Speech given at Unison West Midlands Region meeting, 25 February 2016 by Barb Jacobson, Basic Income UK
Thank you for having me. I realise that with so many attacks going on, it is very hard to lift our heads up out of the muddle and think about what we want for the future.
First I have to say that basic income is in a very different place than even a year ago. About this time last year I lead a workshop at the TUC about whether welfare should be contributory or a right. The conference organisers, who largely supported the idea of basic income, saw this as the only way to slip it in – even though the conference was all about welfare. It’s lovely not to feel the need to do that any more, and that union activists can talk about basic income in the open.
But the fundamental question, ‘what is a contribution?’ is a good place to start. Is paying money into National Insurance the only way we can make a contribution recognised by society? If you’re not in a job, maybe doing some fool thing like, say, raising kids – or looking after your parents – should that not be materially supported? Why should a choice, or a need, to do caring for others mean impoverishment for the carer? Aren’t these activities, and others like training and volunteering, a public good, something society as a whole should support?
You can call this a philosophical or moral question, or an economic one, or one of simple justice. I know many of you do or did raise kids or care for others and worked in a job too: and of course there’ll be some who were desperate to keep their jobs, and some who feel they didn’t have a choice. Yet somehow, we must find a way to value more than just the labour we exchange for money. Since most of us would quite rightly, baulk at punching a time-clock for all the other things we do, basic income offers a way to recognise that what we do outside our jobs is needed to keep society going.
I’d like you to keep that thought in mind.
Basic income is a regular payment to each individual, as a right of legal residence. There are many different ideas about how much it should be, and how it can be paid for. I look at this as more a political question than a budgeting one – all of these variables will be decided by how much power we have. Even if what we get initially is as small as the £70-80 a week put forward lately by several groups, I believe it will be a great step forward. All of these schemes leave housing benefit and disability benefits in place, as well as social and health services.
Over the last two years especially there has been a huge swell of interest around the world in basic income. Switzerland will be voting in a referendum about it on 5 June. Pilots are being worked out in Finland, to start in the next two years or so. There is interest in pilots in 20 towns (and counting) in the Netherlands. The finance minister in Namibia is putting forward a basic income proposal as we speak, after a successful pilot of it in a town there a few years ago. There is huge interest on the part of politicians in Canada, especially after the last election. In France their welfare commission just heard about basic income from the movement there, and MPs from a wide ranges of parties have supported it with amendments calling for pilots. In Ireland 3 of the major parties have proposals. In Brazil it is actually in the constitution, although so far they only have a conditional payment via the Bolsa Familia.
Much of this interest has come about through the many stories we see now about coming technological unemployment. Personally I’m skeptical about this. I think the choice really facing us is whether we will turn into a neo-feudal society of a few masters and many servants, as has started to happen in San Francisco with the gig economy, facilitated by platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit – or, we build a society where everyone has their basic needs met first and can build their lives from there based on their interests and talents. Basic income is what holds the promise for this kind of future.
I do part-time work as a benefits advisor for a charity in Central London. It is not exaggerating to say that the past few years of reforms are torturing some of the most vulnerable people in society. I can attest to the effectiveness of having an advisor to help get you through the benefits system, whether you speak English as your first language, or third. Whether you have a lot education or none. That’s how complicated the system is now.
There are not enough of us advisors for the current need, especially for people with disabilities, now subject to a Kafkaesque battery of forms and assessments. Overall, 35% of the decisions to stop or withdraw disability benefits are overturned at tribunal; 65% with help from an experienced advisor, and some advice agencies like mine have success rates as high as 85%. All this constant testing, over and above what the NHS has already paid for in terms of diagnosis and treatment, actually makes people emphasise their disabilities or illness, and it certainly makes whatever they suffer from worse.
I speak a lot with your colleagues in Camden and Westminster on behalf of my clients. The stress is getting to everyone.
I feel now it’s time for something completely different; further tinkering isn’t going to help. Even if sanctions, extra assessments and other nonsense were removed, with means-testing you only keep 2-30 pence of every extra pound you work for, unless you can find a job which pays so much you can’t claim anything, usually around £22k for someone without kids. This is the root of the benefit trap, not psychological make-up, nor family habit nor any number of things which have been blamed for some people staying on the dole.
