Feasibility Study: Can basic income gain the necessary political support for a pilot?

Feasibility Study: Can basic income gain the necessary political support for a pilot?

In this second instalment of our feasibility study series we examine a key question the study needs to answer: will there be political support for a pilot?

Dr Benjamin Simmons, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland Trustee @vforfive

Last week we gave an overview of the feasibility studies and what they are trying to achieve. One of the key objectives for the feasibility study is to determine whether a pilot scheme is politically feasible. So what are the major political parties saying about basic income? Happily, there is broad support for basic income, which we will recap here.

It was a politically diverse Fife Council that first expressed an interest in piloting basic income here in Scotland. Chairman of Fife Conservatives Dave Dempsey even wrote a blog for us ahead of our Kelty event in January 2017, and participated in our panel discussion for which we continue to be grateful.

It was at our Govan event in November 2016 that Scottish Labour Councillor Matt Kerr led the calls for basic income which brought Glasgow Council into the fold, and John McDonnell has recently proposed to include basic income in the next Labour manifesto. The Greens have long had basic income as a policy objective, and of course the SNP are funding the feasibility study. The Lib Dems are keeping a low profile publicly but there is interest from Lib Dem activists in seeing a policy position taken.

Despite the initial positive take on basic income, the Scottish Conservatives have been frustratingly inconsistent with their views. In February 2016 Adam Tomkins, Conservative MSP for Glasgow and the Shadow Social Security Secretary, described it as “where the Greens and the libertarian Right can find common ground”, even writing an article for the Daily Record in January 2017 calling for “Scotland to lead the way in giving the idea serious consideration”.

Yet when the SNP announced in September 2017 that they were going to fund a feasibility study the following month Adam Tomkins seemingly made an about turn, saying “It simply shows the lengths that this First Minister will go to appease the extreme left of the pro-independence movement”. That the same policy can be described as for the ‘extreme left’ while previously common ground for the ‘libertarian right’ suggests a public stance based on political posturing and power play, rather than on the welfare of society. As long as politicians put their desire for power above all else we will struggle for discussion of basic income in good faith, let alone consensus of opinion.

Logically, even if the Scottish Conservatives believe a basic income is the worst of all possible ideas they should support a relatively inexpensive basic income feasibility study simply to have themselves vindicated that it is not feasible. Fundamentally then, the ability for basic income to become a line of attack for the Scottish Conservatives is an issue the team leading the feasibility study must contend with. We should all be interested in evidence-based policy making, and frankly, by seeking to prevent an answer to the question I believe the Tories are acting in bad faith.

On a more hopeful note, this is not a problem unique to Scotland and has proven surmountable elsewhere. The Finnish trials needed cross-party support and this was eventually won through diplomacy on the part of the social security agency and through emphasising the pilots as a practice in evidence-based policy making. Hopefully a similar approach will work here. Additionally, if the Tories see positive public attitudes to the pilots perhaps they will change their minds.

Next we’ll ask: will the public support the pilots?


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