Speeches of #ldconf: We are liberals. We give people the tools to make their own choices

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Harrow’s Adam Bernard proposed the Universal Basic Income motion last night. Here is his speech in full:


In the preamble to our constitution, the basic statement of our values, we aspire to a society where “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

In a motion about Universal Basic Income, you’d expect me to talk about poverty — and I will — but I’m going to start by talking about conformity.

I’m going to talk about conditionality and why it’s bad.

Conditionality is where we say “We’ll help you if you’re poor, but *only* if you’re the *right kind* of poor person”

It’s where we say: “Of course we’re nice. Of course this is a caring society. Of course we’ll help you. BUT first you have to prove that you’re poor enough. Prove that you’re disabled enough. Prove that you’re mentally ill enough. Prove that you’re looking for work in the right way, apply for jobs in the right way, jump through all the hoops, take what you’re given and don’t answer back.”

THAT’s conditionality. And this motion says we should get rid of it.


Over the last few decades, conditionality has increased. It increased under Thatcher and Major. It increased under New Labour. It increased — to our utter shame — under the coalition. And it’s still increasing now under the Tories.

And every increase has a nice, *rational* explanation — reducing fraud, maybe, or incentivising work.

But in fact every increase in conditionality means more stigma, more pain, more families unable to put food on the table.


William Beveridge — one of our great Liberal success stories — identified his Five Giant Evils: “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness”.

He attacked Disease not by setting up “poor hospitals” only for those deepest in poverty, but by laying out the framework for the NHS, which provides care to all, rich or poor, no questions asked.

Now, in the 21st century, we are calling for the same approach to Want. A regular payment, sufficient for basic needs, to everyone in society. No stigma, no questions asked.

Yes, this will mean to rich people as well as poor people. And you should feel the same outrage at that as when rich people use the NHS, send their kids to state school, or receive a state pension.

Yes, this will be expensive, just like the NHS is expensive, like state education is expensive, like the state pension is expensive. But we know that we can’t afford *not* to have those services in a modern, fair society – and we can’t afford not to have an absolute solution to poverty either.


And what about Beveridge’s giant of Idleness? Aren’t we encouraging people to be lazy?

Our society has a myth that, say, cold-calling people to ask if they’ve been in a motor vehicle accident is paid work and *therefore* is a valid and *dignified* way to spend your life, but bringing up your child, caring for your elderly parents, or volunteering to help your community is not.

We are Liberals. We give people the tools to make their own choices about their own lives. We trust people to know best.

And pilot studies have shown that people receiving a Universal Basic Income still seek work — but without the trauma that comes with doing it under the threat of starvation. And if you’ve not been in that situation, it’s easy to underestimate how traumatic, how mentally damaging, that ever-present threat is.


In our mid-covid world, with renewed empathy for those without work, the time is right for us to scrap the creeping conditionality of the last decades. And the time is *always* right for us to affirm that no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity.

Conference, please support this motion.


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  • Paul Barker 26th Sep '20 - 6:25pm

    I have yet to make up my mind about UBI but this speech is brilliant & sums up some of the worst things about our benefit system.

  • Adam Bernard 26th Sep '20 - 6:56pm

    Paul (and anyone else who’s still skeptical about UBI): this motion is the start of a process, not the end of it. There are different ways of implementing UBI, different ways of funding it, different ways of framing and promoting it, and crucially, different taxation, employment, benefits policies to mesh with it.

    We (the organizers of this motion) are committed to finding a set of policies that is not just radical, fair, and humane; but also workable and credible, and which is respected by as many party members as possible. That’s something for both UBI enthusiasts and skeptics to contribute to, alongside policy experts and under the auspices of FPC.

  • As the policy develops EVERY aspect of it must stand up to scrutiny for you can bet your bottom dollar that ALL opposition from media to journo’s right wing etc will turn themselves over backwards.UNLESS IT IS EQUALLY TO BE SEEN TO BE TO THEIR BENEFIT ALSO. Get them on our side.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 27th Sep '20 - 8:26am

    This is a brilliant speech, Adam.
    It was a great idea to point out that the NHS and State Education are also universal benefits. Hardly anyone objects to the fact that rich people can send their children to state schools, or use NHS hospitals.
    n hunter, I think there are aspects of UBI that could appeal to the right wing press. The Daily Mail, Telegraph etc are keen on the idea that mothers should have the right to choose to look after their children full time, rather than going out to work. Currently, this choice is only available to mothers (or fathers) who are independently wealthy, or whose partner has a well paid job. UBI would make it possible for far more parents to consider the possibility of being full time parents when their children are young, or perhaps of both parents working part time.

