The Lib Dems’ Big Idea

On 11th May Humphrey Hawksley posed the question “Do the Liberal Democrats have a captivating Big Idea?“.

Hawksley went on to mention Boris Johnson’s ‘Take Back Control’, and Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, and briefly discussed these and other examples of Big Ideas, before finishing his post thus:  “The Liberal Democrats, therefore, have a unique opportunity. Let us define our big idea and begin arguing its case now, so that by the time the next general election is announced it will be embedded in the national conversation.” (I wish he had not dropped the capital letters!)

I shall attempt, now, to take up Hawksley’s challenge.

I actually wish to reinvigorate what is now a rather tired but now Very Big Idea, with one or two Radical changes  added. (Lib Dems are rather inclined to label any Good Idea as a Radical one: that is an error!)

Here goes, then.  I propose that our ‘Big Idea’ shall be endowed with a new name altogether. Let us proclaim, when the time comes, the Big Idea of the NATIONAL INCOME DIVIDEND, a new name for an elderly idea which  begins to limp along in tired plimsolls as Universal Basic Income, full of percentages and pennies and History.

NATIONAL INCOME DIVIDEND is not a mere renaming of UBI with less depressing words. Say it now – OUT LOUD if you are alone –  and listen to it. How does each word sound by itself? How does it ring? And how do they work as a threesome? And do they run in harness rather like that old-timer, beloved headliner, the unholy trinity GDP? GDP is the very devil at the heart of Conservative capitalism.

Oversimplifying, perhaps, GDP stands for Gross Domestic Product, and means the total value of all the goods and services produced and paid for in the last year. That, perhaps, makes it a measuring for the celebrations (or not!) of the rich and the managers.

The principal alternative way of sizing up how the economy prospered during the last year, is the Gross National Income – all the wages, salaries, fees, etc paid to all whose  income is essentially pay for work done.  Carefully done, the GDP and the GNI turn out to arrive at the same total. (I am ignoring a lot of fiddly details : gross or net? domestic or national?  etc.)

But (putting it crudely), Gross Product interests bosses and the rich. That is why it gets all the  media publicity. But the worker, the family, the shopper. . . their interest, and how each personal income compares with other kinds of work etc, is in their well-being, not in material riches.  And I think most Lib Dems would feel that in a decent democracy most of the economists and other experts of that kind would be and should be trying, not to maximise the Total cash value of the Product, but to apply even-handed justice and decency to considering how the overall total of the National Income ought to be shared out.

And any democratic Government ought to have been manipulating the Gross Income to share it out in such a way that everyone had at least enough for health and well-being – a UBI, in fact, for everyone – and what’s left over shared out fairly, according to prevailing notions of fairness and reward. It will be the House of Commons that will determine who is to get what share of the surplus. It will not be a Chancellor’s fixing for his friends. Why not? Because the times, they are a-changing.

At present, of course, how the Commons shares it out depends on the strength of the predominant party. And there, today, is the rub: one heartless party, giving all it can to its supporting voters, and letting the rest go hang.

That is why the Lib Dem “Big Idea” must be ‘Niddy’, the NATIONAL INCOME DIVIDEND.   And we must start proclaiming it now, so that the voters all know where it has come from and how it will work. The several main parties will haggle out a settlement acceptable to all for the coming year. And the Budget Minister will make it the first announcement in his or her Budget: “For the coming year, the National Income Dividend will be x%.”

Everything will look very different within ten years, I believe. And as Peter Watson sagely mused on May 18th, ” perhaps [our LD] ideas would be nicked by another party, but that’s still a win of sorts!”  Indeed it may be, Peter!  And thank you, Humphrey, for getting us going with the notion of the “Big Idea”!


* Roger Lake is a member in York, who was a Civil Engineer, but retrained and taught in a Polytechnic Humanities Dept. Retiring at 50, he turned painter, and JP, and LD footslogger.

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  • I look forward to the day when Liberal Democrats have a captivating new idea that can be expressed in a short snappy sentence.

