Don’t Despair!

To begin with a conclusion:

There is a final thought for collective reflection, reiterating a point made earlier. Conservative governments, and some previous Labour governments, have used the power of the state to control people’s lives – treating lower-income individuals and families as supplicants to be reformed or ‘sanctioned’. A progressive government should use the power of the state to empower people, to have agency and greater security and control over their own lives and an ability to forge communities of their own volition. A basic income would help in doing just that.

That is the conclusion to a very recent report by Professor Guy Standing, of the Progressive  Economic Forum, a foremost exponent and proponent of the idea of Universal Basic Income. And surely it exactly expresses what Lib Dems would wish to achieve somehow? THIS is how. And we should do it – and get on with it before we are left behind.

The Report (for Labour’s Shadow Chancellor) is very readable, and not at all clogged with percentages. It would be “transformative” – and that transformation would be more Liberal than socialist, I consider. I believe it could be implemented progressively in five years.

That brings me to Discussion Paper 136 for the imminent Autumn Conference, entitled A Fairer Share for All.   It is reasonable to complain that Universal Basic Income is dismissed in four or six sentences, as follows:

2.3 Piloting a secure income guarantee

  • 2.3.1 There remains a great deal of interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI): the Green Party are fully committed to this idea and Labour are – at this stage – backing pilots. When the Party last considered this issue, we argued that a UBI – i.e. a flat rate sum that is paid to everyone in the country – would not achieve the aims of providing sufficient support for everyone. We remain in broad agreement with this conclusion: the level of support for the poorest is what matters most, rather than the way in which this is means-tested; and the levels of tax rises required to give generous cash benefits to working-age adults on high as well as low incomes is unrealistic. UBI pilots have not shown evidence of coping with the huge variation in housing costs across the country and have been poorly suited to properly supporting disabled people.
  • 2.3.2 However, there is a case for a guaranteed minimum income pilot scheme. To run alongside universal access to basic services (as outlined in §3) and the replacement of the sanctions scheme, we would introduce a pilot scheme that involve an unconditional payment of the standard Universal Credit allowance (currently £319 per month for a single adult over 24).

I would question the possibility of a ‘pilot scheme’, since the essence of UBI is on the tin.  And  2.3.1 has surely completely missed the central point, that the BI is U, which means NOT means-tested: but it pays appropriate Income Tax. And of course income tax is the key:  the redistribution of income thereby is the levelling all profess to desire (as, of course, it is now, but insufficiently) .

So Paper 136 seems to me a pretty limp and timorous approach of which we cannot be proud – especially when set beside Guy Standing’s Report for Labour, introduced above. We must do better.

Why must we do better? This brings me to the piece by Will Hutton in the Observer/Guardian on 11th August.

Will Hutton’s op-ed begins: “There are reasons to be cheerful: Don’t despair. We may be living through an attempted right wing revolution, but its foundations are rotten.” He discusses the current dire straits of Johnson’s UK and Trump’s USA, as “the extreme culmination of what Reagan and Thatcher began 40 years ago” [which is] today’s “menacing right wing ideologies”; and he foretells that “suddenly the British constitution, the long sleeper of British politics, will become the new political battleground.”.

He also draws attention to the special concerns of the young, about  the environment, the climate, and ‘disfiguring’ inequalities. He concludes with a call to the colours:

So don’t despair. The no-deal Brexiters do not have the force behind them, any more than does Trump. They are losers, on the wrong side of history. Better people will enter politics. Old parties will be rejuvenated: new ones take life. There will be a counter-revolution – it’s already in the making.

I believe UBI will be part of that counter-revolution, and that the Lib Dems should be at the front, not panting along behind other parties. The Greens, I believe, do not yet understand UBI, but do have the gumption and the guts to support it.  Please read Guy Standing’s report. Then let’s all get ‘rejuvenated’!

* Roger Lake is a retired academic who voted Liberal in 1959, and every General Election since, with a fair mileage leafletting this Spring.

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  • We could go along way to achieving some of the same effects simply by scrapping the “Hostile” approach of Job Centres; that wouldn’t need Legislation, an instruction from the relevant Minister would be enough. All the Civil Servants employed now to hassle Claimants could be allocated to something useful. We could make huge shifts in the Culture within Weeks of entering Government, if we have the courage to tell The Tory Papers to Bog Off. We could Save Taxpayers Money doing it too.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 15th Aug '19 - 2:52pm

    An excelling in ideas is what we must become about and for, Roger correct in criticising the paper referred too, correct in praising the report he agrees with.

    I think Paul above says what I do often, but with a more subtle commentary than mine.

