Pablo John makes the case for UBI.
As COVID-19 and furlough freed thousands of people from the 40 hour week, we saw unprecedented numbers of people turning out to volunteer and to protest. This isn’t a coincidence.
The next Nye Bevan could very easily be trapped in a 50 hour office job in order to pay rent. If someone’s exhausted, or downtrodden or depressed, they aren’t going to change the world.
“Universal, unconditional, guaranteed advanced standard of living for everyone.” That's how congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez described the Bernie Sanders campaign in a 2019 campaign advert. It’s a goal most progressives share one way or another. But how do you get that universal advanced standard of living? Well sometimes the best answers are the most simple. What if we gave every British adult £800 a month?
There are hundreds of good arguments for Universal Basic Income, but one not often voiced is because it is good for our politics.
Let's assume for one minute that I’m not a gibbering idiot calling for free money to spend on weed, TikToks, V-bucks and whatever else zoomers these days buy. Almost everyone in Britain has an economic restraint whether that's paying rent, buying groceries, childcare, or a 40-50 hour a week job. Now imagine if we removed that restraint, imagine if everyone’s rent, bills and groceries were paid for. What would happen then?
A lot of people wouldn’t spend 50 hours a week in a job they hated. We’d see people returning to education, starting small businesses, spending time with their children or even campaigning for a better world.
UBI and politics
It’s not a coincidence that Black Lives Matter protests have erupted on an unprecedented global scale, from Oakland to Tunbridge Wells. People freed from the daily grind could go on marches, petition their representatives, fight for a better world.
Anyone involved in public service knows politics doesn’t pay. The lifeblood of Britain’s political culture is retirees who spend their golden years canvassing support and posting leaflets. What’s the one thing older folk have that everyone else doesn’t? Time and disposable income.
At the 2017 election the average MP was 50 years old, the average Councillor even older at 59, and only 15% of Councillors are under the age of 45. This is not good for our country or our politics. To get any political voice you have to put in countless unpaid hours canvassing, then more unpaid hours as a councillor or local party officer, before you can even think about running for that sweet paid public office.
It’s the same for activists or trade unions. Groups like Extinction Rebellion rely on the manpower of people who can offer to give hundreds of unpaid hours to fighting climate change.
How does UBI help?
Universal Basic income removes that restraint. I am confident a number of people would be given the opportunity to engage in politics - and many of these people would be from under-represented groups like young people and ethnic minorities.
This isn’t to mention the positive impacts on organised labour Universal Basic Income would have. Sacking would no longer mean starvation or the dole. It would be an irreversible shift of financial power away from capital owners and towards ordinary working people.
So if you want to stop climate change, or inequality or racism or whatever other issue you’re passionate about or if you want politics to be less pale, male and stale, if you want to see young people and women and people of colour get involved in politics and ascend to both local and national leadership, you’ve got to remember one thing first.
You can't stand if you're on your knees.
Pablo John is Co-Chair of Leeds Labour Students.