  • Roger, perhaps the engineering training has something to do with it. C H Douglas was an engineer who developed the idea of social credit in the inter-war years, but it was overtaken by the ideas of Keynes and Beveridge.
    This article discusses a social dividend based on sharing of common resources From basic income to social dividend: sharing the value of common resources

  • David, yes. But the start of this debate was Humphrey Hawksley’s calling for a “Big Idea”. I believe he was right to do so, and I think what he meant was something like “a cracking Good Idea expressed inside a cracking Good Slogan : a Big Idea with depth and punch. I believe Niddy is such an idea, but I have been unable to claim,in my three words ‘National Income Dividend’t, to achieve both the Slogan dimension and the Idea itself. I am trying to urge that Parliament (soon to be elected in PR shape) should base its deliberations on a National Income footing, and not on the habitual alternative, the GDP.

    And when the budget is thrashed out by a majority of the several PR Parties collaborating in the Commons, it will be representing over half the voters, and not the almost Blue or Red
    we suffer from now.

  • Joe
    Wow! I had to skim — there’s a lot of it, and all good stuff, I think. But I think there was no suggestion that the GDP should be left on the shelf, supplanted by the National Income’s alternative perspective. That suggestion is part of my claim to be introducing a ‘Big Idea’ — and one that fits particularly well with Liberal Democracy, surely?

  • Peter Martin 7th Jun '22 - 11:31pm

    GDP, GNP and GNI are not that much different for the UK. Anyone who interested to understand what they all mean in detail might want to read the link below.

    They are all valid measures, in their own way, so it really isn’t true that GDP is only relevant to “bosses and the rich.” I doubt many are going to be swayed in their voting intentions, even in the unlikely event that a Lib Dem party political broadcast, or a doorstep canvasser, succeeds in explaining what GNI actually means.

    If you want the product of all our labours shared out more equitably, why not just say so?

  • Steve Trevethan 8th Jun '22 - 7:47am

    Might it help to get more accurate data on national wealth if we were to publicise, work for and achieve the abolition of “tax havens”?

    Might this be a worthwhile and attractive policy in itself?

  • Andrew Tampion 8th Jun '22 - 7:54am

    In the first place Mr Lake doesn’t explain in what way Niddy differs from UBI.
    Second Niddy or UBI sounds like free money so voters are rightly going to be suspicious because generally speaking free lunches are not a thing.
    Third voters are also going to be asking how it’s going to be paid for and who is going to be paying. UBI at least involves changes to tax that voters might find unpleasant, like no tax free personal allowance.
    Fourth for these reasons it’s complicated to explain and, for that reason, may not be an easy sell

  • “Build a Fairer Britain”
    It has a rhythm to it when it’s spoken. And when asked “what does that mean?” it means:
    Social justice; economic fairness; environmental sustainability.

  • Colin Brown 8th Jun '22 - 10:56am

    Freedom and Fairness. The freedom to be who you are without fear. Fairness in creating an environment in which the actions of some do the least harm to others. Perfection will never be achieved, but aiming to pursue Freedom and Fairness sums up why I tie my colours to the (Scottish) Liberal Democrats.

  • I am sorry to say at 10 am on Thursday that I find a general response sounding a touch more contemptuous than interested. Some of this, I believe, is because my original text has been trimmed rather rigorously to the 750 words recommended by the Editors. I had relied overmuch on their remarks tempering that rigour.

    The fact is, that there are two , er . . . dimensions to my drift or intention. One point is to outline the difference between National Product and and National Income: it is a matter of focus. The other is that I am not at all concentrating on the next General Election, but, I think, on the next ten years or so: say two Elections.

    My proposal is based on two expectations. One is that our present PM has been undermining our old faith in The Mother of Parliaments. And why do virtually all European countries have parliaments much closer to PR? Very soon, surely, we shall ourselves have PR or something like it. No longer will a Parliament which was voted for by less than half the voting population decide for the whole of the UK what the Budget is to be. Instead, something like half a dozen parties will collectively decide, by debate and voting .

