Coronavirus, the budget and Basic Income?

Coronavirus, the budget and Basic Income?

What do the coronavirus and the chancellors’ recent budget have to do with Basic Income? Luke writes about how the public health crisis is revealing the inadequacy of current systems, the exposure of the most vulnerable and the necessity for comprehensive and universal policy solutions. Similarly, how does Rishi Sunak’s budget and turning on of the spending taps influence the Basic Income movement, particularly in this moment of crisis? 

Luke Brotherdale Smith, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland


So, not much is going on just now. Apparently there’s this bug going round, not sure if you’d have heard much about it. Oh and also the new Chancellor just released his budget. Pretty dull stuff…

But actually, behind all the chaos and growing threat of the Coronavirus we may just be creeping into a fertile time for change. If crises such as the one we are in right now do anything, it’s calling the status quo into question, showing how flawed our systems really are. And as more institutions are battening down the hatches and the entire premise of our sick leave being questioned, we can see things be a-changing. And if the Chancellor’s recent budget shows anything, it’s that after a decade of austerity and half a century of Neoliberal hegemony, the status quo is ours for the shaping. Decades old systems are crumbling, everyday things we assumed static are a changing, and more change is gonna come – we need to make sure the Basic Income is a key part of it.

This last week has been pretty hectic with this whole Corona shenangans. What started out as material for awful beer puns has rapidly escalated into a global pandemic, which has already taken the lives of thousands of people. It does kind of seem like I’ve woken up in an episode of Years & Years (if you don’t know watch it on iplayer – quality) and this is just another day in the apocalyptic collapse of civilisation (whatever that means). For me, the whole thing seemed a bit overblown at the start, then football matches started getting put behind closed doors and next thing the whole league is suspended. And now theres no loo roll on the shelves, you can only buy hand sanitiser with bitcoin and people are wearing buckets over their heads to avoid catching the illness.

But within the chaos and wall to wall news coverage, there are some social and political shifts which Coronavirus has really given way to. Without getting too meta or Buddhist about it, the virus (like most public health crises) properly hits home how interconnected we all are. Can’t remember who said it, but there was the whole ‘there is no such thing as society’, success is based purely on individual merit and if you don’t make it, well tough, that’s a you problem. But as the rapid spread of Coronavirus has shown, our individual success (whatever that means) and our ability to thrive is hugely defined by things completely out of our control and often by one another.

You can be the richest man on earth (looking at you Jeff) and believe only yourself and your talents have built your billions and enabled your ‘success’ (not the exploitation of thousands of workers). And yet if it wasn’t for vaccinations and public health measures, all of that money, all of those yachts and mansions and private islands and other stuff would be gone. If a young Jeff Bezos (for better or for worse) died due to a global pandemic and spread of a deadly virus, the empire he has built would never have existed. The spread of these diseases, sadly for people like our Jeff, doesn’t discriminate based on wealth or number of helicopters owned. Despite the fact we like to think our lives are solely driven by our own skills and hard work, we are all completely interconnected and reliant on this whole society thing. We all need health, security (economic and physical) and education, and when you are healthy and secure and educated, that benefits and lifts others up too. So, again, without being too wishy washy, Corona has really shown how we are all only as healthy as the least-well member of our society, as secure as the least secure member and as educated as the least educated. It’s about time our systems reflected that, with universal and comprehensive policies supporting all people, reflecting out interconnectivity. Oh and then theres the absolute inadequacy of sick leave pay being shown up by the pandemic. If only people had an unconditional income so they didn’t have to choose between going into work and spreading a potential deadly illness, or self-isolating and risking not being able to pay the rent…

