Much has been written on the merits and viability of basic income, as well as on the numerous trial schemes around the world and, increasingly, the possibility of emergency schemes following the coronavirus crisis. By contrast, little focus has been placed on its strength as a focal point for grassroots organising. Centring on the context of Scotland and the volunteer-led educational charity Citizens’ Basic Income Network Scotland, Jack Perry evaluates why basic income is an idea that is gaining grassroots support, and assesses the methods that basic income groups are using to build a following.

A unique cause for grassroots support

Most groups organise around a common problem with a common solution. Basic income is unusual for grassroots organising because it presents a common solution to diverse problems. Proponents of basic income provide many reasons for supporting the idea. Guy Standing suggests that it can liberate the new class of precarious workers in the modern economy. Others suggest that it would emancipate women, or avert the calamity of job losses due to automation, among other arguments. Here in Scotland, basic income is considered as a potential remedy to poverty and health inequality. Because the reasons to support basic income are so diverse, so too are the people who support it. Analysis of the Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland (CBINS) membership indicates that supporters include full-time carers, students, and the long-term unemployed. Some volunteers work or study in the fields of gender and feminism; some work in the arts and cultural sector; others are owners of small businesses. This suggests that CBINS members are as diverse as the arguments in favour of basic income. 

Significantly, basic income volunteers tend to identify basic income as a common solution to their individual problems. Jenny Lupton, a portrait artist based near Edinburgh, wrote her story for the CBINS website. Lupton writes that work for her is “erratic” despite the fact that she has “sold [her] soul” and taken on work she would have refused if she’d had more financial support. She concludes that to have a regular income independent of work would provide her with the support she needed to pursue her passion as an artist. Her conclusion that basic income is the answer to her precarious situation is common among basic income advocates who share their own experiences.

Significantly, basic income volunteers tend to identify basic income as a common solution to their individual problems.

Equally important to understanding why basic income lends itself to grassroots organising are the people who are notinvolved. In contrast to the United States, where CEOs like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerburg, and Andrew Yang have come out in favour of the idea, no outspoken support for basic income has materialised from business leaders in the UK. Likewise, larger public organisations do not appear interested. While NHS Health Scotland is supporting the steering group looking into the feasibility of basic income in Scotland, their most recent report suggests that there has been no similar curiosity from either the British tax authority (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, HMRC) or the Department for Work and Pensions. The lack of business or governmental backing means that opportunities for funding and broader organisational support are limited. In such a context, grassroots organising that can harness the energies of individuals and small organisations is a necessity for a basic income group to succeed.

Methods of organising

While basic income may be a policy idea with a uniquely broad appeal from which to build a grassroots movement, that broad appeal does not necessarily lend itself to structure and organisation. On the face of it, basic income volunteers have little in common beyond their support for basic income. The activities of basic income grassroots organisations are therefore important to provide that structure.

Founded in 2016 by renowned economist and basic income advocate Annie Miller, CBINS was formed to create a national network of basic income advocates. From its inception, CBINS has been recognised as one of the two key authorities on basic income in Scotland, alongside RSA Scotland, although the latter’s remit is much wider. On a practical level, this has involved providing expertise to Scottish parliamentary committees, giving public talks, and providing insight to the press and broadcasters. This activity has ebbed and flowed as interest has piqued and fallen, but it certainly contributed to the interest in basic income that, in September 2017, led the Scottish government to introduce a fund to allow four local authorities to develop their proposals for a basic income pilot.

Despite this early success, it has only been since mid-2018 that CBINS has cohered its activity around its original mission of building a grassroots network of support. This has involved forming links with other organisations, holding outreach events, and introducing a clear social media strategy.

A lot of a grassroots organisation’s resources are likely to be spent on social media, as the low cost and logistical simplicity of Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms create a relatively low bar to clear when compared to print and broadcast media. Both paid, targeted promotional content and carefully crafted organic posts can be effective at attracting an audience for a cause online, and basic income appears to be no exception. Online activity can drive people to join grassroots events (all of CBINS’ events come through the online booking service Eventbrite) which allow interested members of the public to follow up online conversations with face-to-face interactions and become volunteers themselves.

