Scotland is now running trials on implementing a universal basic income. And the initiative should be rolled across Britain, Natalie Bennett writes.
Scotland’s trial of universal basic income (also known as UBI) is crucial.
When the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) first met in 1986, the idea of a universal basic income was regarded, possibly even by most of the participants, as what one academic described as a “philosophical pipedream”.
But when the network gathered last week in Tampere, Finland’s second-largest city, there were not only more people, but a very different feel.
A universal basic income was now, as the same academic put it, as “practical political project”.
That meant many of those present were involved in planning, running or assessing trials or pilots of schemes for forms of basic income from around the world, and discussion of those formed a large part of the proceedings.
Which wasn’t to say that the whole idea of pilots and trials wasn’t controversial. As one Indian delegate put it, “we didn’t run pilots for the ending of slavery”. Some think nations should be moving straight to implementation – to deliver the basic human right to life, to subsistence and respect, that many see as the fundamental justification for a universal basic income.
Others made the point that a short-term trial, of a limited number of people, often selected far from at random, cannot be properly described as “universal basic income” at all. It isn’t going to the whole of a society, so not universal – and often it is being directed at the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society, people already damaged by the way our societies currently work.
And if they are scattered around a country, not even in contact with each other, then the benefits of a society in which everyone is enjoying a UBI, and are able to pool the benefits, cannot be felt or measured. Also, if for a fixed time period, as all up to now have been, it doesn’t really transform people’s lives with the certainty that they’ll ever again need fear not being able to put food on the table or keep a roof over their head.
But with those caveats taken, there was still a lot to learn from these examples, not models or thought experiments, but real world examples.
Comparative studies proved particularly interesting. One thing these showed was that there are plenty of routes towards UBI, from different political directions, and for different purposes.
The two-year Finnish trial, which finishes at the end of this year, was brought in by a rightwing government with the aim of increasing workforce participation of the long-term unemployed through the ending of benefit traps.
The sadly suddenly curtailed Ontario study (which some still hope to rescue), by contrast, was very focused on improving health and wellbeing at the initiative of a leftwing provincial government – although again targeted at severely disadvantaged groups.
But what the studies showed is that what lies behind all of these trials, at least in the developed world, was an understanding that in an age of insecure employment, low wages and austerity, existing benefit systems are failing to deliver a decent life for their recipients. And that while being the centre of controversy and conflict in unhappy, stressed societies.
There’s an important lesson there, for it shows that there’s an argument to be made for a universal basic income on this basis in any developed nation in the world – it just needs the right political circumstances to deliver it.
One of the trials – just entering its design phase now – is particularly interesting.
Scotland is learning from the others, and aiming to produce data that can be usefully compared with their results, but it is different in several important respects. This trial – unlike others – is very much a grassroots project, driven by local demand rather than political schemes or academic curiosity.
And if we are to deliver what I’d regard as a genuine universal basic income across a nation, that’s essential. For it isn’t elites or politicians who are going to just give the people this right to security – as they didn’t give them the equal rule of law or the right to vote. It has to be demanded.
More than any of the other trials, this is seen as testing something that could genuinely be rolled out as a universal basic income across the whole of the nation. It is asking “how can this be done?” rather than “what happens if you do this?”
There’s always a risk that “let’s run a pilot” is a politician’s way to not making change.
The heartrending accounts we heard of the personal impact of recipients robbed of expected years of security by the suddenly politically motivated cancellation of the Ontario trial was a cautionary tale of just what damage could be done by that.
Working out exactly how to design a universal basic income, to operate in the individual circumstances and complications of each of our societies, twisted as they are into deep dysfunction and great suffering over decades of the failed neoliberal project, requires pilots. You’ve only got to look at the crashing disaster of universal credit in the UK to see the dangers of ploughing ahead without proper trial and adjustment.
The trials we really need are those providing a route towards the security and safety of a universal basic income society. And as Philip Allston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, told the conference, we need a theory of change of how we get to where we need to go: the power of ideas needs to be backed by mass mobilisation of the people in favour of them.
We need our “sense of outrage” at the denial of basic rights under our current welfare systems to drive a positive way forward to security of all through a universal basic income.
Scotland is one good candidate to see that develop to its full potential.
Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the Green Party. She was in Finland as part of the Green European Foundation’s Universal Basic Income project.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.