Do we really have to spend our lives either living through or helping others through this largely self-imposed nightmare? Negligible numbers of people are finding long-term jobs through the Work Programme, and there is some evidence which says that in fact people are more likely to find long-term employment without it. After being sanctioned, others are withdrawing from society entirely, living off the kindness of family and friends, or taking any job at all to avoid claiming, regardless of whether it is a good use of their skills or not, often at derisory rates of pay. Many are getting ill, or getting worse if they were ill before. This is not social security, but social insecurity.
Another thing the reforms are doing is in effect transferring money which should go to the people who need it, to the companies and charities which claim to help them find employment. It’s unsurprising that many like Poundland are Tory donors. With sanctions, delayed payments and the like we’ve seen a ballooning number of food banks throughout the country.
I hope basic income will eventually make me redundant. And I would welcome that as a sane course for our society to take. It would allow me to expand the much more enjoyable work I do with pensioners, or do something else entirely. It would relieve the constant stress most people are under about getting enough money to survive, and the waste of training and talents which is going on now. I didn’t grow up dreaming about becoming a benefits advisor, that’s for sure.
The idea of giving money to people without any work conditions might sound too simple – or maybe even offensive to some. What about the work ethic?
So-called ‘money for nothing’ happens on a grand scale for the relatively few people at the top of society – they collect money through dividends, rents, and inheritance without any means test, or work requirement. This has not stopped these fortunates from working, although sometimes I wish many would! I’m sure many here would be very happy if George Osborne sailed away on his yacht with his basic income and left us alone…
Currently the ‘strivers vs skivers’ or ‘scroungers’ labels concentrate on the poor getting a measly amount of money each week, set against those who might be doing two or three jobs just so they don’t have to claim. Meanwhile, apart from fashion magazines and aspirational TV programmes like ‘Through the Keyhole’, what the wealthy do with both their money and their time is rarely an object of much scrutiny. And almost no public criticism.
We need to switch the conversation from the often cynical applause for ‘hard working people’ to say that in fact people are working far too hard than is good for their health, for their family life, for their communities.
There are also those offended by the idea that rich people would get basic income too. This is usually countered by saying that the wealthy would be paying more in tax than they’ll be getting in basic income; in all the plans I’ve seen that is true. What I’d like to say in addition however, is that there are income imbalances within all families, including wealthy families. One of the striking findings of the pilot study in India was that while wealthy families generally refused to take the basic income on offer at first; within a few months the women from those families came forward for it. And for the first time girls within families were treated equally to boys, at least in terms of how much food they were apportioned.
Is universality such a radical concept? What do we already have which is also universal, not means tested? The first thing which comes to mind is child benefit.This was paid until fairly recently for all children regardless of the means of their families. And Eleanor Rathbone, the progenitor of Family Allowances which eventually gave rise to Child Benefit, was adamant that it be paid directly to the main care-givers, usually women. Rathbone was from a wealthy background herself, and acutely aware of the imbalances in access to money within families. I personally know several pensioners who raised their kids almost entirely on Child Benefit in the 1970s because their husbands gave them no money to do so.
The next examples are the NHS and primary & secondary education. Although these are not payments, they are services available to all without means testing. The universal principle for these services, while certainly under attack now, has stood up for three generations. They have been more strongly defended because everyone gets something from them, and no one group of beneficiaries is singled out. No one complains that Richard Branson or Alan Sugar might pitch up any time at an NHS hospital and get treatment for whatever ails them, or ask the local school to educate their kids. It is considered a right of citizenship, to say nothing of common decency.
For basic income, I ask: why don’t we look after each other before we get sick? If health and education are considered universal rights, why is life itself not considered so? You may be prosecuted and imprisoned for abruptly taking someone else’s life away through violence; but forcing people to die slowly through overwork or poverty attracts no such penalty.
One of the most common things I hear from both Labour Party and union people alike, is ‘that’s all very well, but you can’t sell it on the doorstep.’
I think you can. You don’t need scare-stories about the march of technology over everyone’s livelihoods.
You can do it with history. Basic Income is an old idea, which primarily arose from the need created by the enclosures and people losing the right to a subsistence from common land. Among Anglophones there are arguments about whether Thomas More or Thomas Paine was the first person to suggest a version of it – although Thomas Spence was closer than either; in other countries, particularly France, there were proponents at around the same times, the 16th and 18th centuries. In more recent times, among many others JS Mill, Bertrand Russell, Martin Luther King & Erich Fromm supported the idea, and now we have a gaggle of Nobel laureates calling for it.
