A Review of Basic Income: How Do We Get There?

Welcome and screening of What is Basic Income?

We attended the ‘Basic Income: how do we get there?’ event on the 9th of March at The University of Sheffield, with the central premise being that all in attendance were assumed to agree with the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI), with the discussions and workshops looking at how we go forward strategically to make this a reality. The event opened with a video that brilliantly summed up the concept of UBI:

Panel Discussion on Making Basic Income a Reality
With Rev Karen Webber, Jack Perry, Becca Kirkpatrick and Cllr Patrick Hurley. Chaired by Dr Simon Duffy

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Karen Walker is a Methodist Minister and member of Basic Income UK who has advocated a basic income as part of her ministry and worked to create public spaces for discussion around a basic income. Karen spoke first and highlighted how her passion for social justice is rooted in Methodism, community work and her working class background, and explained how she uses a blank cheque to collect stories about what people would do if they had a basic income. The importance of a simple visual method was a theme of the day.

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Becca Kirkpatrick is a trade unionist, a personal trainer, a part-time carer, and a community organiser. Becca spoke about her background in union/community organising, with her also being a Basic Income UK director, and how she was involved in setting up and running stalls on UBI to spark ideas and debate. Becca said that she took stories that illustrate the benefits of UBI to her union branch and they were very supportive but that there is a long struggle to get this debated and adopted at a national level.

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Jack Perry is a blogger and advocate based in Glasgow, he is the Secretary of Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland, who are looking into a feasibility study for a basic income pilot in Scotland to deliver a business case to the government, with workshops looking at the ways basic income interacts with other areas e.g. housing. Jack emphasised the importance of grassroots movements to help ensure basic income gets implemented.

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Cllr Patrick Hurley is an elected member of Liverpool City Council and helps run Ethos, a magazine dedicated to profiling the best in ethical business. Patrick started by saying that nobody knows how to make basic income a reality because it hasn’t happened yet and so we need to all learn from each other when formulating strategies to make this happen. Patrick used his accidental election as a councillor to pave the way for a basic income, utilising his work in the social enterprise network to raise awareness of how a basic income could help social enterprises. Patrick discussed the potential for community building around UBI and how he was involved in creating networks around this in Liverpool. Acting on the news that John McDonnell said Labour would consider including a pilot study on basic income in the next Labour manifesto, Patrick was involved in writing a motion calling on Liverpool Council to ask to be considered for this pilot study, which was passed with cross party agreement.

After the panellists had provided an introduction about who they were, it was opened up to attendees to ask questions and make points.

Firstly, there was concern that no-one had mentioned Universal Credit (UC) and the harm that it is causing. Following this point, there was agreement there needs to be consideration of the harm that UC and related sanctions are having on people and how UBI could help address this. UC has had a big impact on food bank use, as reported by Trussell Trust:

When Universal Credit goes live in an area, there is a demonstrable increase in demand in local Trussell Trust foodbanks. On average, 12 months after roll-out, food banks see a 52% increase in demand, compared to 13% in areas with Universal Credit for 3 months or less. This increase cannot be attributed to randomness and exists even after accounting for seasonal and other variations.

As Karen said: “food bank is a response, church help is a response, but it can’t be a solution as it is not about empowerment.”

There was a question about the stats included in the opening video where it shows that most people would carry on working even if they had a UBI. The attendee made the point that there are a lot of exploitative jobs and many would not want to work if they didn’t have to. Whilst Dr Simon J Duffy – Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform, and secretary to Citizen Network alongside part of UBI Lab Sheffield steering group, who facilitated the panel – made clear that the event is looking at how UBI can become a reality, and thus not about debating the idea itself, the question does relate to an important discussion regarding UBI, namely what constitutes as work? Also, there are obviously questions when it comes to analysing survey data to what the question itself is asking e.g. it makes a big difference if you are asking someone if they would carry on working in general or if they would carry on working in their existing job.

There was an important point made by Becca about how there hasn’t been much push back yet when campaigning for a UBI, which shows how early we are in terms of the movement. Becca also reiterated the importance of questioning what constitutes work and as part of a transitional movement forward we need to decide what kind of jobs we need, citing how UBI would mean that she could ‘work’ less as she is an unpaid carer, which is valuable work in itself but not recognised through our dominant construct of work. Karen echoed this sentiment by saying the hardest and most rewarding job for her was being a mother at home, and after she spent a period doing this and not working she struggled to get a reference, again showing the problems regarding the traditional conception of work value.

An attendee asked a useful question regarding the Scotland pilot and how limited devolution in terms of tax and benefits will potentially effect the pilot. Jack informed the room that the pilot designers have consulted with HMRC and DWP and this is part of the feasibility study and the decision on this will have big implications for the pilot.

Another attendee asked the question about how you would get people to do jobs they don’t want to do but that need to be done e.g. cleaning toilets. This is something that is often raised in relation to UBI and it’s an important topic to cover. Jack said in response that it is important to create better working conditions and pay people more to do the jobs you really need. Again, this relates to the importance of reconsidering what constitutes as work and how we value such work.

