The UK Basic Income Conversation
Michael Pugh, Co-Founder and Director, reflects on his journey through Basic Income as the Basic Income Conversation launches.
Whatever you think of Basic Income, it’s an idea that sticks in your mind. I first heard the idea of giving everyone a regular cash payment, no strings attached, when I was student. It was bold and interesting but I was unsure. I decided to focus my energy on the Living Wage Campaign.
I became a Community Organiser with Citizens UK, organising low paid workers together with civil society to challenge big employers to voluntarily pay a real Living Wage. And we were winning. Playing a role in seeing thousands of cleaners and security guards get Living Wages are some of my proudest moments. But I began to get frustrated.
Today, wherever you sit on the income scale, you are likely to feel insecurity in some way. Workers are facing unpredictable work patterns in the gig economy. Many of us are at the whim of private landlords changing rents and feel unsure if we can afford to buy our own home. A third of us have less than £500 in savings to meet any unexpected costs and many of us are in debt. This is leading to an unprecedented mental health crisis in our country.
There used to be a phrase that “work was the surest way out of poverty” but I just didn’t believe that any more. We need new ideas to combat this insecurity and the idea of Basic Income, still lodged in my mind, became more and more attractive.
The need for an alternative system became loud and clear in my mind when I saw my Mum, who has bipolar disorder, go through the process of the government moving her from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments (PIP). Despite being eligible to claim, she gave up, struggling to cope with the means-testing, form filling and trying to ‘prove’ that she was deserving. It was undignified.
Basic Income offers us all the security of an income floor that none of us can fall below and the springboard to aspire to who we want to be.
Inherent in the idea is a trust in people to make the right decisions for themselves whilst offering people like my Mum dignity. It gives the workers I organised with the power to say no to exploitation and the freedom to say yes to what’s best for them and their family.
Basic Income is now at the forefront of my mind — an idea I think can cut through the divisive politics of recent years to move us forward into building the society and economy we need for the 21st century. It’s fair to say the UK’s Basic Income debate has largely been led by academic papers, politics and pilots. As an organiser, I wanted to know what I could bring to this space.
I was lucky enough to become a Churchill Fellow in the summer of 2019 which saw me travel to the United States, Canada and India to visit the Basic Income pilots taking place. Throughout the trip it was the voices of those who had received a Basic Income that stood out the most.
“I felt human again” was a phrase I heard a number of times when speaking to those who had received Basic Income in Ontario, Canada. I spoke to people who started their own businesses, improved their health, re-entered education and were spending more time with their families.
In Stockton, California, the researchers found the pilot participants using the same phrase, unprompted: “I can breathe”.
I can breathe. It suggests that our current system is strangling us and that Basic Income can breathe new life into our society. I challenge any sceptic out there to listen to their stories, it will change your mind. And the challenge for Basic Income advocates is to start putting these stories at the centre of the conversation.
The voices of people who would benefit most have been missing from the UK’s discussion on Basic Income and that’s why we started the Basic Income Conversation. We offer toolkits, training and support to start a national dialogue about the idea in our local communities and in our sectors.
It might be chatting with your friends and family, learning at events, bringing the concepts into your workplace or starting a local group.
Today we launch the Conversation and this weekend the UK’s Basic Income movement gathers in Sheffield. The first Basic Income Conversation resources will be landing in people’s inboxes in a few weeks time.
Together, we will combine the stories of people across the UK into a powerful narrative for Basic Income. This will be supported by cutting-edge research from our Research Network and supported by a cross-party group of political allies.
The movement is already growing across the UK with cities like Hull, Liverpool and Sheffield joining Scotland in wanting to trial the idea. And more are on the way. Andrew Yang’s explosion onto the American political scene with his rebranded Freedom Dividend of $1000 a month to every American has shown another future is possible. With pilots popping up all around the world, this is a Conversation that is only going to grow — and we want you to be part of it.