And with the next few months likely to see more and more shops, schools and everything else shutting down with people told to stay at home, it seems hard to imagine a solution that doesn’t involve a Basic Income. Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely biased, but as this crisis unfolds and people become more isolated and income flows grind to a halt, it is our collective responsibility to ensure every person has the means to survive – and the state’s role here needs to be ensuring economic security for all. Here’s hoping Trump’s mini-me Boris doesn’t follow his example of pumping trillions into finance markets to try to halt the forthcoming crash. How about just for once we find these large sums of money and give it to people, ordinary human beings – not for profit, not to uphold stock markets, not to compensate a donor, but to every single person unconditionally, as a right not to starve . When it starts to really hit the fan in a few months time, a safety net and support network for all seems common sense…

And then the budget. So Rishi Sunak, chancellor of about two days, has just published the new government’s first budget, and it was a whopper. With spending commitments that would make Tony Blair wince, it appears, not just austerity but the dominance of Thatcherism is whittling to a close. Don’t get me wrong, the budget is a bit of a joke which kinda ignores everything the Conservatives have said for the best part of 50 years, let alone the last ten. 130,000 people (likely more) have died due to austerity and decisions to pay for bankers’ crashing of the economy by punishing everyone else. And yet, out of the blue the same Party and a lot of the same people suddenly think we can start spending money. Don’t buy the rhetoric about austerity being a success and stabilising debt, enabling us to spend  money now. We were in a recession when it was implemented and we’re heading into one now. Our economy isn’t growing, employment isn’t meaningful and poverty is rising. Any claims of ‘financial prudence’ is bollocks. BUT. And it’s a big but. These changes have, over the course of a few pages in an oversized red folder, changed the very pitch we’re playing on. No longer are Basic Income advocates having to argue our case within an austerity context where everything is violently screamed down with ‘BUT HOW U GONNA PAY’ or the classic ‘magic money tree’ line. Apparently the chancellor has found this money tree, the spending taps are open and this gives us a chance.

We need to make the most of this opportunity and this gap because it won’t last forever. We can’t just do what we always do in progressive circles and moan that it’s not enough (which it isn’t) or complain they could’ve spent this money the whole time (which they could’ve). Instead we can form a consensus and entrap the Conservatives within this Keynesian paradigm, normalising the very nature of spending and investing. ‘Oh but there isn’t political capital to be gained from that’ you cry. Well, firstly  there’s another five years until an election, so get a grip – people’s lives depend on these changes. Secondly,  there are huge political benefits to this. By simultaneously endorsing the shift by the government from austerity to investment at the same time as calling for further developments and changes, we can create a new centre ground and continue to shift it towards the goals we desire. And what that means (and you’ve been waiting for this) with the state of crisis and evolving political sphere, the case for a Basic Income is increasingly feasible and necessary, and we have to seize this opportunity to drive it home.

We’ve already seen an open letter written to the Chancellor demanding him to pilot a Basic Income as an emergency measure in response to the Coronavirus (led by our colleagues at UBILab Sheffield and co-sign by groups around the UK including ourselves). With current sick leave benefits unfit for purpose and the most financially insecure people having no choice but to continue going to work, the argument for a Basic Income is getting stronger and stronger. This isn’t about taking a serious issue in which people’s lives are at stake and turning it into a political football. This about recognising that failures in our current systems and policies are costing people’s lives. With Coronavirus as with most things, it is the most vulnerable who are at most risk, so whilst Boris goes on about ‘herd immunity’ he is essentially accepting huge numbers are going to die. And  whilst the disease can infect anyone, it will be the poorest, the oldest and the sickest who are most likely to be under threat. So something really needs to change. 

A Basic Income, providing a liveable income, will naturally replace sick leave, and the economic security it will provide will ensure people are able to stay home if sick – without the stress and anxiety that they are losing money by the minute.

The public health crisis demonstrates we how utterly interconnected we are and how inadequate current policies are. At the same time the economic and political paradigm is shifting leftward and the opportunity for genuinely comprehensive and universal systems which put people first is slowly emerging. It is clear that the status quo is neither fixed nor fit for purpose, in a crisis anything can be changed. So let’s ensure we make the most of these times (however long they last) and advocate for change which supports every single one of us and reflects the interconnectivity of our society. We are, after all, as rich and prosperous as the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.


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