Jay himself asked a question, mentioning Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There book, about the problems regarding some pilot studies that are almost set up to fail and therefore how we learn from these mistakes and make sure that doesn’t happen in future pilot studies. Patrick responded by saying that some pilots can create a form of means testing and resentment and that is why he is advocating for a pilot to be city wide but he recognised that might make comparison difficult. Jack stated that pilots need to be created with a particular goal in mind and that it is important to recognise there are limits to pilots, for instance, the Finnish pilot was undermined because of the limited time and money given to analyse what happened. Karen said she was going to get the book Jay mentioned and admitted her struggles with the word ‘pilot’, as it can let people off the hook because it can result in people saying they have tried something but it doesn’t work (even if analysis is weak, for instance) – for her, pilots need to be seen as an ongoing thing.

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Basic Income Lunch and Launch

We then had lunch – some fantastic vegan food was provided as well! – where the Proposal for a Sheffield Pilot was delivered by Dr Mark Bryan, a Reader in Economics at the University of Sheffield and Jason Leman, Chair of UBI LAB Sheffield and facilitator of Sheffield Equality Group alongside a PhD candidate exploring local democratic change. As part of this, they discussed three options for pilots that have different implications in terms of scope and funding requirement but all involving 4,000 people receiving UBI for 3 years with a focus on activity and not just work, relating to a wider community framing and the importance of individual and community well-being. For more, please see here.

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Alternative ways of Communicating UBI – Toby Lloyd and Karen Webber

We chose to attend this workshop where Toby, an artist and PhD researcher at Newcastle University, provided information about his project ‘Between Eating and Sleeping’ that explores what a UBI would mean to the everyday lives of ordinary people. Toby wanted to focus on the emancipatory effects of art and the method of creating stories, relating to how conversations can be difficult re UBI as it can mean we get hung up on specific details e.g. finance and UBI can be written off as utopian. Toby spoke about the problems with stats and data for communicating concepts and how stories and anecdotes in relation to our own lives make the difference.

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We broke into groups to talk more about our own experiences utilising anecdotes and stories re UBI, and we discussed how important it is to start with the question of “what would you do with a UBI?”, which provokes interesting discussions regarding people’s aims and ambitions. There was agreement that it is important to start mentioning UBI with more people in day-to-day conversations to help stimulate this movement at an interpersonal level as well.

Karen also provided more background to her UBI blank cheque concept and summed it up well by citing how her dad said there is no-one better than you but you are not better than anyone else. She has found that many people she has asked regarding what they would do differently with a UBI – with her providing hand outs with some of these stories on – revolves around charity and helping family, and so concerns around people being selfish are unfounded. Karen was also right in saying that we need to move away from charity to justice, and this relates to food banks and how this cannot be seen as a long-term fix for a broken system.

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The three questions central to Toby’s work involves the concept of a UBI threading through them. To illustrate how this works, we have answered the questions ourselves:

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Jane: A footballer.
Jay: Not homeless, football manager, filmmaker and superhero.

We are both doing this to some extent. Jane plays football for AFC Unity and Jay manages AFC Unity, has made his own films and whilst having a period of rooflessness is not homeless! Jane thinks he is a superhero too 😉 Importantly, most of this has been unpaid and is all done as a hobby, illustrating the potential for a UBI.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Jane: Making sure I achieve my work goals – but on days off I like to get up and read!
Jay: The desire to keep developing and learning as a person, which is connected to the social aims I set myself.

Aims and targets are key to ensuring we get out of bed – which is important – and both of us are interested in learning more, which we would have more time to do with less pressure to bring money in on a UBI.

What would you do if you had a year off?

Jane: If it was financed I’d spend a lot more time reading and learning but doing lots of what I am doing now without as much pressure to bring funding in!
Jay: I’d do everything I am doing now, because I don’t do it for money, I do it as a choice. As long as I can pay my bills and have a roof over my head!

Both of our answers relate to the importance of money, as we wouldn’t be able to take a year off without it being financed – again showing how the concept of a UBI relates. Both of us are happy with most of what we do right now, but we would feel much better having some extra security given the difficulties we face in funding a lot of what we do.

These questions can help us shape conversations and discussions about basic income and means that we can talk about it without starting off by saying “what do you think to a basic income”, which may put some people off given they might not even know what that is to start with. We are going to look at linking with Toby and exploring how this can be implemented in our Libre Digital FreeTech Project workshops and the Football For Food and #UnityForAll campaigns as part of AFC Unity.

Building Basic Income in the UK – Barb Jacobson

The final workshop we attended as part of the event was led by Barb, a co-ordinator of Basic Income UK and Chair of Unconditional Basic Income Europe, a network of organisations and activists in 25 countries. Barb made the great point that basic income is something that anyone can talk about as it is about what life you can lead.