  • Colin Paine 27th Sep '20 - 8:48am

    I too am a sceptic. How do we avoid this policy becoming a millstone in an election with us being accused of giving away cash to those who do not need it when the country is running probably the biggest debt in modern times? I’m all for ensuring people are not enslaved by poverty but surely there needs to be some targeting? Sadly I fear this will just play into the Tories hands and prevent us gaining support in Tory/Lib marginals… the seats we need to win.

  • Peter Martin 27th Sep '20 - 8:57am

    Humans have always lived with the idea of conditionality. When we were all much more reliant on our direct relationship with the Earth beneath us we knew that if we didn’t plough the fields we couldn’t sow the seeds. If the seeds weren’t sewn the crops wouldn’t grow. If the crops didn’t grow we’d have no food and we’d likely starve.

    Society has moved on since. So few of us have that individual direct dependence any longer. But we still have the same collective dependence. Unless we are fortunate enough to be born into the ranks of the ultra wealthy, we do have to look for jobs and if we don’t find one, though we might not starve, we’re in big trouble. We do have a reliance on the job market.

    When the world’s population was very low we could always find some land to work. Or some seas to fish. Now that is no longer possible. But we can create the conditions where we can give everyone a job to do. And our society does depend on people doing their jobs. The electronic device you are using to read this was made by someone. So to, the electricity that runs it. The infrastructure of the internet hasn’t created itself. We need more teachers for our schools. More nurses and carers. More workers to look after our neglected parks.

    It simply doesn’t make sense not to utilise everyone’s talents. And we aren’t going to do that if we pay people to do nothing. You’ll probably argue some might use their UBI money to start up a business. Most won’t unless you make handing out the money conditional on starting up that business. There’s no reason Govt shouldn’t do that to help out new starters.

    I’m never failed to be amazed at Lib Dem naivety when it comes to human nature. Except the Lib Dems I know do seem perfectly rational in their everyday lives. Would your social class A and B voters pay their nannies if they didn’t bother to look after their children? Conditionality is at the heart of everything we do.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 27th Sep '20 - 9:16am

    Peter Martin, in his speech Adam pointed out that the NHS and state education are benefits that are not conditional, and hardly anyone objects to this.
    A UBI would actually enable people to utilise their talents, by freeing them to retrain, or start their own business, or perhaps write the novel they had always wanted to write, rather than being permanently trapped in a job that does not use their real talents at all.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Sep '20 - 9:27am

    @Catherine Jane Crosland
    I get the point about some benefits such as NHS and state education being universal and hence why shouldn’t there be some form of UBI…? – however…
    … if work that really needs to be done (e.g. building houses) isn’t being done because some recipients of UBI decide to live off the state at everyone else’s expense rather than undertake such work what are you going to do about that? Because to expect that every recipient of UBI would play their part by working instead of idling around seems naive to me.

    It seems utterly unfair that others should have to subsidise people who could work but won’t work when there is work available for them to do and work which needs to be done.

  • Daniel Walker 27th Sep '20 - 10:21am

    @Nonconformistradical “It seems utterly unfair that others should have to subsidise people who could work but won’t work when there is work available for them to do and work which needs to be done.

    Assuming that there is a large population of people capable of work who are willing to live on ~£60 p/w—which I doubt, although there’s doubtless a few—do you think those people should starve? And how many people who are unable to work (e.g. due to an undiagnosed mental illness, injury etc.) should be allowed to starve while the conditionality is assessed?

  • The reality is that there are huge numbers of people in our society who work and are not paid for it. There are also increasing numbers of people whose health does not allow them to work.
    We really do need to get away from the idea that there are two groups – those with money who have worked for it and those who are poor who have to be forced to work.
    I hope that as the policy is developed the evidence of what actually is the real situation in our country is cited at each stage, and that a clear communication strategy is developed which involves discussions between our members first.
    Ideas on how this can be done may be found in the recent outstanding Social Liberal Forum publication « winning for Britain » which I hope all our members will have brought to their attention.