    So PR is vital; and dear Boris is bringing it, I believe. The times, they are a-changing.

  • David Garlick 8th Jun '22 - 12:05pm

    Good/great idea! Don’t like the name which will not, my view, resonate with the public. Even with explanation, if they allow you the time to deliver it I am not sure that it is yet captivating enough to be the answer to our need for a ‘Big Idea’.
    It is a conversation that we must have and thank you for the ‘Big Reminder’.

  • David Garlick,
    Thanks for the encouragement, Very sorry you don’t like the name — meant to be seductive, as well as accurately descriptive. I’ll keep trying here, with answers — questions welcome, one and all!

  • Big ideas have often been developed over many decades and they are implemented when the time is ripe. Lloyd George’s peoples budget of 1909 was one such case The ‘People’s Budget’: Causes and Consequences
    “The genesis of the 1909 budget was the need for more taxation and a reappraisal of ways to raise revenue but opposition in the House of Lords invited the Liberals to curb the power of that House. When achieved it speeded the decline of the peerage and moves toward social change and the interventionist State.”
    So too was the Addison Act – “Homes fit for Heroes” after the Great war that Lloyd George failed to implement Addison
    Keynes ideas influenced the 1929 Liberal campaign We can conquer unemployment
    Beveridge’s report “Social Insurance and Allied Services” laid the foundation for the post-war social contract, although the success of the programs did little to stem the decline of the Liberal party after WW2, even with charasmatic leaders like Jo Grimond at the helm.
    Margaret Thatcher’s ideas for replacing nationalised industries with broad public ownership of shares in privatised industries and the sale of council homes to tenants were ideas of their time that were scuppered by poor design such as not reinvesting the proceeds of house sales in construction of new homes.
    The housing crisis has put a focus on land value capture Land value capture: an idea whose time has come? Today, we need to be able to meet the expressed needs of the British public in a period of stagflation and heightened International security concerns, just as Lloyd George had to in 1909.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Jun '22 - 2:08pm

    I agree with David. We need ideas you can explain easily to intelligent people, not necessarily policy wonks or economically trained!

    James Baillie has made an intelligent comment. I feel the recent proposals he is involved with, very good in effort, fail, according to my suggestion here. They require too many changes for a too basic income.

    We should say this. One hundred pounds minimum to every permanent UK resident up to earnings of one hundred plus thousand.

    Not universal. But basic.

    Easy to sell.

    Any takers….?

  • Peter Watson 8th Jun '22 - 2:38pm

    @”Fundamentally though my perception is that the party’s hierarchy are rather scared of big ideas in any case”
    I have to wonder if that is because “big ideas” often appear to be things that would be paid for by the party’s target voters to the more immediate benefit of everybody else!
    For better or worse, “rejoin” seems to be the obvious candidate for a Lib Dem big idea, but surprisingly the party has even distanced itself from that.

  • James Fowler 8th Jun '22 - 7:51pm

    You could use some national wealth to pay everyone a ‘National Income Dividend’ or… allow a tax cut for basic rate taxpayers. I think the latter would be great deal easier to politically sell and governmentally administrate.

  • Andrew Tampion 9th Jun '22 - 7:37am

    “For better or worse, “rejoin” seems to be the obvious candidate for a Lib Dem big idea, but surprisingly the party has even distanced itself from that.”
    Because many target seats, especially in Devon and Cornwall voted Leave and there is no evidence that the voters in those constituencies hgave changed their minds.
    Because the country is still divided over the EU and there is no evidence that there is a majority for Remain. So at best that policy would mean re-starting a bitter conflict that most people, including me, don’t want to go back to.
    Because many people, including me, are still disgusted by the failure of most pro-Remain politicians to accept that they made any mistakes in the lead up to the referendum and their casual insistance at the time that anyone who voted Leave were either fools or knaves. In this connection I suggest you read Jonathan Sumptions essay Brexit a Guide for Foreigners” re-published in his book Law in a Time of Crisis (2021)

  • Russell Simpson 9th Jun '22 - 9:19am

    @John Leach
    I like “Build a fairer Britain”. For me, a fairer voting system has to be front and central.

