"No-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity" - The Case for UBI

 Author: Adam Bernard 

On Friday, September 25th, the Liberal Democrat Conference voted overwhelmingly to support a Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is now Liberal Democrat policy.  This article formed the opening speech to the policy motion debate at the conference.


In the preamble to our constitution, the basic statement of our values, we aspire to a society where "No-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity".

In a motion about Universal Basic Income, you'd expect me to talk about poverty, and I will, but I'm going to start by talking about conformity.

I'm going to talk about conditionality and why it's bad.

Conditionality is where we say "We'll help you if you're poor, but *only* if you're the *right kind* of poor person"

It's where we say: "Of course we're nice. Of course this is a caring society. Of course we'll help you. BUT first you have to prove that you're poor enough. Prove that you're disabled enough. Prove that you're mentally ill enough. Prove that you're looking for work in the right way, apply for jobs in the right way, jump through all the hoops, take what you're given and don't answer back."

*THAT's* conditionality. And this motion says we should get rid of it.


Over the last few decades, conditionality has increased. It increased under Thatcher and Major. It increased under New Labour. It increased — to our utter shame — under the coalition. And it's still increasing now under the Tories.

And every increase has a nice, _rational_ explanation — reducing fraud, maybe, or incentivising work.

But in fact every increase in conditionality means more stigma, more pain, more families unable to put food on the table.


William Beveridge — one of our great Liberal success stories — identified his Five Giant Evils: "Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness".

He attacked Disease not by setting up "poor hospitals" only for those deepest in poverty, but by laying out the framework for the NHS, which provides care to all, rich or poor, no questions asked.

Now, in the 21st century, we are calling for the same approach to Want. A regular payment, sufficient for basic needs, to everyone in society. No stigma, no questions asked.

Yes, this will mean to rich people as well as poor people. And you should feel the same outrage at that as when rich people use the NHS, send their kids to state school, or receive a state pension.

Yes, this will be expensive, just like the NHS is expensive, like state education is expensive, like the state pension is expensive. But we know that we can't afford *not* to have those services in a modern, fair society - and we can't afford not to have an absolute solution to poverty either.


And what about Beveridge's giant of Idleness? Aren't we encouraging people to be lazy?

Our society has a myth that, say, cold-calling people to ask if they've been in a motor vehicle accident is paid work and *therefore* is a valid and *dignified* way to spend your life, but bringing up your child, caring for your elderly parents, or volunteering to help your community is not. 

We are Liberals. We give people the tools to make their own choices about their own lives.

And pilot studies have shown that people receiving a Universal Basic Income still seek work — but without the trauma that comes with doing it under the threat of starvation. And if you've not been in that situation, it's easy to underestimate how traumatic, how mentally damaging, that ever-present threat is.


In our mid-covid world, with renewed empathy for those without work, the time is right for us to scrap the creeping conditionality of the last decades. And the time is *always* right for us to affirm that no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity.

Conference, please support this motion.


Adam Bernard is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Harrow East.

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