We need to rally around bold and radical economic policies

When pondering the impact of the Second World War on his movement’s efforts to establish an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think”.

After three years of fighting in what amounted to a culture war, this party already found itself forced into reflection before this crisis. Now we find our own introspection will have to take place in the context of a national and international re-evaluation of some of the shibboleths of the last few decades.

How then, to respond? Much of the government’s economic response has been welcome. But it amounts to papering over the cracks of a society weighed down by rampant inequality and – crucially – indignity. Whether it be low-wage workers in precarious employment in the gig economy, or a generation of renters unable to settle and start a truly independent life, or countless median-wage households with unprecedented levels of personal debt looming over them, we can see now more than ever the serious threat to millions of individuals’ personal dignity, security, and space to flourish.

Faced with this, we should realise that laid out before us is the hard but necessary work of drawing on our values to refocus our efforts and meet the moment.

So by all means, let’s debate the timing of the leadership election. We all have our strong opinions on it. But I would urge us all not to lose sight of the fact that it is the debate around our broader platform that is crucial right now. It gets to the heart of the questions about relevance and mission that underpin the leadership election debate. There is a temptation in all parties to see leadership elections as the main vehicle for constructive introspection, but really they only become that if we are willing to make them so.

In the spirit of having that much needed debate, I lend my voice to the case that we need to rally around bold economic policies that are radical in addressing our social ills and which we can talk about in truly liberal terms. To be anything but radical now would be to compromise with a set of “mainstream” ideas which aren’t just being exposed for their flaws but actively challenged by those institutions, such as the Conservative Party, which have upheld them for decades.

To take one example, it is brilliant to see the parliamentary party begin to talk more warmly about Universal Basic Income, but we cannot let this be a temporary call-to-arms that withers away in the face of the Government’s reluctance. UBI is picking up traction everywhere, all the time. A recent petition on Parliament’s website crossed the 100,000 signatures mark needed for a response very quickly. It isn’t just popular, it’s the right thing to do to protect the personal dignity and freedom of millions in a job market that will convulse very soon. Even the U.S. Republicans have come to accept a limited version in the form of direct cash transfers. Like all great acts of social security progress, it has moved from outside the Overton Window to sit squarely within the public imagination, and it falls to liberals to be the architects of its passage into law.

Covid19 has thrown the issues in this country into sharp relief, and once we are past the immediate public health crisis the ensuing economic instability will dampen any hopes the Prime Minister had of an unopposed political honeymoon. His party can try to own this space that has opened up for new and bold economic thinking, but they are playing on away turf. There will be an opening for a radical, progressive and liberal opposition to Johnson’s government. If we do not make ourselves at least a critical part of it then we cannot shape it with the values we know it needs, and I fear we doom ourselves to more years in the political wilderness.




* Guy Russo was the Parliamentary Candidate in Enfield North at the General Election and is an Ex-President of the Queen Mary University of London Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • One thing that I fear about UBI is that the Right can introduce a piss poor UBI scheme and then use it as a pretext to slash welfare and public services wholesale, and consequently the poor will end up being worse off than otherwise. There is a reason why UBI used to be the darling of the Right.

    You can scroll down the article and read the part about Charles Murray. If the Right happens to support UBI, that will be their underlying agenda.

  • Steve Griffiths 3rd Apr '20 - 3:28pm

    You are absolutely correct; this is what the party should be doing.

    On a different thread on LDV on the 31st March I wrote:

    “In past times when this nation has been in peril, it was the Liberal Party that brought solutions. For the 1929 general election we produced the economically interventionist ‘Yellow Book’ with the mantra “We can conquer unemployment”. It bounced our support upwards from under 3 million at the 1924 general election to over 5 million in 1929. During WW2 the great Liberal economist William Beveridge published his report, which was a vision of a more caring society to follow the war. This lead directly to the NHS and the Welfare State; enhancing and broadening what Lloyd-George had begun with his ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909.
    The so called ‘Gig Economy’ has proved useless to the nation and its population at this time of crisis. Families whose wage earners are on zero hours contracts face ridiculous choices as to isolate or put food on the table. I have even heard Tories talk about a fairer society after this Covid 19 curse has passed. Surely we must still have amongst our ranks far-sighted Liberal economists and politicians that could write a ‘Beveridge 2’, as a vision of how things could be in Britain post Coronavirus? We should be working on this now.”

