It’s time the Liberal Democrats got some backbone. Basic Income is the perfect place to start.

As the Liberal Democrats’ 2021 Spring Conference starts, I find I have seriously mixed feelings towards my party.

On one hand, I’m excited. Ideas and energy are building at the grassroots, with local parties and members doing wonderful things in their communities in the context of the pandemic (as this video shows). At the same time our sister parties around the world — most notably the Canadian Liberals and D66 in the Netherlands — are making real ground in the global fight against nationalism and indeed authoritarianism.

D66 leader Sigrid Kaag celebrates after her party’s strong showing in the Dutch election. Photograph: Martijn Beekman / Guardian

On the other, I’m simmering with frustration. Our party leadership appears unable to drive our principles into the new, less familiar territory we must occupy to meet the scale and challenge of the current crisis. On the national stage, we are at best achieving tiny, fleeting spikes of relevance by getting angry about the latest outrage committed by Johnson and his cronies just before Labour or the Greens do. Yet this is all tactics and no strategy. We have no coherent political project, at a time when Britain needs a clear statement of liberalism more than it ever has.

Patience, you might say. There is time to build before the next General Election in 2024.

But that is not good enough. We as a party deserve better. The nation needs better. And the time for better is not later, but now.

We are the outset of the biggest election campaign the for-now-United Kingdom has ever seen outside a General Election. The Scottish Parliament. The Welsh Senedd. Mayors all over the country. A double helping of County, District and Parish Councils. 6th May 2021 is a huge moment to make an impact on the national stage, and land a big liberal narrative for the sake of the country. We have to take it. There is still time to do so, but not much.

The next question, then, is this: What would it look like to seize this moment? What is the standard we should be holding the party leadership to over the coming days? How can we make 2021 count for liberalism and for the country?

The foundation of the answer is Basic Income, adopted as party policy at our Autumn Conference just a few months ago by an overwhelming margin of 715 to 250 votes. This should not just be quiet, background party policy, or something that is only in the hands and voices of the grassroots; it should be positioned as the foundation stone of a UK-wide 2021 Election proposition. In order to do this:

  • The Scottish Liberal Democrats should follow the Welsh in making a nationwide trial — not localised pilots — a manifesto commitment; both should elevate this to flagship status, not just one proposal among many
  • All mayoral candidates should do the same at the level of their cities and city-regions — not just supporting disparate motions for borough-level trials as is happening in London, admirable as this is, but making a whole that is more than the sum of the parts
  • Our local government movement should commit that every Liberal Democrat-led Council will write to the Chancellor demanding the right to host a localised trial, as the Hull party has campaigned for
  • Armed with these commitments, Ed Davey should lead a major event bringing together voices from all these parts of the party to launch this commitment, positioning himself and his economic expertise in support of all of them

Part of the reason why this would be such a powerful move is that Basic Income is the right intervention at the right time — one that would build on Jamie Stone’s energetic campaigning in support of the three million excluded from government support during the pandemic to date, and would give everyone a foundation as we enter its next phase, which any honest person (and so not the Conservatives) will acknowledge as an extended period of change and uncertainty.

The big reason, though, is that it is a hugely powerful carrier of a bigger message about what liberalism is.

A campaign with Basic Income at its heart would be a campaign equipped to restate and recommit to that deepest fundamental of liberalism: belief in people.

Belief that, given the right conditions, people want to contribute to their communities and the nation.

Basic Income matters because it creates those conditions. It is the essential foundation for a liberal future — and talking about it creates an opportunity to describe that liberal future, while being firmly rooted in the liberal tradition.

Basic Income is not an idea that is new to liberals.

Jo Grimond, who led the party from 1956 to 1967, believed in it. Indeed, championing Basic Income in this way would allow us to recommit credibly and publicly to Grimond’s three principles for a liberal society:

To begin with, the starts in life must be reasonably fair; secondly, the fabric of society must be maintained; thirdly, a reasonable life must be guaranteed to all

Paddy Ashdown was another advocate, placing basic income — with Ed Davey doing the analysis and modelling — at the heart of his vision for a Citizens’ Britain. This was arguably Paddy’s most significant contribution to liberal thinking (and one from which Ian Kearns and I have drawn extensively in this recent report). In it he wrote:

Every step we take towards a Basic Income will liberate power in the hands of the citizen

This policy is also the most powerful possible expression of Gladstone’s famous distinction between liberalism and conservatism, which Charles Kennedy loved to quote:

Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.

Finally, it is also an idea that our sister parties have shown can today be made a key part of a powerful liberal platform. It is the subject of the most eagerly anticipated debate at the upcoming caucus of the governing Canadian Liberals on 9–10 April; and a prominent commitment of D66, underpinning their powerful election line.

Every citizen will receive either a tax cut or they will get a fixed net sum when they don’t have enough money.

Let everyone be free. Let no one fall.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that our whole campaign for these elections should be only about Basic Income. But I am saying that as the unified, foundational commitment of all our campaigning, it would make for an air campaign that would talk about all these big ideas and principles — what liberalism is and why it matters — in a way that would get air time, and act as the multiplier for all local efforts that we are currently sorely lacking.

I retain hope that the party leadership could step into this story over the coming days and weeks. There is time.

But the fact is they are not doing so yet. I can see only three possible explanations.

The first is that the party leadership don’t believe we should create a campaign for these elections around a policy we have committed to only in principle, not specifics. This is nonsense. The extent of NHS coverage was not defined before the NHS began to be a national conversation; like the creation of the NHS, this is a policy of principle, and it is the principle that matters.

The second, a variant on the first, is that it might be breathtakingly expensive. But this goes against the evidence that Liberal Democrats are otherwise so keen on. Indeed, trials, pilots and economic studies from around the world have shown this concern should be turned on its head: Basic Income is a highly effective economic stimulus, an investment not a cost, and a very good one at that. With this in mind, I would argue it’s actively illiberal not to back Basic Income: if we worry that Basic Income might be a disincentive to work, in the face of evidence, can we really claim to believe either in evidence or in people? Can we really call ourselves liberals?

The third possible reason is fear.

Fear that voters would respond by rejecting what lazy media might describe as money for nothing, and reject us.

Fear of seeming naive or even stupid at a time when we are still reeling from our drubbing in 2019.

Fear of voters.

This is not like 2019. The platform I have described above is real and substantive, based on promises on which we can meaningfully campaign and deliver — not an aspiration to national leadership we will not hold. It is unifying, not divisive. It is liberal and democratic, not elitist or technocratic.

It is also popular and interesting, and capably of winning votes on all sides. The kind of platform I have set out above would be supported by voices that include such figures as Sharon White, now Chair of the John Lewis Partnership and previously Second Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury — comments she made in response to a question I posed at an event run by Tortoise Media, and which have since been widely and positively reported, even in the Daily Telegraph.

This third possible reason then, like the first two, might perhaps be understandable, but it is certainly not justifiable.

It does, however, return me to where I began this piece.

If our party leadership are scared of voters, voters will sense it — and it is the least attractive thing a political party can possibly be.

What I will be asking myself over the coming days is this:

Are they?

activist / strategist / citizen / co-founder @NewCitProj / fellow @the_young_fdn @theRSAorg / member @CompassOffice @soclibforum