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  • David R Thompson

UK Green Party Advocate Natalie Bennett Speaks About Feminism and Universal Basic Income

Natalie Bennett is the ex- leader of the UK Green Party (from 2012 until 2016) and still hosts talks on relevant aspects of Green Party policy. She came to speak at a Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub evening on 6 August 2019, and engaged a lively audience with her thoughts on Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Natalie began by stating that UBI was an essential policy to be adopted for the improvement of social justice. She was also keen to promote its feminist credentials, and referred to instances where well known feminist advocates were in favour of such a system. She spoke of the writer, Virginia Woolf, being perhaps one of the first proponents of UBI specifically for women, with her exhortations for a room and £50 a year to be provided for all women in the 1920s to provide some financial independence. Natalie also referred to the post war period of welfare state reform, during which Beveridge Committee Member, Lady Juliet Rhys-Williams, bemoaned the fact that all benefits would be based on contributions from salaried work – meaning that women’s often unpaid work would not be recognised by the new system. As a result of this, the Liberal Peer proposed a basic income in the form of a negative income tax, but this was never implemented. Finally, Natalie referred to the successful efforts of Eleanor Rathbone, whose campaigning for a non-means tested child benefit normally paid to the mother led to the Family Allowances Act 1945, which lasted until government-imposed austerity got rid of the legislation in 2010.

Natalie went over the definition of a true UBI, confirming that it should be universal; that is payable to all, and cover the basic requirements of any person in society, including those of food, clothing and shelter. The arguments in favour of such a policy were strongest in the area of the human right to life. Only when basic needs are met can human beings truly begin to have any kind of ownership of their own destiny. Otherwise, the lack of security will dominate existence, and lead to increased conspicuous consumption – where fear of loss of status encourages people to display wealth beyond their realistic means. Lack of UBI leads to a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ society. UBI also eliminates poverty traps that are contrived by current means tested benefits systems, and thus discourage self-improvement and independence.

Natalie was less convinced by the argument that UBI must be used to prevent poverty caused by the lack of jobs as a result of automation. This was partly because she was unconvinced that technology would have such a long-anticipated impact any time soon. However, Natalie also felt that UBI should be a catalyst for a shorter working week, so that improved productivity from automation should be shared around via UBI so that we don’t have to work such long hours. UBI to simply help people to survive following a reduction in wages caused by automation whilst they searched for other low-skilled jobs was missing the point somewhat.

The disadvantages of UBI were also discussed, the main objection being that it would be too expensive. However, one of the Green Party policies in the 2015 UK general election was a costed UBI which would have provided every person with £80 a week, so this was not a fatal expense. It just required political will. The cost is off-set by the findings of research, which indicates that a more equal society is better for everyone’s quality of life, including those who would be the bearers of higher taxes.

It was also made clear that UBI cannot solve all problems in a society, and that universal services, where the State continues to provide health and social care, were also required. UBI must not become a mechanism by which whole swathes of society are left to fend for themselves with their new money.

Natalie was positive about the trials of UBI that were taking place around the world, although she also approvingly spoke of a colleague who pointed out that no one ran trials before the abolition of slavery. However, provided that the trials were run with a view to the future implementation of a true UBI system, they could certainly show its benefits before a full roll-out. The trials that had taken place did seem to show that there was no reduced take-up of employment opportunities; and that well-being and mental health were vastly improved, for instance. Natalie also spoke enthusiastically of the proposed trial to be run by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in Scotland, which would seek to show the effects when UBI is provided for an entire community, rather than focus individuals.

During the following Q&A session, Natalie fielded queries of all kinds relating to the pros and cons of a UBI system. She felt that UBI was the promotion of self-reliance – it allowed people to choose their own priorities, rather than those of a boss or the State. She felt that a nationwide UBI would be unlikely to contribute significantly to inflation, since only comparatively few people would increase their spending. Most would simply be able to afford basic needs more readily, and richer recipients would effectively return their payment via taxation. She was at pains to point out that UBI could not replace disability benefits, which would continue to redress the fact that some people will need more than the basic income. Housing benefit would also probably have to continue in the UK, but that was only because the non-functioning housing market here meant that the rent disparities across the country again undermined the concept of a basic income. But housing costs would certainly be something to be worked into the UBI level, once housing was provided at reasonable levels. She also spoke about a move away from GDP as an index for the success of a society. The implementation of UBI would come from an attitude that other factors were more important than productivity. Natalie approved when someone said that, as a single and misguidedly accepted measure of a factor it was not capable of measuring, GDP was a bit like BMI.

Natalie Bennett was able to speak engagingly and with some authority on her subject, and included some new perspectives, especially from the point of view of feminism, and this made for an enjoyable and informative evening.

David R Thompson