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Apr '20 - 4:53pm

    T.Y.F.Y. I. A!
    Here’s an excellent book on equitable, sustainable economics!
    Might we discuss a debt jubilee?

  • Tony Greaves 3rd Apr '20 - 5:41pm

    Sorry but Citizen’s Britain is a worthy collection of old thinking. Lots of it translates into new thinking but as a foundation for rebuilding radical Liberalism it is rather unimaginative and dated. By the way it you are looking for something to read with all your new spare time Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth is well worth while. It’s actually about far more than economics and one of its virtues is that it puts economics firmly in its place – as a servant of society and not its master.

  • Sean Hyland 3rd Apr '20 - 7:48pm

    Guy Russo, thanks for a stimulating post. Be nice to see some “bold and confident” policies being developed beyond what the party already has. They don’t have to be “radical” as such but just address the needs of our fellow citizens as others have pointed out on LDV in the past and with far better eloquence than i could. As you say it just needs some way to bring it all together and to challenge the the mainstream.

  • Richard Underhill. 3rd Apr '20 - 8:11pm

    Tony Greaves 3rd Apr ’20 – 5:41pm
    Greavsie might also consider Small is beautiful by E F Schumacher “a study of economics as if people mattered”. 250 pages, liked by Shirley Williams.

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Apr '20 - 9:41am

    Steve Griffiths. Yes, Steve, we need a new ‘Beveridge 2’ plan for this particular post-war situation, and some of us have been proposing it: a new Social Contract between the government and people. See https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-new-social-contract-putting-flesh-on-the-bones-63391.html, Please re-open this subject, discussing the new evils that must be tackled when political debate can resume.

  • Katharine Pindar 9.14 am

    Katharine you will not be surprised by my half supporting, half challenging what you say! It may sound frivolous, if I say “Yes, great idea, a new social contract — but please, not a Social Contract!”.

    We jeer at Michael Gove for being apparently dismissive of “experts”, but we are wrong — he said “people” are tired of experts. And by people he meant, of course, “millions of voters”. It seems to me that this is an important distinction that LDs must not overlook or ignore. The people suspicious or tired of ‘experts’ are those whose votes we need: and to them, as to me, your two capital letters transform the words from a good and essential Idea to a political standpoint that brings the notion of “social” into disrepute, ringing with the dire clang of “Universal Credit” and suchlike punitive approaches to the misfortunes of the poor.

    I believe we ‘expert’ LDs –and that is, by and large, what LDV readers are (to their credit and advantage as well as being a handicap) . . . we ‘expert’ LDs must argue our cases in the language of Gove’s millions, and mind not only what we say, but how to say it to “people” — to floating voters. I believe, Katharine, that I want what you want — but we need a fundamentally LD copywriter to sell our idea to the “people” who really need it and may be persuaded to vote for it. Among its features can we please discuss a better name, more tactically savvy, for our new social contract?

  • Sue Sutherland 4th Apr '20 - 1:35pm

    The usual way of doing economics has been thrown out of the window by governments trying desperately to control the spread of the Corona virus. In these circumstances bold, brave and fair solutions to the problem of rebuilding the economy when we emerge from this crisis will be far more acceptable to the general public.
    Please can Ed and Mark set up a group of economists to work out such a solution? It will be a disaster if we return to economic solutions which further damage our planet and punish the poor even more.

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Apr '20 - 9:20pm

    Social contract or Social Contract, Roger (thank you for engaging with this again), I am concerned with trying to work out what we can practically suggest within this project post-crisis. Unemployment is expected to rise as are taxes, I gather, and I would like us to be thinking of possible solutions for increased poverty, health provision wildly distorted by the crisis, and the lack of decent and stable jobs. On the last point, it would be good if our younger members could suggest ways of developing employment opportunities, and in general offer more focused solutions than the Universal ones tending to be favoured by senior members (you prefer one Universal solution to another, I think, Roger!), whether Universal Basic Income, Universal Credit, Citizens’ Basic Income, or Government Job Guarantee Schemes.

