Fish, chips and mushy politics!?

UBIE event 24th–26th March 2017, London

Here, our North Wales committee representative, Eri Mountbatten, provides a summary of the Unconditional Basic Income Europe (UBIE) weekend held in London on 24th – 26th March 2017.   Eri asks, is Universal Basic Income (UBI) a utopian exercise in socialist Sympatico, or can it bring real and meaningful alternatives to the current debates on social security and social justice in the UK?

The Europeans are coming!.. I am not talking about another wave of migrants but rather the welcome visitation of the leadership of UBIE and friends.  They came to London on 24th -26th March (by cordial invitation) to explore the wonders of our famous fish & chip restaurants, pubs and churches in London alongside discussions on a rather un-popular and stigmatised concept in UK politics nowadays – social justice and universal solidarity.

For those of you who may not be aware, though NAWRA remains neutral politically, it has been engaging with the Basic Income UK steering group.  This group has members involved in welfare policy from across the breadth of academia, policy and the Third sector, including, for example, the Centre for Welfare Reform (where I am also a Fellow) and Citizens Income Trust.  NAWRA’s unambiguous involvement and interest in this group has been to support the debate of the issues in the UK, particularly for disabled groups (where we have been most influential), and to help ensure that the expert knowledge and skills of welfare rights sector is well represented within the campaign ethos.

The UBIE March event in London which I attended was fascinating in many ways.   There were representatives from many nations, including Daniel Feher, event moderator and Chair of Unconditional Basic Income Europe (Hungary); Lena Stark (Sweden), Aurelie Hempel (France), Jorge Martin Neira (Spain), Willem Gielingh (The Netherlands), Dario Figuera (Portugual), Otto Leudemann (Germany), and Becca Kirkpatrick (UK).  The thrust of discussions centred on the fact that although there was some clear impetus behind UBI in European nations, there were also frustrations with progress.

For example, Neira outlined that (as in the UK) in the Latin south of Europe there was interest in UBI by the Greens and that due to the considerable precarity in employment and the “low social protections” available, UBI could be a real solution.  However, perceived constraints on public finances and feasibility made progress problematic.

In France, you would expect talk of UBI to be not very relevant because they arguably have a much more generous and progressive social security system than the UK.  Nevertheless, Hempel outlined that there were multiple small pilots planned over the coming years.  We also know that the socialist election candidate Benoit-Hamon had made Basic Income one of the “flagship proposals” of his election programme and that this had hugely revived the debate on UBI in France.

Further, from the Netherlands, Gielingh suggested that, similar to the UK, there was considerable “distrust” of welfare claimants.  Nevertheless, he outlined that there is a planned pilot of a form of basic income in Utrecht called ‘Weten Wat Werkt (‘Know What Works’).  As Gielingh suggested, although it includes many elements of basic income (less conditionality and thresholds for household means-testing) it is not really a basic income per se, but rather more of a US style negative tax.  As an aside, post-modern Americana is no stranger to the concept and in the face of increased use of automation and artificial intelligence, before leaving office, Obama actually called for a national debate on basic income.  In any case, the pilot in the Netherlands (scheduled to begin on May 1st) has stalled due to legal compliance complications but for all intents and purposes it looks like it will go ahead at some point soon.

Leudemann updated the audience on the curious UBI ‘by lottery’ approach being explored by a crowdfunding not-for-profit organisation in Germany called Mein Grundeinkommen’ (‘My Basic Income’).  He outlined that candidates could win an unconditional basic income for one year, set at 1,000 euro per month.  The thrust of this innovative approach was purely to promote the idea to the public – and it seems to be working.

Finally, readers following UBI may already be aware that there has been a major pilot in Finland where a controlled group of unemployed Finnish were selected to receive 560 Euro per month without any conditions or deductions for earnings.  Though not universal, this has been lauded as “the first national trial of an idea that has been circulating among economists and politicians ever since Thomas Paine proposed a basic capital grant for individuals in 1797”.

