Universal Basic Income: Brexit-Voting Sheffield May Be England's First Test

The northern England city could be a key test area.

Unsplash / Benjamin Elliott

Sheffield, a 500,000-strong city that narrowly voted in favor of Brexit three years ago, could be the first city in England to conduct a trial for universal basic income.

Campaign group UBI Lab Sheffield last week sent a letter to all 84 of the northern English city’s councilors, asking them to put their support behind a local pilot program.

“We only wrote to the councilors on Friday, but we’ve had a couple of encouraging responses already,” says Sam Gregory, a member of the campaign. “The councilors that have written back are interested in what we’re doing and keen to find out more about our proposal.”

As the United Kingdom prepares to withdraw from the European Union, currently scheduled for May 22 if an exit deal is approved by British Parliament, or April 12 if not, UBI may represent an idea that could benefit those those who voted “Leave,” as they felt “left behind” by who they viewed as an elite, political class. The feeling among many pro-Brexit Britons is a “general sense of insecurity, pessimism and marginalisation,” write Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath, in this illuminating paper for the London School of Economics and Political Science.

"UBI could be one way to make our society a more equal place"

“Britain is one of the most unequal countries in the world,” Gregory tells Inverse. “UBI could be one way to make our society a more equal place, and ensure that nobody is economically left out, and that nobody lives in poverty. That’s why we want to see the idea tested out here in Sheffield.”

The campaigners have designed three proposals for their universal basic income test, all of which would cover 4,000 people for three years:

  • The first one plan would remove conditionality from a set of employment-linked illness and disability benefits. Around 8,000 ill or disabled people would then receive these benefits regardless of working or financial status. This would cost £18 million ($23.6 million).
  • The second idea is for a taxable flat payment of £130 ($169) per month to a range of 4,000 adults living in a whole community, like an apartment building. This would cost £23 million ($30.2 million).
  • The third idea is a complete replacement of the tax and benefits system. A group of residents in a similar arrangement to the second option would receive £6,000 ($7,838) per year. Disabled people or people over retirement age would receive higher amounts, and children would receive lower amounts. This would cost £60 million ($78.8 million). It would be funded by a new income tax that would ensure those earning £25,000 ($32,600) or less per annum would see a net gain.

Sheffield at night.

Flickr / Katherine Hodgson

UBI in Sheffield: Why It Could Work In This City

A basic income could make a big impact in Sheffield, say its proponents, who argue that UBI brings a guaranteed standard of living to everyone, a key benefit as automation and A.I. continue to reshape the labor force. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are just two of its Silicon Valley proponents. Trials in Ontario and Finland also showed it improves people’s health and mental wellbeing.

As with many areas of northern England, Sheffield played a pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution and was once known as the steel capital of the world. It experienced a decline in the 1970s during deindustrialization. This was famously encapsulated by 1997 comedy The Full Monty, wherein former steel workers entered the world of stripping to make ends meet:

Low wages are an issue today, and the Resolution Foundation think tank named the city the “low pay capital” of the U.K. in 2017.

The city is also home to two universities, one of which is in the elite Russell Group (often compared to the U.S. “Ivy League”), and the University of Sheffield’s Charles Pattie notes that one-fourth of the city’s residents are graduates. A 2018 study in the European Journal of Political Economy found old age and low educational attainment two of the biggest indicators for voting “Leave.” Sheffield voted 51 percent in favor of Brexit, a result that almost mirrored the national total.

"Sheffield has a good history of being a bit revolutionary"

“Sheffield has a good history of being a bit revolutionary, of trying things out,” Jason Leman, chair of UBI Lab Sheffield, said in a statement. “As a city, we have a heritage that recognizes the value of creating and caring alongside work. This history goes from the associations of little mesters, to Ruskin, to the strong communities, creativity and businesses we have across the city today. That’s why Sheffield would be a perfect place to try out a basic income, and see whether it could make a positive change to the lives of people and communities.”

Sheffield by day.

Flickr / CresySusy

The campaigners hope to move beyond the focus on paid work, as seen with the two-year trial in Finland that gave 2,000 unemployed Finns €560 ($629) per month, to look at broader questions of activity and personal care. In the second and third Sheffield trial options, which consist of 4,000 people, an additional set of 20 to 50 people would participate in interviews and other qualitative studies.

UBI In Sheffield: Time to Lobby

The idea follows an basic income experiment in Scotland, where Fife Council joined three others in a £250,000 trial ($326,588) announced in December 2017 with the support of the devolved Scottish government. England does not have a comparable authority: UBI Lab Sheffield is urging councilors to lobby the British government in London. The campaign’s spokesperson notes that the city council would not fund any part of the scheme as it would all come from the central authorities.

The scheme’s best hope in the national government is with the center-left Labour Party. The campaigners note that shadow chancellor John McDonnell (the party’s finance spokesperson) told The Independent in July 2018 that a trial could make its way into the party’s next election manifesto.

The next general election is currently set for May 2022, but parliament could act to hold one sooner as rumors suggest it might to break the ongoing Brexit deadlock.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

Transition Heathrow/Flickr

“There’s local elections happening here in May and two prospective candidates have enquired about what we’re doing publicly which is really exciting,” the spokesperson says. The two candidates are Ruth Milsom and Chris Ware, both of which are standing for election representing Labour. The party currently holds 53 of the 84 seats on Sheffield city council.

Douglas Johnson, who already serves as a councilor from the left-wing Green Party, has also thrown his weight behind the idea. Johnson told JusNews that “it’s something that we’ve all talked about from time to time over the years. We reckon it could work really well.”

These campaigners will need to work hard to convince the government to give its scheme a trial. If successful, though, it could prove a vital test of the benefits such a policy could have for those left behind by economic change.

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