    Sue, usually I agree with you, but not on this. I don’t think we need a panel of experts (who are bound to disagree with each other anyway, like the government scientists) when we have our own economic thinkers, MIchael BG and Joseph Bourke, who are currently discussing the post-crisis economic prospects under Michael’s latest thread, What we should now be calling for, published on March 22nd.

  • When I read the title of this piece I hoped to find an article setting out radical economic policies which would boldly end relative poverty in the UK. I was disappointed. Guy Russo could have said that the government’s economic reaction to Coronavirus has been bold, but he doesn’t. He lists what he things are the important issues, inequality, indignity, the gig-economy, renting, and large levels of personal debt. But no mention of the 14.3 million people living in poverty in the UK. And what does he think the answer is – a Universal Basic Income.

    A Universal Income is a liberal measure and if set at the poverty level would give true freedom and liberty to the people, but this is not what is usually meant by a Universal Basic Income. It is usually very basic and it normally is not enough to live on. However, even this Basic Universal Income is very expensive and those people who currently don’t work and because of the level of their household income don’t qualify for means tested benefits are the largest group to benefit, especially if this Basic Universal Income replaces any of the current benefit system. If this Basic Universal Income replaces the current benefit system then the poorest don’t benefit at all.

    So let us deal with poverty, lets us deal with the housing shortage, let us ensure everyone has the health care they need when they need it, lets us ensure everyone has a job who wants one and let us ensure everyone can have free education and training to reach their full potential. Or as Katharine Pindar writes, let us have a new Social Contract to replace the broken Beveridge one.


    Thank you for the mention, the link is https://www.libdemvoice.org/what-we-should-now-be-calling-for-63798.html

  • Oh Michael! Alas, I must reply briefly, in defiance of my wife who is right in thinking I should get on with emptying our home and then getting it sold!

    You are trying to close down discussion, I feel, in telling us “what is usually meant by a Universal Basic Income”. Try to approach it with a broader mind, if I may put it like that without seeming discourteous. Think of it not as bread-and-marge basic: think rather of a solid and dependable basis on which other income may be built with greater confidence. Give everyone — if you like a metaphor — a plot with firm footings and mains drainage, and leave it to him or her to erect a home or workshop on it. It’s that start in life, and that knowledge that it’s yours to keep, and not the size of it, that is the essence of UBI as I believe it should be understood.

    I have tried, in the past, to demonstrate (as a very simple model) how by abolishing most Benefits, and making not very severe adjustments to the rates of Income Tax, disposable incomes could be redistributed in such a way that the poorest were no worse of than now than they are with Benefits. Their income might not have changed, but it would be theirs by right, and not by the grudging hand of a severe State. The well to do would, I concede (or boast) indeed by worse off than now — well, six months ago — because their higher Income Tax would source some of the Basic Income, which they too would get, and be taxed on. There is no way to reduce the widely lamented gap between the poor and prosperous than to do what we do now with Benefits: we get money from those with lots of it, and give it to the desperate.

    With UBI it will especially be freedom that the poor get. And the Joneses, slightly less prosperous than before, will still rule their particular roost. This method does not cost anything, it just narrows the gap. With even higher Income Taxes — everyone’s UBI should be taxed, to make the Equality of Status point — the gap can be smaller, while preserving financial ‘rank’.

  • Roger Lake,

    I was surprised that you are in the process of selling your home, as I thought all home sales were on hold because of the coronavirus lockdown.

    I disagree, by setting out “what is usually meant by a Universal Basic Income” I was not trying to close down discussion but hoping to open it up so people stop being woolly about a Universal Basic Income and actually state what they mean by the term with comprehensive details and costs.

    I think you are being discourteous because your comments do not take account of the fact that I support the principle of a Basic Income, and want it introduced gradually. I wrote, “if set at the poverty level (a UBI) would give true freedom and liberty to the people”.

    You are proposing a UBI which leaves those currently on benefits no better off, which is what some who advocate of a UBI do and I was pointing out. We should be advocating policies to eradicate poverty not polices which benefit those in the middle. I expect I have told you before that party policy is to remove most conditions for receiving benefits. I do think we should be discussing a UBI, but we need to ensure it moves those currently living in poverty out of poverty and if it doesn’t meet this test then we need to take other less expensive measures to move everyone out of poverty.

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