The following day UBIE hosted a Trade Union debate at the GMB headquarters in London.  Present among the audience were Nikki Dancey (GMB), Kevin Brandtstetter (GMB), Martin Smith (GMB), Barb Jacobson (Basic Income UK) and Becca Kirkpatrick (Unison).  Naturally, the tone of this meeting was far less about ‘universal’ solidarity and more about solidarity amongst ordinary people in the face of what was seen as divisive welfare reform policies of recent Governments, the neo-liberal agenda and its effects on the working classes in the UK and across Europe.

There was talk about the encouraging developments in the Union movement in the UK with all the major Unions supporting UBI for its emancipatory effects; for example, abolishing poverty and limiting the powers of the state (and employers) over workers.  However, these matters are rarely simple and support was by no means consistent with some in the movement viewing UBI as a threat to collective action by increasing individual bargaining power (and the argument goes, thereby limiting Union legitimacy and efficacy).

There was also enthusiastic discussion about the potential of working more strategically together with the Unions across Europe to campaign for change, though in truth this is quite a challenge because conditions and agendas are quite different across the European nations.

Similarly to the Friday evening, there was also discussion of a re-focus on the human rights-based approach to social welfare via Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  For many this has to be one of the strongest arguments for UBI as it is founded upon (locally ratified) legally binding international agreements; though in the current political climate, exactly for how long is anyone’s guess.

Surprisingly, there were also conciliatory tones from unexpected sources.  For example, an arguably brave (and unofficial) representative of the wealthier classes (a former City CEO) asked attendees to demonstrate understanding towards wealthier groups; according to the gentleman, many CEOs were beginning to have a crisis of conscience about the negative effects of unbridled capitalism – though vulnerable and impoverished groups are clearly affected worse than others, his message was that we are all in it together.

Interestingly, there were people present claiming to be close to Corbyn who assured attendees that although a fully blown version of UBI was unlikely to make it into the Labour manifesto, Corbyn had his eye on the policy idea and was looking at ways to incorporate elements of UBI into welfare policy.  Of course this meeting was held in March and the snap election has only recently been called for June; but looking over the recent publication of the Labour manifesto we can definitely see a renewed focus on human dignity, lessening of conditionality and, importantly, of abolishing sanctions – so the assurances seemed to have been well founded.   As such, this second meeting at the GMB Headquarters was definitely more of a strategic flavour and it felt like there were some impactful connections being made on many levels.

To close, the weekend was arguably much more than a fanciful exercise in socialist Sympatico; it was, at least in my view, a highly meaningful exertion in European and British solidarity on matters of social justice – and justice has to be said to be the cornerstone of society from which all else follows.  In a world of apps, iPhones and cheap sound bites, perhaps UBI provides citizens and commentators alike with a renewed, deeper sense of emancipatory political discourse with which to help us debate what politics is, or indeed what it should be.  Perhaps it can remind us of the importance of compassion and the recognition that we all have a right to a slice of human flourishing – dare I say it, even the wealthy.

The clear and considerable challenge for Basic Income UK and friends is to develop an effective strategy which can, within the dominant paradigm of austerity, make these ideas palatable within a UK context.  But then, as Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, is attributed as saying: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident”; it might just be a matter of time.  Barb Jacobson (former board member of UBIE and current coordinator of the Basic Income UK campaign) remains hopeful:

“The weekend was an important gathering of basic income activists from across Europe.  Whatever the end result of Brexit we still need to organise across borders on the issues which affect us all. One thing we share is anger about growing inequalities throughout Europe, both within and between our countries. The fact that basic income is making so much progress in other parts of Europe has encouraged more people here in the UK to take the idea seriously, and I look forward to the demand for basic income becoming mainstream here in the next few years.”

We may not yet know where this so-called ‘thought experiment’ will take us but UBI is a credible policy idea, and as such, is changing the dominant paradigm and political tone across the UK, Europe and beyond about what it means to be a dignified and productive member of society; surely this can only be a good thing.

Eri Mountbatten NAWRA, North-Wales – Executive committee representative

Further details:

  • For a full copy of the agenda for this event in March, please click here, and for more details of upcoming events like this please check out the UBIE website here.
  • For more details about the Basic Income UK campaign, please click here.
  • To contact NAWRA about this blog, please contact Kelly Smith (secretary) on: ; or else Eri Mountbatten on: