A few weeks ago I wrote about why we desperately need a basic income system (or a negative income tax — the two are basically identical in their important effects) rather than the horrible benefits system we have today, which uses conditionality as a way of punishing people further for daring to have bad luck.
Today, though, I’m going to talk specifically about why the Liberal Democrats need to adopt it as a policy, and I’ll be talking in rather cynical, calculated terms, rather than about principle. Remember when reading this that I *do* believe in the principle too…
I’m doing this because Gareth Epps reports on Liberator’s blog that the Social Security Working Group has dismissed the idea, in favour of some tinkering round the edges of current policy. Possibly some very good tinkering, but tinkering nonetheless.
There are a few very good reasons why we should not give in to the tinkering approach, and should bring basic income in as a policy, as soon as possible.
The first, and possibly most important from a political perspective, even if the least important generally, is that it’s an idea whose time has come. When the SNP, the Green Party, the Adam Smith Institute, the nations of Finland and Switzerland, tech billionaires, the New Statesman and John McDonnell are all pushing for versions of the same idea (for very different reasons, not all of them good), then the overused term “zeitgeist” seems appropriate.
And this is an idea that Liberals have been pushing for for generations. It’s an old Lib Dem — and Liberal Party before that — policy that we dropped in the name of electability. But it’s always had a huge contingent of supporters in the party, much like other classic Liberal ideas like Land Value Tax and church disestablishment. When people from all over the political spectrum are taking up one of our ideas, it’s time to reclaim it ourselves. But as it is, in a recent EDM on the subject we were the only mainland opposition party *not* to have a signatory calling for it.
That’s fair enough, as it’s not current party policy, but we run the risk of having the other parties take up our idea while we remain behind the times — not “progressive” or even the nonsense of “the radical centre”, but regressive and outdated.
And this will only help our opponents. People already say their biggest problem with us is that they no longer know what we stand for. Having a clear, distinct, economic policy (and doing it properly, not like the SNP who have it as a post-independence ambition, or the Greens who have a half-arsed version that they can’t decide whether it’s policy or not depending on who you ask) will go a long way toward fixing that. Twenty pages of small type that make the benefits system 1% more redistributive while offering a 0.5% saving to the taxpayer when taking real costs of living into account may well do some good, but it’s not something that will inspire people, or even that they’ll remember.
We need radical, bold, memorable policies, not the centrist mush that was in the last manifesto. A lot of the last manifesto was perfectly good, but it was all, fundamentally, tinkering with the status quo. That’s not what the Lib Dems have ever been about before, and it’s certainly not what we should be about now that that lack of ambition has set us back forty years. We need something that will get the 20% of this country that are, fundamentally, Liberals truly excited.
And basic income is, more than any other benefits system, a Liberal idea. Conservative authoritarians in both major parties use the benefits system as a means of control. In the Tories’ case, the conditionality is a means of making people into good workers, scared ever to step out of line, to do anything their bosses don’t like, in case they lose their job and with it their means to live.
In the case of Labour, conditionality is a way of creating a client state. Making benefits conditional makes them precarious, something that can be taken away at a whim. “Vote for us, or the Tories will take your money away”. And because of the conditionality of benefits, the constant sanctions and arbitrary demands, voters know that’s true — they can lose their money any time.
So conditional benefits shore up the two authoritarian parties electorally. But they also let those parties control people. Say someone’s unemployed, and needs £1000 a month to live on (plucking a figure out of the air here, not making a serious proposal about amounts). The current system says “fill in these forms and jump through these hoops, and you can have £X for your food and bills. Now fill in these forms and jump through these hoops and you can have £Y for your rent. Now fill in these forms and jump through these hoops and you can have £Z for your Council Tax” — because the Tories don’t want to give poor people any more money than they have to, and Labour don’t trust the poor to spend their own money. The benefits system says “how can we know that if we give you the money you won’t just spend it on your *own* priorities? No, this much on rent, this much on tax, this much on food.”
A Liberal way of dealing with people is to say “OK, people need £1000 a month to live on — here you go. £1000 a month. Spend it as you wish.” So long as the amount given is genuinely enough to live on, let people choose to economise in one area and spend more in another, to the extent it’s possible. The person receiving the benefits will always know better than some Whitehall bureaucrat who earns a hundred grand a year what they most need to spend money on at any given time.
Lib Dems are about freedom above all else. Give people the freedom to spend their money how they wish, not how Stephen Crabb thinks they should.
So basic income is:
An increasingly popular idea
An idea that has a large amount of support in the party
An idea that would make potential co-operation with the other left-wing opposition parties easier
An idea that can be summed up in a sentence, so can be sold to voters quickly
An actually Liberal idea that allows us to show Liberal principles in action.
There can be no good reason — no reason, in fact, other than timidity of members of the working group — not to at least give Conference the option to debate it as policy.
If you agree, please fill in this survey for the policy working group, by May 11.
And if you’re on Facebook, join Lib Dems for Basic Income.