Existing grassroots and voluntary networks are fertile ground for basic income organisations to grow their own volunteer base, complementing the links made with basic income groups elsewhere.

In-person interactions are equally important for building deep connections with potential volunteers and advocates. These can include street stalls, leafleting, and public stunts, though CBINS has focused largely on mobilising volunteers through regular grassroots events. Held twice-monthly in the major Scottish cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, these events are a convenient meeting place for basic income advocates and regularly receive a turnout of between 25 and 40 people. While not all attendees stay in the network, over 50 per cent of CBINS volunteers joined the organisation after attending an event. This suggests that face-to-face interactions are effective in encouraging people to commit to an organisation long-term. Moreover, many of these events focus on the overlap between basic income and another topic, such as poverty, mental health or entrepreneurship. The breadth of topics can therefore help attract potential new volunteers who have not yet heard of basic income. The current health crisis makes in-person group meetings infeasible, but work is underway to see how to facilitate such gatherings online.

Building connections with other basic income groups can enable resource- and knowledge-sharing. The UK is relatively fragmented in terms of basic income groups: aside from the Scotland-based CBINS, there is the academic Citizen’s Basic Income Trust and activist Basic Income UK in London, plus UBI Labs in SheffieldLeedsLiverpool, and Newcastle. Each of these organisations have different remits in terms of strategy and activity. For example, the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust focuses on promoting debate about the desirability and feasibility of basic income, while Basic Income UK aims to build an activist movement to campaign for basic income. The basic income organisations in the UK are therefore numerous and fragmented, from both a geographic and strategic viewpoint.

A collection of many organisations could be considered a weakness, particularly if they do not communicate with each other. However, activity is often coordinated between these organisations and the resulting division of labour allows for a fruitful sharing of knowledge and resources. Dr Malcolm Torry, the former Director of the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust, and Simon Duffy of UBI Lab Sheffield have both spoken at CBINS events in the past year. The Newcastle UBI Lab was established with the help of Duffy and his team in Sheffield. At the beginning of March, basic income advocates from all of the above organisations met for the second year in a row to share ideas and discuss strategy across the UK. Indeed, this year’s strategy meeting was organised by the Basic Income Conversation, which was set up in part to help facilitate learning across different basic income organisations.

Likewise, connecting with organisations in other fields can help build an effective advocacy base. Basic income touches a myriad of policy issues: poverty, entrepreneurship, work, human rights, caring, disability, the arts, and more. As with volunteers, the number of charities, NGOs and other groups that may have an interest in the basic income debate is also large: anti-poverty charities, housing associations, trades unions, the care sector, and small-and-medium-sized enterprises, to name just a few. For example, the Scottish Artists Union is perhaps the most outspoken union in its support of basic income, and has supported CBINS events. Likewise, Isabella Goldie of disability charity Deafblind Scotland came out in support of basic income earlier this year. The members of such groups have the potential to become basic income volunteers, while the organisations themselves could at the very least become friendly voices in the debate.

In April 2019, CBINS ran a project called Exploring Basic Income in Scotland. Funded by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute, the project was cross-disciplinary and was co-led by CBINS, Heriot-Watt University, and the University of Edinburgh. The project consisted of six workshops focusing on the intersection of basic income with another issue, including care, housing, human rights and employment, with the findings of each workshop collated in a final report. Crucially, among the workshop participants were members of organisations interacting with basic income for the first time, and included the GalGael Trust, the Scottish Refugee Council, the homelessness charity Shelter, and the feminist organisation Engender. While not all of these groups have become long-term partners with CBINS, others have taken this initial foray into the basic income debate further and held their own initiatives, in conjunction with CBINS or otherwise. Likewise, some participants at the workshops have since become volunteers for CBINS. This suggests that existing grassroots and voluntary networks are fertile ground for basic income organisations to grow their own volunteer base, complementing the links made with basic income groups elsewhere.

