Could our #RegionalDemocracy trial a Citizens’ Income?

Maybe it’s me. Maybe my instincts are all over the place. But when the Yorkshire Post’s political editor described something as ‘much mocked’, a few connections sparked in my brain and I wanted to know more. Somehow that phrase made me think that whatever he was talking about might be a good thing. Or at least that it must be interesting to receive such a wide spread negative reaction. Weirdly though, it turns out that what he was talking about is quite a popular idea. And not just here. Around the world in fact.

He was referring to ‘Universal Basic Income’. The idea that each citizen receives from the Government a set amount of income to guarantee a basic standard of living, the same amount, untaxed, no questions asked. A Citizens’ Income. Although some see this in terms of social security, others see this as a necessity for the future. A future where technological advances lead to fewer paid jobs. A future where the relationship between industrial production, income and belonging will loosen into something unrecognisable from what went before (as described by Srnicek and Williams here and critiqued in N+1).

Given the reality of our regional economy, this ‘future’ is actually the here and now for many people. Our reality in large parts of the North is post-industrial. A reality of fewer jobs and the transition away from dependence on certain industries. Away from industries that may be harmful to us, to others, to our environment. Often a transition which hasn’t been managed in a way that maintained the sense of confidence in a particular area.

Often in this process of transition, the complexities of our social security system have been in themselves a barrier to starting a positive future for many people. The universality of Citizens’ Income is promoted as a means of ensuring that no-one will miss out on an income due to such complexity. But more than that the very freedom provided by a guaranteed income which is not dependent on a job may be exactly the space needed for citizens to have ideas, to offer their time, to take a risk, to experiment and play, to work with others, to find new democratic and inclusive ways of building communities (as described by Tabitha Bast), to start new enterprises with loans from local public banks (as described by Marie McCahery) – it may be the exact security of ongoing income required that creates the space for our regional economy, our regional society, our #RegionalDemocracy to emerge. To be resilient. And to flourish (as described in New Start’s Leeds edition).

But this piece is not aimed at describing Citizens’ Income and the broader context in detail, that is better dealt with elsewhere. Nor is it saying that Citizens’ Income is definitely the most effective way of meeting the needs of the future (there are interesting counter arguments here and here). It’s asking a question: Should part of West Yorkshire trial a Citizens’ Income?

Even though the idea is ‘much mocked’, it has become reality in many other places. Or at least, many other societies have decided to try it out within a specific area or region. Whilst Finland looks set to experiment nationally at approx. £620 a month, Utrecht and a number of other cities in the Netherlands have a limited trial at approx. £660 a month based on those already in receipt of social security. Most recently Ontario, a Canadian province which includes some areas with similar issues in the transition to a postindustrial future as parts of Yorkshire, announced it was to trial a basic income for all citizens. In fact initial evidence from a 1970’s trial in Dauphin, Manitoba suggested a significant positive impact on both health and education outcomes.

If we are to get a better idea as to what part a Citizens’ Income may (or may not) play in our future, a trial within a specific geographical area therefore seems a reasonable approach. Given the reality of the postindustrial future facing large parts of our region, could our #RegionalDemocracy take the initiative here and trial a Citizens’ Income in part or all of West Yorkshire?

One of the most vocal proponents of Universal Basic Income and its relationship with the future of work and technology, Paul Mason, was asked about this at a ‘Postcapitalism’ event last year by Scottish independence activist and futurist thinker Pat Kane. In his response he described how Wales was a society with a polity willing to engage in thinking creatively about a sustainable future and which had been forced to engage with the realities of a postindustrial future (from 57 mins here).

Could that describe us too? What if our #RegionalDemocracy was willing to engage creatively in addressing the very same issues affecting Wales’ postindustrial future. Wouldn’t a Citizens’ Income trial here be a first step towards that? Aren’t parts of West Yorkshire exactly the sort of ‘diverse urban areas with new social movements and the energy of contemporary politics’ described by Nick Pearce as the most likely to develop the policies of the future?

The initial tweet from the Yorkshire Post’s James Reed actually referred to his discovery at the Green Party’s recent Harrogate conference that ‘Universal Basic Income’ was still party policy. As it turns out, one of the longest standing campaigners on this issue within the Green Party is actually based in Leeds, Clive Lord. Although these days, he advises caution about the potential of certain interpretations of Basic Income for the radical change he would like to see.

But as it happens, there is a wide variety of interest in Universal Basic Income in other parties too, including LabourLiberal Democrats and Yorkshire First. Outside the UK, there are also many conservative and libertarian supporters.

Like many others interested in a free, fair and fun future for their home region, I’m not ready to mock Universal Basic Income. I want to know if a Citizens’ Income could be a key part of our future. I want to know whether a Citizens’ Income helps or hinders newcomers and longer term residents in building that future together. I want our #RegionalDemocracy to be the kind of brave, positive, open-minded kind of place that takes new ideas seriously and bases its policy decisions on evidence from here and around the world.

What do you think? Should we trial a Citizens’ Income?

Ian Martin is based in East Leeds and is a member of the Same Skies collective.