    DWP and Job Centre Plus, are a wretched organisation that make the wretched Home Office seem liberal!

    I would abolish them.

    We should return to a Department of Social Security. Work and pensions is all well and good, but soft on those who rightly are retired and get what they are owed, in a department that sees workless working age as crooks or serfs or wage slaves now wageless, is an outrageous immoral attitude and strategy and thus, structure.

    We need a department of work and enterprise to be a positive empowering one, aware of the so called gig economy and the rise in self employment.

    We should declare victory for Gordon Brown on tax credits and refer the Universal credit to the dustbin, or as a benefit for all without work, paid to all without work, no questions asked, but with a contract , to do what is appropriate, ie fine, to do nothing if disabled, to find work, not if able to, but no pressurised sanctions and no staff paid to do nothing but hassle. We need all who have declared being for work, to continue to get tax credits, they bring one into the world of work, as are administered by HMRC.

    We shall not see Labour close DWP or Job Centre Plus, because their staff are unionised by civil service unions on the left. The system is a statist monstrosity, of far right and left authoritarian hegemony!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Katharine Pindar 15th Aug '19 - 7:28pm

    Paul Barker makes a fair point. that if the culture underlying the hostile attitude shown by Job centre staff to benefit claimants were to change there should result less work for the staff and more relief for the claimants. It is the punitive attitude of the Government, deplored by the UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, in his Statement and Report, which keeps the miserable edifice in place and drives the growth in food banks.

    However, without waiting for a government that cares for the poorest and most disadvantaged people to emerge (and I find Will Hutton’s latest thoughts unrealistically optimistic), Liberal Democrats are ready to assist with ameliorative measures. The motion to which Roger Lake refers, A Fairer Share for All , to be debated at the September Conference in Bournemouth, proposes in paragraph 1 d to “Separate employment support from benefits administration – making job centres places of training and support into work.” This would be a constructive way of progressing matters, because the staff who help people find work wouldn’t be the ones threatening sanctions if work was not found, and sanctions have been a cruel imposition on many people.

    But I also thought, on reading this bit of the new motion, that I had heard it before. And I find that the excellent motion passed at the September 2016 Brighton Conference, F31 Mending the Safety Net contained, lines 43 to 46, these lines:
    ” Support workers back into employment by

  • Katharine Pindar 15th Aug '19 - 7:35pm

    Continued – (inadvertent closing of comment above!)
    a) Separate benefits delivery from employment support delivery, which would be devolved to local levels so it can be adapted to suit local needs.
    b) Scrapping fixed penalty sanctions and instead implementing flexible guidelines with added safeguards so no one can fall below a minimum income.

    Friends, we already have the policies to help. All we need is a share in power.

  • On Job Centre Culture, and Paul’s rather acid point, “All the Civil Servants employed now to hassle Claimants could be allocated to something useful,” Job Centres were privatised in 1998 by the Blair Government and many have since closed down. Staff were also incentivised to ‘targetise’.

    In fact, to date, privatising job centres has cost taxpayers £11 billion more than was promised in 1998. Add the awful (privatised) ATOS and MAXIMUS assessment regimes, plus the mysteries of Universal Credit, and you have a potent mix of awfulness.

    I’ve enough faith in human nature to think that if civil servants (and others) were treated decently, and the pressure of incentivised sanctions ruled out, they might just treat others decently. Job centres need to be returned to the public service where people ought to come before profits.…/a-nasty-piece-of-work-privatising-job-cent…
    1 Apr 2018 – PRIVATISING the management of hundreds of job centres has cost taxpayers £11 billion more than ministers promised, we can reveal.

    Search Results
    Video Thumbnail► 1:59
    I, Daniel Blake, Trailer

  • Roger Lake,

    You wrote, “I would question the possibility of a ‘pilot scheme’“.

    Guy Standing states that there should be five different pilot schemes required, (see pages 48ff). He writes, “it is recommended that at least one of each of the five types of pilot be undertaken” (p 50).

    Guy also states that a basic income would not provide “total security” (page 8), if you can’t live on it what is the point of having it? He states, “The idea allows for the basic income to start at a low level and rise as resources are mobilised and as experience with the impact grows” (page 8). He states that it would replace rather than be on top of existing benefits (p 39) and so would not make the poor any better off. He implies that the government should increase taxation by 5% of GDP to pay for Universal Basic Income (p 40) At no stage does he state how much it would cost to implement a UBI of £25 or £48.

