As we look to a post-pandemic future, more and more local authorities are getting behind the idea of a Universal Basic Income. The case is stronger than ever, argues Simon Duffy, not only for creating a more egalitarian society, but in freeing people up to play a greater part in local life and decision making.
Basic Income is in the news and on the agenda of UK politicians in a way that would have seemed unimaginable just 12 months ago. Partly this is the result of the extraordinary economic crisis which is emerging in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; the insecurities and indebtedness upon which our current economic system are built cannot cope with this level of radical change. Basic income offers a more efficient and progressive way of re-stimulating the economy, avoiding the chronic problems associated with bank and business bailout.
But there is another, much more local, dimension to the pressure for basic income. In England several local authorities, including Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull and Norwich have now called for pilots of basic income in their area. All the main parties in Northern Ireland have now called for basic income and the Welsh government is seriously considering the idea. Most importantly the Scottish Government commissioned a major study which has recommended a large scale plot of basic income and the Government is now seeking the necessary powers from Whitehall to carry out this pilot. This work in Scotland was primarily championed by local authorities, who see basic income as the best means to tackle long-standing inequalities in income, heath and well-being.
It is no accident that advocacy for basic income emerges from conversations in local communities and local government. For what is at stake in the debate about basic income is not just a new system of social security, it is rather a new way of thinking about ourselves, our rights and our wider civic responsibilities. It is part of an effort to find a better way of thinking about the role of the state and the role of the citizen.
The post-war welfare state was designed around the idea of work. Men were expected to do paid work, women were expected to do the unpaid work of taking care of the family. The role of the welfare state was to keep providing men with employment and taking care of people when they could not take care of themselves. By the 1980s the economic focus shifted from work to consumption. We were to be seen as customers. Old fashioned employment-based securities weakened as consumer rights and expectations were raised. Statutory services were reorganised to sit within state-regulated market-places and increasingly people were given rights to choose, control and shape their own services.
Amidst all of this it has always been a challenge to define the role of local government. Unlike most mature democracies the roles and boundaries of local government are not well defined or well defended. Local government has had to adapt to endlessly changing government systems and priorities; despite decades of rhetoric about devolution, the real shift has been to an increased centralisation of power. Since the 2008 financial crash local government has been savaged by austerity.
The places who are working out how to survive and be more effective in this challenging environment have shifted away from a consumerist approach and starting to focus instead on citizenship. For if we stop seeing local people as merely recipients of services and instead see them as citizens then a much more hopeful and sustainable path can open up. Citizens discuss, decide, act and shape their local communities; citizens create the relationships that keep people safe, well and help us each to thrive.
This is what makes basic income so relevant to the quest for new forms of local democracy and community development. Basic income puts people’s economic security first and then creates the possibility of meaningful conversations about how people use their time, energy, skills and networks. People stop being widgets, to be slotted into an industrial machine, or mouths to be fed by public and private services. Basic income means we can start to treat all people as equals, each full of potential, each with a role to play in creating better communities.
Basic income is not an anti-economic system; but it asks us to consider what kind of outcomes we want our economic system to create. Basic income actually improves positive work incentives for the whole community, and by increasing economic security it puts people in a much better position to seek work that is of real value:
- People can avoid work that damages mental health, with all the associated personal and social costs
- People can focus on work with positive ethical value, from caring for others to caring for the environment
- People can create new businesses, test things out, without all the associated risks and indebtedness
The new wave of campaigning, advocacy and research work being carried out to advance basic income also demonstrates the power of focusing people’s energy on places and topics. The UBI Lab Network grew out of an initial group in Sheffield, but was designed to connect together a powerful network which would be able to work directly with local leaders. There are now 25 UBI Labs stretching from Cardiff in the West to Hull in the east and from Plymouth in the South to South Tyneside in the North. As one of the co-founders of UBI Lab Network I’d love to see a growing connection between this dynamic movement for economic liberation and active citizenship and the innovative work led by NLGN.
Simon Duffy is the Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform. He is best known for inventing personal budgets and for designing systems of self-directed support. He works as a consultant and researcher with local social innovators and national governments.
To find out more about UBI Labs, visit: www.ubilabnetwork.org/