Liberal Democrats are today set to become the first major national party to commit to a universal basic income for all UK residents.
A motion supported by party leader Sir Ed Davey is expected to be passed by members on the first day of their annual conference, taking place virtually after the planned gathering in Brighton was cancelled due to coronavirus.
The four-day event is set to be dominated by a bust-up over EU policy, after many activists were dismayed by a leadership motion describing rejoining the bloc as an “option”, subject to public assent in a referendum or election, rather than a goal.
An amendment, calling for official policy to be re-entry to the EU within 10 years, has gained more than 750 signatures, with delegates due to vote on Sunday night.
Meanwhile, a new report warned that Conservatives are “almost certain” to retain power throughout the 2020s without both a historic swing to Labour and a resurgent Liberal Democrat vote at the general election scheduled for 2024.
To achieve this, the report by the Social Liberal Forum said that Davey’s party will have to leave behind its single-minded focus on Brexit, give up claims to be “equidistant” between Labour and Tories and be ready to “face its demons” by focusing on issues outside the liberal comfort zone.
SLF director Ian Kearns said this should include a new focus on crime and anti-social behaviour - which did not merit a chapter in the 2019 manifesto - as well as the development of a “progressive” vision of patriotism to wrest the values of flag and country away from the populist right.
“This isn’t about moving to the right, or standing on the white cliffs of Dover holding a pint of Spitfire while goading the navy into treating desperate refugees as criminals,” said Dr Kearns. “It’s about articulating a patriotism that celebrates the divides we bridge, the diversity we embody, and our achievements as a people. It’s about seeing the flag as a canvas on which to write our own, liberal version of the national story, not allowing the only story on offer to be the one peddled by Johnson, Cummings and Farage.”
The report found that the “overwhelming majority” of Lib Dem target seats are currently Tory-held, while the party’s few successes in December’s election were achieved by winning over “older establishment liberals” who had previously voted Conservative.
Boris Johnson’s turn toward authoritarian social conservatism has opened up “significant opportunities” to convert more historically Tory voters and seats in 2024, particularly in south-east England, according to analysis for the report by political consultancy Datapraxis.
While Labour proposed local trials of a basic income scheme in its 2019 manifesto, the Lib Dem motion expected to be passed on Friday would commit the party to campaign for its introduction across the UK.
Lib Dem Treasury spokeswoman Christine Jardine told The Independent that the guarantee of a regular income to cover essentials for every UK resident would provide the flexibility for people to retrain or start new careers and businesses in the wake of the economic damage caused by Covid-19.
Likening the policy to the development of the idea of a welfare state by wartime liberal William Beveridge, Ms Jardine said: “What we have to do is re-imagine the welfare state for the challenges we now face because of Covid.
“The economy is going to be different, society is going to be different, and our welfare system will need to be different. In the economic crisis we are going into, we want to have something that ensures that nobody falls between the cracks in the way that 3 million people excluded from Rishi Sunak’s support measures have done.” If approved by conference on Friday, the UBI plan would go to the Lib Dems’ federal committee, chaired by Davey, to thrash out crucial issues like the value of payments and eligibility criteria in time for the 2024 election.
Speaking ahead of his first conference as leader, Davey said: "The coronavirus crisis is taking an enormous toll on people’s lives and livelihoods. People are worried about their loved ones and millions of families are facing financial hardship.
"To represent communities across the country, Liberal Democrats need to listen. We need to be a party of aspiration, relevance and compassion that understands how we can deliver more of what small business owners, nurses, teachers, parents, carers and communities really need.
"That is why, this weekend, we will be debating the issues that matter, whether it is how we tackle the issue of mental health, how we reboot the UK to respond to the long-term impact of coronavirus or how we address the climate emergency.
"This is the path to getting rid of Boris Johnson’s incompetent government and building a positive post-Covid future by embracing a caring, greener and fairer approach."