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Barb provided the background information that Citizens Basic Income Trust is an academic trust that focuses on engaging MPs, whereas Basic Income UK is a more campaign orientated organisation. Basic Income UK is a company limited by guarantee which means they have no political barriers like charities do, and they are keen to look at the range of options to finance basic income, therefore moving away from the focus on funding only via income tax. They are looking into becoming a member organisation soon as well.

Barb was keen to talk to the attendees about what we need locally from Basic Income UK. This involved discussion regarding having a Google Drive folder of resources that people can use, including briefings from different angles, templates, petitions etc to help with campaigning, they are keen to help advertise events where they can, provide speakers if need be, and can share art and music through the network. There was also discussion regarding the potential benefit of student groups setting up in Universities, looking at training sessions for community organisations/public speakers, providing webinars with this being part of a movement towards scaling up as an organisation.

There was a discussion regarding whether Basic Income UK needs a position on what level UBI should be set at, and how it is paid, but there was agreement that flexibility, especially at this early stage, is important. Furthermore, in terms of developing the movement there was agreement that it is better when there is someone within the organisation itself pushing for UBI rather than this being external, and it helps to have a range of campaign options that people can get involved with to fit their schedule.

Analysis

Here are some of the key points we feel are important to take from the event that need to be considered as we move forward with building the movement and related strategies towards UBI:

Ground-up, face-to-face conversational movement

Something which was emphasised during the event was the need for UBI to be driven by grassroots, intersectional community, conversational based movement where real stories and people’s dreams and aspirations of what life could be like drive the strategies of making UBI a reality. It is also quite easy to be part of this, at its simplest level using the techniques discussed above in terms of provoking questions through imagery, art and related stories and anecdotes about what people would do with unconditional income is quite a revolutionary tactic but not too difficult to work into conversations with people you interact with on a daily basis. To learn more about UBI, please see the resources section below.

The problem of capitalism

For us, the concerns that people were raising during the day relate to the problems of capitalism. Here are some examples:

1) Reconstructing what work is:

The question of what constitutes work was central to the event, especially the panel at the beginning. For UBI to work, we need to critically reconsider what work is. As Karl Marx famously conceptualised, capital – crucial to capitalism – refers to when money is used to buy things to then sell and make more money. Thus, profits are central to what constitutes as ‘work’ in this current political economic system. Without challenging this economic system we wont be able to really challenge what constitutes as work, as work currently is defined by what supports a system where value is defined by profits. This is even more so with the financial sector with a rise in fictitious capital, where commodities and productive forces are bypassed to make money that isn’t backed by anything real. Again, work in this sector needs to be fundamentally challenged for UBI to work.

2) Resource concerns:

There were questions regarding whether there would be enough resources for UBI to work and whether it would be a zero sum game. What this ignores is how inequality and injustice relate to the capitalist system, as shown by a recent Oxfam report where the “26 richest billionaires own as many assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population” and that “2018 had been a year in which the rich had grown richer and the poor poorer.” Thus, it is important that arguments forwarding UBI look at the current unequal political economic system and how challenging that shows clearly how there are enough resources for us to bring in a UBI but that these resources are concentrated in a very few peoples’ hands.

3) Problem of co-option:

Another thing we took away from the event was the potential problem regarding co-option of UBI, given the discussion regarding its popularity amongst both the left and right. For instance, there was mention of how technology ‘leaders’ such as Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are in favour of UBI. This links into concerns by renowned Marxist theorist David Harvey, who has discussed the potential for UBI to be used by Silicon Valley to ensure people can keep buying their products, rather than seeing the potential for UBI to be part of transforming the system as we know it so that it is based on fairness, equality and justice (see here and here).

This links into other concerns regarding how if a UBI is not part of a broader anti-capitalist strategy it can supplement the very system that creates the conditions of oppression. For instance, if there are no rent controls or affordable housing, UBI could go towards ensuring landowners keep their rentier income flow strong. This relates to problems regarding deciding the level that UBI should be and how this could be co-opted to prop up this unequal system.

4) Problems with consensus:

This then relates to concerns regarding the desire to unite people from all sides of the spectrum on UBI to form a consensus. As discussed by theorist Murray Bookchin, consensus can sometimes result in going for the lowest common denominator:

I do not deny that consensus may be an appropriate form of decision-making in small groups of people who are thoroughly familiar with one another. But to examine consensus in practical terms, my own experience has shown me that when larger groups try to make decisions by consensus, it usually obliges them to arrive at the lowest common intellectual denominator in their decision-making: the least controversial or even the most mediocre decision that a sizable assembly of people can attain is adopted – precisely because everyone must agree with it or else withdraw from voting on that issue. More disturbingly, I have found that it permits an insidious authoritarianism and gross manipulations – even when used in the name of autonomy or freedom.

In closing

The event was really well organised and it was great to see so many people passionately discussing the importance and need of a UBI. The movement is at its beginnings and so these reflections are important for us to consider as we move forward in terms of strategies and decision making.

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Resources

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