  • David Evans 9th Jun '22 - 10:33am

    The problem with big ideas is that the people out there are not looking for big ideas and they are certainly not looking for a complete rehash of the Social Security System, nor constitutional reform, nor freedom, nor electoral reform. What they want is an end to incompetent government.

    Sadly they have had that for over 10 years now and arguably for much longer. The only time they had it was sporadically during the coalition on the occasions when our leading lights got their act together for long enough to stop the Tories doing something stupid and putting something sensible in its place. Unfortunately that didn’t happen often enough for them (or us) to realise the benefits of coalition.

    People are now realising the consequences of Boris Johnson’s incompetent so called ‘Brexit Deal’ and are tired of being lied to.

    That is the need we should be aiming to fill. We are doing it in by elections and in some councils. But do we have the courage to drop all the chatter about the exciting stuff long enough to actually win and start to actually do something?

  • Laurence Cox 9th Jun '22 - 12:21pm

    I like the idea, but not the name: “Niddy” is too close to “Noddy”. Instead I would like to see us calling it the “People’s Co-operative Dividend” or ‘divvi’ for short. Co-operatives long preceded the Labour Party and we should not be afraid to move to the left of the current Labour party by claiming this ground.

  • @David Evans

    Your confidence is very enviable, but is it justifiable? ‘The people out there” are many and various, and all of them deserve respect. Many of them indeed are looking for constitutional and electoral reform.

    May I suggest that you may have got it the wrong way round, like many other L Ds? I believe we shall “start to actually do something” by taking a longer view based on evidence of all sorts of changes in the UK and also in the wider world.

    @Andrew Tampion on 8 Jun at7.54 am

    Thanks Andrew, for giving me the chance to say I am trying to combine two unfamiliar difficult ideas, one of which is easily overlooked, following editorial trimming. [My piece as submitted was ruled overlong.]

    One of those two ideas is that notion that we must re-design UBI — in which I believe wholeheartedly — to present it in more of a ‘Big Idea’ style, which greatly improves its appeal, in that title NID.

    The other half of my “Big Idea” is that it must BE big if it is to get anywhere.
    We should get to work on promoting it NOW, in the hope and intention that it shall actually spring into effect, not at the NEXT Election, but at the one after.
    That is because things are indeed changing. PR continues, here and there, to be making considerable progress (Trades Unions?)

    Perhaps, indeed, it is only because Starmer and his senior colleagues are not dedicated to change and progress, but merely to beat the Tories, so that they can have Labour’s turn at the Same Old System (See ‘Buggins’s Turn).

    I suggest we adopt the motto Lets all Boost Boris, the Bluster Blister. With any luck he will lead the Conservatives into the next General Election, disastrously. And our compatriots will insist on the introduction of PR before there can be another Election.

    And with PR, EVERYTHING will change, including the Budget, for there will be no Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking as directed by one Party’s PM, perhaps representing about a third of the House of Commons. The annual Budget will have been thrashed out by an alliance of several of the eight or ten (say) parties able to agree on a Joint Budget.

    And the first announcement in the PR Budget will be that The National Income Dividend will be £ x%. It will start small, because this New World will have to cushion the shake-up.

  • @ Lawrence Cox, just above.

    I sympathise with your suggestion. But I still prefer National Income Dividend, because it is non-partisan, and spot-on for descriptive accuracy.

    P.S. As for how the national income is distributed through the population, measured as ‘households’, there is a perfect diagram showing this in a coloured graph, published by the Office for National Statistics. Or there was, for 2016. I have a feeling it may have been discontinued, but I will try to find out and report. Meanwhile, its full name was:
    ” Figure 3: The effects of taxes and benefits on household income by quintile groups, all households, financial year ending 2016 “

  • Peter Martin 10th Jun '22 - 12:18pm

    @ Roger Lake,

    As James Baillie has previously said: it’s unclear how it would work in detail.

