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Bread for all, and roses too: Universal Basic Income and post-pandemic Britain

Writing by Luke Brotherdale Smith. Illustration by Phoebe McGowan.

‘Not at once; but woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice…there shall be ‘Bread for all, and Roses too.’’ - Helen Todd.

Published in 1911, these words by Helen Todd formed the slogan of the women’s suffrage movement: a message of women demanding not just equality, not simply food for the table, but also food for the soul. Inspiring art, poetry and radical politics since, the cry “give us bread, but give us roses” embodies the socialist mission to fight for material prosperity and the spiritual flourishing of all. It’s a message we need to reignite because - let’s face it - UK politics right now doesn’t inspire much optimism. We have a government devoid of empathy and an opposition devoid of policy in a time when radical change has never been more necessary. Faced with an economic depression, climate crisis, systemic racism, the legacy of a decade of austerity and the increasing precarity and meaninglessness of work, anything other than system change simply will not cut it.

This radical change is imperative, and it starts not with the economy, but with human beings.

As Karl Marx said, “To be radical is to go to the root of the matter. For man, however, the root is man himself”. In order to drive the change that is necessary, we need to start with people, their needs, their wants, and create a way of life centred around championing the interests of the many. So as we try to envision how our post-pandemic economy and society need to be shaped, it's important we reconnect with the very purpose of the progressive movement: to create a way of life which yes, aims to improve people’s basic living standards, but also champions the fulfilment of human potential. This begins with a Basic Income: an idea which, like no other, speaks to the human need for both bread and roses.

One of the few glimmers of hope these dark times have provided is the discovery of the infamous magic money tree. Only months after Labour’s ‘Marxist’ manifesto was set to bankrupt the country, Comrade Sunak has overseen spending that would make Tony Blair blush. Never again can the line ‘we can’t afford it’ be taken seriously as a rebuttal to transformative policies. In turning on the spending taps, the Chancellor may have inadvertently opened the floodgates to radical change and bold proposals which months ago were labelled utopian, communist and unaffordable.

No policy has been thrust into the limelight more than a Universal Basic Income: a scheme of cash payments paid to all individuals periodically, without conditions, no matter age, gender or employment status. The furlough scheme has acted as a warmup act for Basic Income, demonstrating the ability to provide widespread financial support - and now it is time for the main event.

There are endless arguments for why a Basic Income is necessary. Ethically, it provides a human right to a minimum standard of living, giving people a social inheritance to the wealth collectively created by previous generations. Economically, a Basic Income will provide people with resilience (buzz word) in times of economic shocks or pandemics. Everyone having an income will also keep the economy ticking over, boosting demand by putting money into people’s hands. But if the left’s vision for change centres around ‘the economy’ and only people’s material situations, then we are doomed to fail. You simply can’t out-capitalist the capitalists. If your only reason for opting for socialism is that of a few more quid in your pocket, then you may as well buy the lottery ticket of capitalism and hope the meritocratic gods will land you as founder of the next Apple, Amazon or Google.

That’s why we go to the root - we start with human beings and we focus on our need for, yes, bread, but roses too. The multitude of Basic Income pilots or similar schemes which have taken place across the world have emphatically shown this ability to directly improve people’s lives materially and in an emancipatory dimension. Take the trial in India as an example. The results showed improvements across various living standards indicators: housing, nutrition, health, schooling, debt, impact on the disabled, economic activity and savings. More than this material impact, social cohesion improved, seeing the creation of new communal spaces and the empowerment of women, with 60% of women saying that the basic income had enabled them to have more influence on household spending.

But don’t just take my word for it, listen to the very people who have benefited from these trials.

Juha Jarvinen took part in the Finnish Basic Income study, declaring it transformed his life:

‘I felt like a free man. I got out from jail and slavery… I felt I am back in society and I have my humanity back, so I was super happy,’.The scheme enabled Jarvinen to pursue his passion of making hand-made drums - something he could never have done without a Basic Income. Or take Jessie Golem, a recipient of a Basic Income in the Ontario pilot in Canada. She saw ‘Basic Income [as] buying people that precious time’ with the income enabling her to volunteer at ‘Photographers Without Borders’ a charity dedicated to sharing the stories of grassroots organisations across the world. These examples epitomise what life should surely be about - not working endlessly just to pay bills, but pursuing what we love and are passionate about.

Of course, all countries are different and the specific impact a Basic Income will have will vary. But be it in Finland, Canada, Namibia, India, America or Iran, wherever a Basic Income pilot or unconditional cash transfers take place, the results continue to be the same: reduction in poverty, improvement in physical and mental health, increased trust, reduced crime, more time spent in education, reduced stress and an increased feeling of freedom. And this freedom is a human need that the left all too often fail to speak too. A Basic Income doesn’t just empower people to have freedom from exploitative employers or abusive partners; a Basic Income provides freedom to chase your dreams of being a playwright or a drum maker or starting a small business or staying in education or volunteering more.

We are all interconnected, we all want to work and look after each other, but the current nature and definition of ‘work’ too often inhibits what we all truly want to do.

So whilst our politicians continue to go on about ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ as the solution to oncoming economic depression, they fail to face up to the reality: insecure work, zero-hours contracts and in-work poverty are increasingly defining modern-day work. No longer can shoving people in a job guarantee they will get the necessary bread to survive and it certainly doesn’t provide the roses and meaning that humans need. So rather than throwing more money subsidising huge companies' creation of poorly-paid and unfulfilling work, let's give that money to people as a Basic Income and ensure normal people don’t pay for this economic crisis.

Now, of course, a Basic Income is no panacea; it will not solve everything overnight. Concerns over additional costs of living induced by disability and rent remain legitimate, and extra support in these areas would have to remain in addition to a Basic Income. Similarly, a Basic Income needs to exist alongside universal basic services and reform to the labour market, and pursuit of worker democracy is imperative. However, there are few things that will empower and enable people to campaign and mobilise more than an unconditional income. Rather than being the end game, a Basic Income can be a platform to campaigning for rent controls, for labour market reform, trade union membership against evictions, against deportation, and so on.

This is why all progressive forces should unite - and they already are - around a Basic Income as the first step to transforming the UK. Because through securing a Basic Income, we unshackle people from the chains of precarity and insecurity, and in doing so we empower them to free others who remain imprisoned by our unjust system. A Basic Income can provide a catalyst for further activism and mobilisation, enabling people to challenge the very system in which we live.

So as we emerge into the brave new world of post-pandemic life, let us continue articulating an exciting and bold vision for the UK. And as we do this, it's important we remember the words of suffragist Helen Todd; we must ensure we build a country that, yes, provides a decent level of material subsistence, but also enables people to pursue what they love, be creative and fulfil their potential. This begins with coming together to secure a Basic Income and starting the long march to transforming the UK into a country which provides bread for all, and roses too.

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