Future challenges

There are still challenges to be overcome, chief among them the need to effectively join up the grassroots effort with the academic, policy, and political spheres. Basic income faces a more hospitable political climate in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Although the Scottish Green Party is the only political party to support the introduction of a basic income outright, high-profile figures in other parties have come out in support of trials or basic income outright. The Scottish government has provided 250 000 pounds to support four Scottish local councils to study the feasibility of a basic income pilot in Scotland. But the first clear indication of any large-scale support within the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) came on 16 March 2020, when 30 SNP Members of Parliament signed an early day motion at Westminster in favour of an “emergency universal basic income” as a response to the coronavirus crisis. These included long-term basic income advocates like Ronnie Cowan, along with representatives who had not made their feelings clear on the issue previously. They were joined in supporting the motion by the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, perhaps suggesting a movement towards favouring basic income within that party.

While the Scottish Conservatives have, like the UK party, largely been against introducing either a basic income scheme or a pilot, Scottish Labour is more split on the issue, with some high-profile figures like Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr (who recently ran unsuccessfully for the deputy leadership of the Scottish party) a strong proponent. However, there has been little movement among the Scottish Labour party leadership to favour basic income, despite their colleagues at the UK level making noises of interest in the run-up to the 2019 general election. In short, while few parties are wholly on board with introducing a basic income scheme and some would be prepared to sanction a pilot, there are receptive individuals across the political spectrum from which a coalition could be built and expanded.

Despite the political willingness to discuss basic income in Scotland, the nature of that debate remains somewhat constrained. Until recently, the emphasis has been placed on establishing basic income pilots, perhaps taking cues from recent experiments in Finland and Ontario, Canada. Later this year, the steering group established by the four Scottish local councils (and part-funded by the Scottish government) will report back to the Scottish Government about the feasibility of implementing a basic income pilot. Likewise, several councils in cities across England have requested that a basic income pilot take place in their city. This suggests that any political energy for basic income is taken up campaigning for – and assessing the feasibility of – basic income pilots.

If basic income was recognised as having strong grassroots following in Scotland and the rest of the UK, then politicians may be emboldened to push for the introduction of a full-fledged basic income scheme instead.

This approach will ultimately help provide the data to persuade sceptics that basic income is an idea that can have benefits across society. However, given how proponents herald the emancipatory nature of basic income, it would be ironic if its future were to be decided on the basis of calculations and cost-benefits alone. If basic income was recognised as having strong grassroots following in Scotland and the rest of the UK, then politicians may be emboldened to push for the introduction of a full-fledged basic income scheme instead. Moreover, grassroots organisations can help sustain political interest. The Ontario experiment was cancelled early and the Finnish pilot was not continued beyond its initial two years, in both cases because there was insufficient support for it once an alternative political party came to power. Vocal public pressure may have helped to sustain these pilots. It is therefore important for grassroots organisations to better communicate with policymakers, so that evidence-based arguments for basic income are bolstered by clear political demand from the general public. 

With that in mind, the current crisis provides a pause for thought. A basic income policy was contemplated by the US government in response to the crisis, and, inspired by universal basic income, an emergency minimum income scheme is being rolled out in Spain. That so many UK and Scottish politicians were quick to support the introduction of an emergency basic income at the onset of the crisis indicates that there could be sufficient political support if it is matched by a great enough appetite from the public.

The main challenge for CBINS and other basic income groups is to therefore connect with relevant policymakers to effect change. On CBINS’ part, some progress has been made: the organisation has recently begun convening the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Basic Income, allowing its volunteers to speak to interested parliamentarians on a semi-regular basis. However, more work still needs to be done, not least in working with the steering committee to promote their feasibility study. The success of this will help determine whether the organisation can build upon its existing foundation of grassroots support.

Basic income groups have many options to build up their grassroots organisation, as the growth of CBINS and other groups shows. That organisation must then be channeled into identifying and engaging with ways to make basic income possible in the future. The work of CBINS to date illustrates that small steps can be taken, but there is a longer way to go. For such organisation, as for the basic income movement globally, the challenge is widening their appeal in order to make basic income a reality.

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