    I on the other hand have suggested that a Basic Citizens Income of £48.08 a week would cost an extra £26.75 billion However, a single person needs £157.62 a week and a couple needs £271.58 a week to live at the poverty level once their housing costs have been paid. Therefore introducing a Basic Citizens Income of £48.08 a week is clearly not enough to live on and would not increase the liberty of people. However ending relative poverty in the UK would increase the liberty of the poorest in society.

  • Friends,

    (my thanks to Katharine Pindar, below, for initiating this mode of address.)

    I cannot quickly enough respond properly to each of you, so I hope I may do so briefly here, and hope our Editors will allow me to add a bit, later, where a more careful response seems necessary. Here, they are in order of arrival.


    Thanks for highlighting the nub of the matter — the need to make government less hostile and inhumane (and less expensive to the taxpayer!).
    And you say “We could make huge shifts in the Culture within weeks . . . .” That is just what Guy Standing means I believe’ in describing UBI as “transformative”, in the full title of his Report. It is the ‘paradigm-shift’ from ‘The Sun King’ in C18 France to “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” .


    Thank you for your support. And for your last sentence in it : “The system is a statist monstrosity, of far right and left authoritarian hegemony” I’m tucking it up my sleeve . . . .

  • Peter Hirst 16th Aug '19 - 4:59pm

    What is the purpose of UBI? Is it to ensure everyone receives sufficient to survive for a short period? How do the homeless receive it? What about prisoners? There are a host of questions. Should it be taxed at your highest rate that seems sensible? Presumably it will coexist with other benefits such as housing allowance, a carer’s allowance and maternity and paternity benefit.

  • Katharine Pindar,

    Thank you for your support, and the useful reference to Alston and governmental hostility towards the needy.

    I understand your doubts about Will Hutton’s ‘unrealistic optimism’.But surely there are enough signs of churn in Westminster and in half the kingdom’s households and pubs to suggest that Things are on the sliding change through chaos to Something? Far-fetched hope is the only active response to despair. And I believe Will Hutton does well to shine the light on it.
    And of course you are helping to bring that hope towards reality, in asserting that “All we need is a share in power” (Though in the context Power has a dodgy ring, perhaps?). Change there will be, I hope; and LibDems must steer it, with good policy, promoted with vigour and clarity. The power we need comes from votes, which come from electors, many of whom are not yet our firm supporters. And they are said to be tired of listening to experts.
    That brings me to two reservations on my part, when you claim that we [LDs] already have the policies to help. My own inexpert feeling is that too many of our policies have the character of tweaking: they fall short of the Transformative quality that Guy Standing claims for UBI. We too often seem to nudge from white to brown, instead of pushing for Cake. And advertising it.

  • David Raw,

    Good point well put: “Job Centres need to be returned to public service where people ought to come before profits.” It must be wretched for all those many people who entered public service hoping to serve the people.

    And thanks for the ‘I, Daniel Blake’ reminder.

    Geoff Cocker

    Great — I was shamefully unaware! Your is excellent. Thank you.

    Michael BG

    Many thanks, Michael, for highlighting important points. You have remembered more of GS’s Report than I can manage, these days . . . . And your page numbers are most helpful. I will try to address them in another response, after despatching all the foregoing here.

  • Peter Hirst,

    Many thanks for your enquiry. The best I can do by reply, I think, is to refer you to to the comment above, by Geoff Crocker, who provides a very helpful short web address (“url”? I’m rather ignorant).

    The main purpose is to show everyone in UK that each has rights, and that among them are basic rights like enough to eat and somewhere to sleep, so that no-one should ever feel he or she is not a full member of our society. These basic rights would not be grudgingly conceded by a tight-fisted government, but unconditional.

    Because these are considered basic rights there can be, basically, no attempt to make people ‘qualify’ for them. The purpose of UBI is to ensure that everyone gets them — in the shape of money to buy the necessities of life — as a regular and unfailing payment to them, paid by the Government on behalf of the nation.

    As you rightly say, there is a host of questions. One you do not ask is, do kids get it? At present, I think there is no country paying UBI; and that is probably partly because of all these questions. I would expect that children would get a smaller Basic income than adults, because parents supply their basic needs.

    As for taxation, I expect that Income tax will pay for UBI — as of course it currently pays for most current Benefits. The Basic Income will be added to other incomes (from work, or pension, or inheritance, etc) and the total taxed accordingly. This will mean that the very well off will not actually feel any richer. They may indeed feel poorer, since it will be their taxes funding the UBI. One of the principle merits of UBI is that it can help reduce the unfairly large gap between rich and poor.

    Some of today’s Benefits would coexist with the UBI, as you suggest.

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