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Basic Income: A Debate

Neal Lawson, Mathew Lawrence

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Round 3

Dear Mat,

I hope we are making progress and the readers are still with us. I won’t test your patience or theirs with an overly long response. But let me reflect on some of the thoughts that sprang into my head when reading your response and then finish with a little flourishing about why we must go with basic income and how.

The opportunity cost issue is a big issue; what else could we do with the money? People I respect hugely, like Anna Coote over at NEF, worry about this and are trying to come up with alternatives – a new social settlement she calls it. Great, let’s have the debate and lots of other ideas too. But maybe there is a fundamental political point here that goes beyond policy. Do we believe the good society of the twenty-first century will be a delivered in the main by the state – or by people? Not people as individuals, but people as new forms of collectives – about to make and shape the big decisions that affect their lives. Let me be clear, the state will continue to have a key role, but I don’t believe it should be or will be central – as it was in the last century. The energy and life to recast the future will not come from the top down but the bottom up. Compass is calling this 45 Degree Politics – the meeting point of the horizontal and the vertical – the latter being essential to sustain the former. Ultimately the good society can only be created by the people – not imposed on them, however well meant. BI doesn’t just help end insecurity, it creates the foundations for a different type of society.

This takes us into a related point. Objectors to BI, like Jon Cruddas, who I respect hugely, worry about the loss of identity through work. But what is it about wage labour that people seem so fixed on? And hasn’t that ship sailed long ago? For the last 40 years we haven’t been a producer society but a consumer society. Consuming isn’t all we do, like producing wasn’t all we used to do, but consump- tion is now the prime means by which we know and understand each other and is the system through which society now reproduces itself. And it’s a social, eco- nomic and environmental disaster. A left that thinks enough is never enough plays havoc with people’s lives and the planet. Which is one reason why we should contest the right wing proponents of BI and not leave the field open to them to define its purpose.

BI is a bridge to a different type of society – a citizen’s society. It is this citizen shift that Jon Alexander and others are championing, that we must now focus on. This is a huge and necessary leap – not a tweak to labour market rules or the social security system – but a transformation of who and what we are. BI lets us think anew about what it means to be fully human. Some politicians sit round thinking about how the caterpillar can become a better caterpillar – when of course it needs to become a butterfly. We have reached the limits of twentieth century social democracy – every attempt across the globe to reboot it has failed. The reasons are deep and cultural. It is time for a new progressive political project based more around people acting in solidarity than just on the state. A basic income can be one of the cornerstones of it and will be if we build a movement of everyone who would benefit from it.

Go on Mat – tell me I’m not wrong. 

My best, as ever,



Dear Neal,

We both want a butterfly – you’re not wrong there. But the challenge is to stop it being crushed on the wheel. For me, that means more work is required on answering questions around the design and progressivity of a basic income, and a greater sense of how politically it can be fought for and won, including the crucial challenge of expanding the tax base.

If through collective debate, conversation and campaigning we can get those answers right, then a basic income increasingly looks like the bridge to a different, better type of society. If got wrong, a basic income could be a historic mistake for the Left, or perhaps more to the point it won’t convince the wavering caterpillars to support the idea in the first place. For that reason, it is fantastic that a broad coali- tion from Compass to the RSA to Labour are taking up the cause, and I look forward to the ongoing debate.

A couple of final points from me. You’re right that as a society we’re increasingly defined by consumption not production – we’ve shifted from the politics of the factory to the politics of Facebook. Yet production has not disappeared, it has just dispersed globally. We haven’t touched on the universality of a basic income, but given the interconnected, international nature of production and consumption, should we be thinking about a basic income that, if not truly global, at least expands beyond the nation-state? A basic income beyond borders? If only there was an integrated regional economic bloc the UK was a member of that could conduct such an experiment...

Second, there is a risk that a basic income becomes a golden cage, that if implemen- ted, it would sap the energy and political desire to tackle the underlying inequalities and hierarchies of capitalist societies that will remain. Obviously this isn’t what you or many other advocates want. But for many others, particularly on the Right, I suspect that introducing a basic income would meet their minimalist vision of social justice and there would be a pushback against further efforts at redistribution of power and reward. So we need to think of a basic income as a step on the way towards a more equal and democratic society, not the summit at which we can rest. It is a means, not the end.

Where you’re right – and where I’ll end – is that we’re facing an accelerating wave of economic, social and technological change that will reshape the country in increasingly radical ways. The scale and breadth of disruption – accelerated by Brexit – will mean that the institutions of the twentieth century that governed how we lived, worked, and acted as citizens will become increasingly inadequate. In the process, it will change how we think about work and value, consumption and production, and the institutions that underpin them. It will be a world transformed.

In the face of this, a position of nostalgia and institutional conservatism won’t be enough. Instead, the Left must build new institutions that can shape change for th

common good, embracing the liberating potential of technological and social modernisation while ensuring its benefits are fairly spread. As Jeremy Gilbert argues, it is about building potent collectivities, whether in society, market or state, that can irreversibly expand democratic voice and power.

Above all, it will require re-embedding politics in economics, shaping it through democratic institutions and practices. Taking real control but in a democratic, egalitarian fashion that nonetheless recognizes the limits of control in an intercon- nected world. Some of these institutions are likely to be state-led but you are absolutely right that many more institutions can and should come from the bottom up. And a basic income may well be an institutional cornerstone for durable, radical redistribution of economic, social and political power in the world to come. If that is the case, all the more reason to make sure we collectively interrogate and answer the questions raised in this discussion.

I look forward to continuing that conversation!

All best,


Neal Lawson is chair of Compass. Mat Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR.

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Further Reading

BIEN, ‘History of Basic Income’, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), http://basicincome. org/basic-income/.

A.Painter and C.Thoung, Creative citizen, creative state. The principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income, (RSA: London, 2015) citizen-creative-state-a3cef3f25775#.gfgdy5m6a.

A. Harrop, For Us All: Redesigning Social Security for the 2020s (Fabian Society: London, 2016)

D.Hirsch, Could a ‘Citizen’s Income’ Work? (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2015), could-citizens- income-work.

D.Z.Morris, ‘Elon Musk Thinks Automation Will Lead to a Universal Basic Income’, Fortune, 6.11.16,

G.Standing, ‘Why Basic Income Is Needed for a Right to Work’, Journal of Law & Urban Policy, 2, 2005.

A. Dinerstein, F. Pitts and G. Taylor, ‘A post-work economy of robots and machines is a bad Utopia for the left’, The Conversation https://theconversation. com/a-post-work-economy-of-robots-and-machines-is-a-bad-utopia-for-the-left-59134. 

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