    The Gross National Income, or GDP (it really doesn’t make any difference to this discussion), is made up of lots of different transactions in the economy. So if, for example, I pay a garage £240 to service my car there will be a £40 VAT component. The remaining £200 will go to paying overheads of the garage including the wages of their workers. They’ll pay their taxes plus National Insurance etc so we can expect another £50 or so to go to the goverment.

    So where is ‘the dividend’ in this? You can introduce another tax, say a transaction tax of 2% to cover the case of presently VAT free transactions or just increase all other taxes to create some extra revenue. Is this the plan?

    PS You did say questions were welcome! 🙂

  • Peter Watson 10th Jun '22 - 2:17pm

    @Andrew Tampion “rejoin seems to be the obvious candidate for a Lib Dem big idea”
    I didn’t say it was a good idea! 😉
    However, opposing Brexit when we were in the EU and not proposing re-joining now we are not, well it does reinforce the impression that the party’s biggest idea is (very sadly) “No to change”. 🙁

  • Peter Watson 10th Jun '22 - 2:29pm

    I am entirely agnostic about UBI, but it does seem to be a hard enough sell within the party so I wonder how it will fare on the doorstep.
    Branding it as a dividend though, reminded me of the Alaskan scheme discussed previously on this site. Googling to find the name (Permanent Fund Dividend, by the way), I came across this interesting article ( which raised an unintended consequence of UBI that I’d never have considered, i.e. the “temptations on the part of conservative politicians to use UBI to get elected and then as an excuse to strip public funding from programs they don’t like”. Could it be exploited as a step towards a privatised health service or education system, etc.?

  • @PETER MARTIN 10.6.22- 12.18

    Peter, thanks for your question; it is indeed welcome, and helpful. But I do feel your expectations of this author are a bit unreasonable, if I may say so! This thread (is that the term?) is bound to leave much unanswered: its very purpose is to stimulate questions. And these may be to clarify or to amplify.

    And the more so, when we are grappling with a two-dimensional title. ‘The Lib Dem’s Big Idea” has to be a Good Idea, and an Eye-catching Idea. I will concentrate on explaining the Good aspect, and try to answer your specific question: “So where is ‘the dividend’ in this?

    It’s a matter of fair shares. What we have now is a land where many people have so much spare money that they can earn more, by lending (or renting out )money to businesses who will be expected to pay dividends (or rent). Both parties expect to make money from this bilateral deal. But many people are simply not rich enough to have spare money with which to make still more by renting-out money in expectation of getting back more than they paid in — just like the ‘poor’ who buy a lottery ticket. They do not call it gambling, but “investing”.

    We all, I’m sure, understand the ideas and the words Shares and Dividends, when talking of Investment in commercial enterprises: got enough shares, you get cash back in proportion to the size of your ‘shareholding’ –let’s say annually — and you keep the shares!

    Continues below, I hope.

  • Continues from above, I hope

    So what I’m proposing uses “Dividend” in the same way, notionally, but based (and this is the core of the matter) . . based on the notion that everyone living in the UK, whether by birth or good luck or residence, ought to be recognized as playing a part in life here — at the very least as a customer of the Economy, but also, probably, as a friend and neighbour. And anyone playing a part in British life in Britain ought to given a modest part of the nation’s “National Income”. Share that out equally to one and all, and it becomes what financial types call a ‘Dividend’ . So a National Dividend would be shorthand for “Here’s some Cash from the kitty the Economy built up last year, as ‘thanks for living here and doubtless adding to the social life of the nation. It may not be much, but you can depend upon its being regular, month by month”

    That may sound soppy. But think of the Saving ( and the non-monetary profit!) to national Life: no wretched having to satisfy Government scrutineers, harshly insisting that you prove you need, and qualify for, the so called Benefits.Your needs are commonplace, and you can buy what you need with a saved portion of your National Income Dividend; save some when you can, spend that when you want or can. Since everybody gets the same Dividend, every body stands on an equal footing, eye to eye — paying due taxes, and receiving his or her National Dividend. [In this redistribution, some Benefits may disappear, as covered in it.]

