigating a UBI for well over a year and its report can be found here. In addition trials have begun in the Netherlands and are expected to begin soon in Finland. In fact the Finnish Government is designing a national Basic Income system to replace large parts of their current welfare system. There was a referendum to introduce a Basic Income in Switzerland in June this year, which though heavily defeated, shows how the idea is gaining currency. Think tanks in the USA, Germany, UK, etc, are increasingly looking at UBI as way to ensure all can lead a decent life in the modern world.
I am not proposing that this should be a policy “fix” that is “magicked up” overnight and done to people. This seemed to be one of the reasons for the working group to not include it in their conference motion, as they saw the difficulties with implementation. But in truth, that should not have been a constraint for them. For huge systemic changes to occur, there has to be a conversation with the public that lasts years, probably in this case, decades. There has to be long time for people to get used to the idea and thoroughly understand its benefits, what has changed and why it is needed.
We should be actively encouraging that conversation, and be seen as prime movers and advocates for significant changes in welfare. A poll of members on Lib Dem Voice has already shown that members support the idea of a UBI.
Freedom from being in government can have benefits. We should not longer be content with merely tinkering round the edges. We have to be liberal, think big, and UBI is a great place to start.