  • Peter Martin 27th Sep '20 - 10:44am

    @ Catherine Jane Crosland,

    Use of the NHS isn’t unconditional. Many young women might like a ‘boob job’ for example. Or others might like a set of those whiter than white teeth that we often see displayed by TV celebrities. As far as I know these procedures aren’t allowed for free. There has to be a clear medical reason for any approved treatment.

    On one level NHS treatment is humanitarian. On a slightly more cynical level we all need the workforce to be fit and healthy to be able to do their jobs.

    Neither is public education totally unconditional. If students refuse to take part in lessons, if they are ultra disruptive they can be excluded. Especially as they become older and are considered more responsible. I do realise this raises difficult issues for many but this is the way the system operates at present.

    Look, I don’t want anyone to have to live in poverty. So why not target your efforts to giving everyone a job at a living wage? Many of us have been lucky enough to be fully able bodied, we’ve been given a good state education and this has made us employable all our working lives. But many haven’t been. Some fall through the cracks and long term unemployment leads to unemployability. That can only be prevented by giving everyone a job. Including those who have such conditions as Down’s syndrome. They don’t usually get a look-in if they are up against the competition of able bodied people – even if they can do the job just as well. This is an obvious waste of their talents.

    You might want to consider inviting Pavlina Tcherneva to your next conference to explain the concept in more detail.


  • Phil Wainewright 27th Sep '20 - 11:53am

    Peter Martin writes “I’m never failed to be amazed at Lib Dem naivety when it comes to human nature.”

    This is why UBI is such a uniquely LibDem policy. Unlike the Tories, we believe that the vast majority of people want to better themselves, want the best for themselves and their families. Unlike Labour, we trust the vast majority of people to make their own best choices to achieve that.

    A job guarantee forces people into work irrespective whether that’s the best choice for them at the time. Maybe they need to spend time as a carer, as a student, as a volunteer, as an artist, trying out a business idea, recovering from an illness, reskilling or searching for a job that truly uses their talents, or any of the multitude of other reasons why it would be a bad idea to take the first job that happens to become available however unsuitable.

  • Peter Martin 27th Sep '20 - 12:26pm

    @ Phil Wainwright,

    A job guarantee, along the lines advocated by PT, doesn’t force anyone into unsuitable work. For one thing they don’t have to do it if they don’t need to. If they need to spend time as a carer they can apply for that to be their approved job for so many hours per week depending on the need for that care. If they need to retrain then of course the JG can involve a high degree of education and retraining. If they want to volunteer for any particular task such as tree planting, canal restoration or any of the many other things volunteers do then they can apply for this to be their designated job and paid accordingly.

    Of course there will be details to work out but the thrust of any scheme should be towards payment for work rather than unconditional payments. You may disapprove of the public’s attitude on conditionality but that’s the way we all are. Generally speaking we are fairly generous in wanting to help those we think need help and need a leg up.

    We aren’t at all generous in supporting free riders. Lib Dems are no different. Would you pay your window cleaner even if they didn’t clean your windows?

  • Adam Bernard 27th Sep '20 - 1:24pm

    This is not about giving money to someone for performing a service. This is about giving money to someone to ensure — in extremis — that they not starve.

    From the same department of bad analogies: “Would a window cleaner clean your windows if you didn’t pay them? Why then should a doctor put your broken leg in plaster if you don’t pay them?”

    Answer: because we’re not actually all mean-spirited and we as a society are prepared to pay for certain unconditional benefits. Like the NHS. And if “the public’s attitude” isn’t quite there yet maybe we need to get out there and make the argument loudly, just as we did, last century, with the NHS.

  • Peter Martin 27th Sep '20 - 2:09pm

    @ Adam Bernard,

    As previously explained the NHS isn’t an unconditional benefit. We aren’t all given a quota of NHS time to use as we see fit in the same way we would be given an amount of UBI money to do as we please with.

    There is no parallel between the two at all. Most countries have some form of state supported health care. No-one has a UBI.

    You’re all very fond of quoting Beveridge: “Five Giant Evils: “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness”.

    The one you don’t really like is the last one. A JG addresses the question of Idleness. A UBI doesn’t – except in the sense that it institutionalises it.