Think about the history of trade unionism. Unions originally formed not to save jobs, but to win back more time and money from them, as well as before the welfare state, to help people through periods of illness, loss of a breadwinner or other common problems outside work. They also protect workers from dangerous and abusive work practices. Unions are still doing the latter but seem to have forgotten the idea of winning back time. ‘Eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours to do with as we please’ was a nineteenth century slogan. Building on these struggles, and with modern technology, we can do a lot better than that now.
Successive recessions and attacks on both union organising and government spending have put unions and the left on the back foot, in a defensive position where we may win some specific battles against cuts or job losses, but we are losing the war against austerity.
Then you can talk about people’s current reality. What most people, often within families, are feeling is that you’re either in or out. You’re either working far too hard for far too many hours than is good for your health, or you’re shut out altogether, not able to afford enough food or heat to keep you healthy enough to work. Basic Income would go some way towards easing this imbalance. Most people have experienced this divide within their families, the tensions it creates. And it is a waste of lives on all sides.
On top of this, jobs are becoming increasingly precarious. Everybody’s feeling it, even if you still have a full-time contract you’ll have family members and friends who do not. This is usually cast as a dastardly plot by capitalism to undermine workers’ rights. Certainly it is, but If you look at the historical record, however, capitalists didn’t think of it on their own. It came about in the wake of factory take-overs, re-purposing, and walkouts in the 1960s & 70s – to say nothing of the past two generations largely rejecting the whole notion of a ‘job for life’, and the ‘9-5’. The last time basic income and re was on people’s agendas was right before Thatcher’s election.
I am one of those looking for ways to work more flexibly, do a variety of different things with my life. Of course capitalists are now viciously using flexible and part-time working against people. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Basic Income could help us win those rights back, but without forcing people to do one job five days a week, for 30-40 years in order to have a chance at a comfortable retirement. It could make flexible working actually work for the people doing it.
Although I want a basic income which would be enough, in combination with services, to not have to work in a job, I can see some merit in starting with a lower figure if we can get this quickly. A basic income of just £50 a week now would be of huge material and social benefit for my clients, and, considering that I work part-time, myself as well. But certainly we should keep our sights higher.
It’s not that there isn’t enough in the ‘real economy’ which needs doing, but the fact is that no one will pay for it. And while I’m sure some form of job guarantee could help many people, if it is coercive, and if what people do in those jobs is not subject to better democratic control than is currently the case, we could be left with an even worse form of corruption and subsidy of corporate profits.
Although often people talk about basic income as a way to get rid of bureaucracy, (and therefore the people working in it, many of them Unison members), I think there is certainly enough support which will be needed to help people recover from the current wreckage when we do get basic income. I doubt many jobs will be lost, even if they change. There is a great opportunity here for unions to get involved in facilitating that change, rather than merely defending current jobs.
Future technology shouldn’t be a threat, but the fact is we haven’t reaped the benefits of what’s out there now. Basic Income, especially one which is based on what should be our common inheritance, has the potential to make sure we all gain from technological advancement.
It could also break the invidious position in which some unions find themselves regarding the manufacture of weapons, and other harmful industries – of having to support these merely because they create jobs. There’s got to be a better way, and basic income could help workers in those industries fight to repurpose their workplaces to make things we need.
Basic Income is the antithesis of austerity, a demand which stands up to TINA and shouts ‘rubbish!’. Unions have a great opportunity with basic income to widen their appeal – to stand up for quality of life, not just in our jobs but in all aspects of our lives.
I think it’s important that the left, and particularly unions, start militating about basic income, to make sure we get a version which does not come at the cost of hard-won universal services, and is enough to live on. If we are to survive as a species we need to win back control over not only the wealth we and past generations have created, but also our time, and what we do with it. This is what unions were originally formed to do, to collectively win more control over our lives, and I think it’s time we remembered that mission. Together we can get there.
Thank you again for listening to me – again I know the attacks by this government on services, payments and jobs have been relentless, and how difficult it is now to think about what we want for the future.
If you want to support basic income, or even if you’re unsure but would like this idea to be considered, please get in touch with your MP before Easter about an Early Day motion asking the government to investigate basic income, number 974, put forward by Caroline Lucas.