    HMG will decide first on the NID, and only then adjust taxes and benefits in the rest of the Budget. But that’s another story!

    [Professor Guy Standing, one of the prime proponents of UBI as recreating our national Commonwealth, is better than the above at explaining this broad sociopolitical idea.]

  • @ Roger Lake Roger, can I to take it that everybody in the UK will get the same amount of ‘National Dividend’ …. and how much will it be ?

    In other words, will Rishi Sunak (Sunday Times Rich List puts Mr Sunak and his wife’s fortune at £730m) get the same amount of cash in his ‘Divi’ as 58 year old Fred Bloggs an agricultural labourer in Devon who can’t work anymore because of a hernia, depends on his local foodbank, and has been forced to abandon his clapped out 2008 Nissan Micra because of the price of petrol ?

    In the rough old real world of politics you’re going to have to convincing answers to such questions for the Party Leader when, in due course, he faces up to Andrew Neil at the next General, Election. As always, the devil’s in the detail no matter how ‘big’ the idea may be or whatever you decide to call it.

  • Russell Simpson
    @ 9th June- 9:19 am

    I agree with your sentiments. But in terms of the “Big Idea” I think it is too vague: who could disagree? Even Conservatives could say it without blushing, so practised their sentiments!

    But you’re right. And I believe Boris is bringing it closer. The next but General Election but one, perhaps, especially if the Labour resistance to it subsides shamefaced.

    But I think this thread may be now be slowing to a halt. I shall pause and try agin from another angle perhaps.

    Meanwhile. ‘Vive la LibDem “Big Idea” from Humphrey Hawksley’

  • David Raw
    @ 12 June 4.15 pm

    David, the answer is yes! I’ve clearly omitted an important introductory announcement: that I am a dedicated advocate for UBI. Not only Basic, it is also Universal. The prime reason for such seemingly wanton largesse is that if it is to be for everyone, no rules and no scrutiny of filled forms is required: such scrutiny would alter the flavour of the handout, and it would cost a lot in admin. But don’t worry! When Mr Sunak gets his UBI or NID, it will all be recouped from him by taxing it, and returned to the kitty (unless he has suddenly fallen on very hard times). So will Mrs Sunak.

    The aspect of UBI that seems most to trouble Lib Dems is “How to pay for it?”. The simple answer, surely, is the same old obvious answer — like HST and RAF and NHS — “Taxation”?

    But there will be a very important difference. The size, or ‘Cost’ of NID, will be a matter for the House of Commons to determine. But once again, “don’t worry!”. Because the House of Commons [possibly renamed, but I do hope not.] will have been elected by Proportional Representation.

    I believe there might well be about eight parties competing and collaborating in the Commons, and I hope and believe it would not be difficult to get a majority that supported the basic notion of NID, and how to adjust the nations’ taxes so as to raise the funding of it. That is, more or less what happens now, isn’t it?

    Well, NO! Not by a long chalk. What happens BEFORE PR is that one party, with about one third of the votes, decides, regardless of the ‘losing’ but overwhelming majority.

    That is why, between now and shortly before the next General Election, it might be good if we could somehow keep Boris in No10, while continuing to urge PR. WE don’t want him, his party is afraid it is stuck with him: let’s make sure he loses.

  • Peter Hirst 13th Jun '22 - 5:12pm

    The Lib Dem big idea should be concerned with process rather than policy. If we can get the words right around governance and make it not too big and not too specific it might have a decent chance of resonating with the public. My own preference is for a codified constitution though something around deliberative democracy might have a wider audience.

  • @Peter Hirst, Jun 13th at 5.12 pm.

    Thank you ,Peter, for your suggestion. I’m not sure what it means, unless you’re teasing me (and why not?!). But my own conception of my central theme is that your descriptive proposal seems somewhat at odds with the notion of a “Big Idea” of the kind we have mostly been discussing in response to Humphrey Hawksley’s challenge last month.

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