  • Paul Holmes 27th Sep '20 - 3:27pm

    Once again, in the comments above, we see a wide variation in what proponents of UBI except it to be.

    £60 a week, as mentioned above, is £3,120 a year. Another strong advocate of UBI a few weeks ago on LDV suggested it be introduced at £40 a week or £2,080 a year. But others, in the comments above suggest UBI would be enough to allow a parent to give up work and stay at home full time and other commentators suggest it would allow people to turn down ‘unsuitable’ jobs while they wait for something else to come along, pursue their career in the ‘Arts’ and so on. Others have said it will mean no one has to live in poverty -yet one definition of that is a minimum income of £20,000 a year and many complained that the original Coalition Govt Benefits cap of £26,000 was far too low.

    So is UBI a low basic amount (which will disappoint many, indeed most, of its advocates) or is it enough to replace a full salary? In which case it will be extremely costly.

    During 9 years as an MP I never went into a TV studio/did a media interview without having carefully worked out the answers to all the likely awkward questions. At the moment our MP’s couldn’t even say exactly what is being proposed let alone convincingly field awkward questions about how it would work in practice.

  • Peter Martin 27th Sep '20 - 5:38pm

    @ Richard Flowers,

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we force anyone to work who can’t. In any case, this is logically impossible.

    But, where is your evidence that Beveridge was at all sympathetic to the idea of a UBI?

    This is what he had to say about the concept of full employment:

    From “Full Employment in a Free Society”.

    §280, pp 197

    “… full employment does not mean that men will have no motive to retain their present jobs; full employment does not mean that everyone has security in his present job if he behaves well in it; still less does it mean that he has security if he behaves badly. Full employment means only that, if a man loses one job, he has the chance of finding another. That does not make it of no important to the individual to preserve his present job, if he has one which suits him and uses his capacities. He will not get unemployment benefits, if he leave his job without just cause or is dismissed for misconduct.

  • Peter Martin 27th Sep '20 - 6:57pm

    I often wonder if those who quote Beveridge, usually in a very superficial way, as Adam Bernard did, have ever actually gone to the source to see what he had to say in more depth.

    I’ve just quoted one passage above which shows he wouldn’t have fitted in well with the modern Lib Dem Party. This is another:

    (Ch8, p 20, “Full Employment in a Free Society”, “The Purpose of Employment”)

    “Idleness is not the same as Want, but a separate evil, which men do not escape by having an income. They must also have the chance of rendering useful service and of feeling that they are doing so. This means that employment is not wanted for the sake of employment, irrespective of what it produces. The material end of all human activity is consumption. Employment is wanted as a means to more consumption or more leisure, as a means to a higher standard of life. Employment which is merely time-wasting, equivalent to digging hols and filling them again, or merely destructive, like war and preparing for war, will not serve that purpose. Nor will it be felt worth while. It must be productive and progressive. The proposals of this Report are designed to preserve all the essential springs of material progress in the community, to leave to special efforts its rewards, to leave scope for change, invention, competition and initiative.

    … For men to have value and a sense of value there must always be useful things waiting to be done, with money to pay for doing them. Jobs, rather than men, should wait”

    I know he was from a different era and all, that but he really should have known that women needed to have a sense of value too. If he’d gone into the wartime factories he’d have seen women hard at work building tanks and aeroplanes etc.

  • I have been ‘away’ for some weeks, and missed the UBI discussions: nothing much seems to have changed, and in particular the problem of “how to pay for it?”. But I have yet to see any mention of “M M T” : please point me to it if there has been some, for I believe MMT may be the answer to the question above. Indeed, its proponents say so plain. And the book’s subtitle gets within half a line of naming UBI, though the excellent Index does not mention it as such.

    There is an irony in the initials. They do not stand for Magic Money Tree (though Mrs May gets quoted) but the opposite; and we shall be hearing much more of it soon. While we LibDems still can we should seize it and run with it, I believe.

    MMT stands for Modern Monetary Theory, and probably the best book for any reader — because it is a good read — is entitled *The DEFICIT MYTH; Modern Monetary Theory and How to Build a Better Economy*. The author is Stephanie Kelton, a former chief economist on the United States Senate Budget Committee. Older British readers like me may think it sounds like Normal monetary theory of a Keynesian character. Please read and decide!

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