‘Our generation’s NHS’: support grows for universal basic income

Insecurity caused by coronavirus has prompted more people to join UK groups calling for change.

It was when he set up a pro bono advice clinic for people facing homelessness that Jonathan Williams, a trainee solicitor, really became committed to the idea of trialling universal basic income (UBI). “There was someone who had been on the street for over 12 months and he was exhausted. I just thought it would be a great foundation for him to get himself back on his feet,” he said.

“So many people fall through the cracks and there’s a lot of people now that don’t even apply for universal credit because they’ve just given up on it.”

Soon afterwards, and faced with an economic crisis triggered by coronavirus, he co-founded the Cardiff UBI Lab in May, one of a growing number of grassroots groups set up to examine the idea’s potential impact within a certain area and explore the launching of pilot schemes.

Since the pandemic struck Britain, the number of UBI Labs has more than doubled, to 24 within the UBI Lab Network. More local authorities are voting in favour of testing the scheme in their area: Norwich became the latest to join the list last month, following Liverpool, Sheffield and Hull.

Campaigners are pulling together an all-party parliamentary group on the subject, with Conservative MPs onboard. The government holds the power to create a pilot scheme.

UBI proposes that every citizen, regardless of their means, receives a sum of money – £1,000, for example – regularly and for life to cover the basic cost of living. Its proponents argue it will alleviate poverty and give people time to retrain and adapt to changing workplaces, be more creative and become more active and engaged.

“It’s a 21st-century solution to 21st-century problems – it could be our generation’s NHS,” said Williams. “Our generation need a policy that is going to help people and I think this could really invigorate entrepreneurialism and help local economies.”

Scotland established a steering group – including councils in Fife, North Ayrshire, Edinburgh and Glasgow – which published a detailed feasibility report in June endorsing a three-year pilot. In May the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said the economic consequences of the pandemic made her think the “time has come” to consider UBI.

Jonny Douglas, a co-founder of the original UBI Lab in Sheffield, said about 15 new labs had joined the network since lockdown. “None of us would have wished the circumstances we’re in, but I reckon we have come forward four or five years’ worth of campaigning in the past four months,” he said.

The UBI Lab Network wrote an open letter to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, at the start of the lockdown asking him to consider an emergency UBI. Now the network is looking at a recovery UBI of £1,000 per adult and £500 per child for two months to help revitalise the economy.

“The pandemic has shown the vast majority of people in this country are just two pay cheques away from not being able to pay the bills, and all of a sudden everybody’s job is insecure,” said Douglas.

As more people join the campaign, he notes, everyone brings their own experiences and personal reasons for advocating UBI.

Tchiyiwe Chihana leads UBI Lab Women, one of the first non-geographical groups dedicated to representing specific voices in the conversation around UBI; there are also plans for disability and refugee labs.

Chihana’s work in the refugee sector opened her eyes to the struggles women face and how a UBI could help alleviate them. “Women take on the bulk of work that is unpaid in this country, and with Covid, things have just gotten worse for women,” she said.

“Women are disproportionately likely to work in the sectors that were hit the hardest by the lockdown measures, and with domestic violence [reports of which have risen during the lockdown] a UBI would allow a woman being abused in a relationship to step away from that because they have that basic financial security.”

The groups have gathered hundreds of statements from people on what UBI means to them. One from the north-east lab reads: “I live in a former mining community. The work available before the pandemic was low-paid and precarious, much of it will now have gone. Folk are already depressed and without self-respect. Basic income would enable them to move on from feeling left behind, believe in their own worth and be more willing to train for new work.”

While the labs attract people from all walks of life, one thing new members always leave at the door is party politics. “We engage in politics, but it’s not all about that,” said Douglas. “I came up with the idea of calling them labs because it’s about testing. So whether you’re for it or against it, the only way to be right is to test it and prove it. It enables us to engage with people who are unsure or against basic income.”

With labs now springing up all over Wales, Williams is hoping to get a debate on UBI in the Welsh parliament by the end of the year. “We’re well aware we don’t control social security in Wales, it’s not devolved, but I personally think that we’re the best place for [a pilot] and I’m really confident, I have this feeling in my bones that something is happening here,” he said.

The campaign has come a long way from when UBI was considered a “crackpot, fringe idea”, said Williams, but people still have plenty of reservations – it needs to be funded somehow, and many critics fear it could discourage job-seeking and encourage laziness.

“The idea is not necessarily to 100% convince people. You just have to get them to a point of going: ‘OK, well let’s try it’, and go from there,” said Douglas. “This is about more than UBI, this is about democracy, this is about how people engage with society to actually influence things.”

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