‘Universal basic income would give us time to rebuild’
Back in March, when universal basic income started to be spoken about in the news, I received a text from a friend of mine who is another director: “UBI is what you’ve been talking about for the last few years, isn’t it?” He was right – universal basic income has become an obsession of mine.
Universal basic income is just that, a minimum income for the entire population. It is automatic, unconditional and not subject to any form of means testing. Up until about two months ago, UBI had very little traction with politicians and the public alike.
While the concept can be dated back to Thomas More’s Utopia in the 16th century, more recent arguments for UBI have generally centred around the anticipated automation revolution. With automation looking set to create the biggest shift in working lives since the industrial revolution, UBI has been seen by some as the financial safety net needed to support such a huge transition.
My motives behind supporting UBI are much closer to home. For years I have fought for better access and support for theatremakers. My work as executive director of Stage Directors UK has meant that on a daily basis I am confronting and challenging inequalities for directors within our sector.
At SDUK events, I would listen to inspiring directors – all at the peak of their creativity – tell frustrated emerging directors how they were able to forge a career in theatre decades ago by signing on. Meanwhile I would be confronted by many directors in financial crisis, and it became clear to me how close to financial catastrophe many of us were. Those of us who thrived in theatre weren’t the most talented, we were often just the luckiest – those who hadn’t had that illness that put us out of work for a period of time, or who weren’t subjected to that one production cancellation that threw our finances out for a year or more.
Learning more about UBI, it dawned on me that almost every campaign, every challenge, every crisis thrown at SDUK would be solved with a universal basic income. At the end of 2019, Phil Teer, author and co-founder of the legendary creative agency St Luke’s, published The Coming Age of Imagination. He argues that when we no longer have to worry about the precarity of existence, we have the opportunity to be creative on a mass scale.
Teer says: “There is evidence from UBI tests that people are more confident, more risk-taking and more entrepreneurial when they have some form of basic income. Such creativity is beneficial to the economy as it stimulates market growth; it also helps build community and is an important element in mental well-being.”
In December last year, I sent out my usual Christmas email to SDUK members. In a fit of contemplation, I suggested that the world of employment was changing beyond recognition, and that it was our duty to rethink how theatre could be made. Citing research into UBI, I wrote: “One thing seems to be certain – we are on the verge of the biggest shift in employment since the industrial revolution.
What does this mean for those of us working in the creative industries? How will theatre be created in the next decade? Theatre has already embraced (and helped create) a gig economy in the way it engages many of us, and yet many of our structures and contracts for creating work are hopelessly out of date and do not reflect the reality of our work.”
I must confess that I hadn’t anticipated that shift would come quite as suddenly or as dramatically as it has, but given that we find ourselves in a place of unprecedented change, we have a choice – do we batten down the hatches and let our industry – and many other industries around us – shrink in their ambition and scale, or do we see this as an opportunity for a creative renaissance built on fairer, more humane structures?
The choice isn’t entirely ours to make. The structures that govern theatre are in part the structures that govern the UK as a whole. The creative industries do not sit apart from society.
Up until six weeks ago, public opinion for UBI remained pretty low. Voters seemed to be sceptical of the idea of the government handing out ‘money for nothing’ and many believed that UBI would be a disincentive to work.
Furloughing has disproved the idea that ‘money for nothing’ would cause people to be idle
The mass furloughing we’ve seen would seem to disprove this. Money ‘for nothing’ hasn’t caused people to sit and be idle. We have seen many people – unable to work for their employers – offer their experience in skills swaps instead. We’ve seen people learning new things, baking, or putting on plays over Zoom. As a society we have remained remarkably un-idle at the exact point when to do nothing would be considered entirely reasonable.
Before Covid-19, It was Teer’s belief that UBI would “provide a bridge of financial support to take us through the period of turmoil in employment markets that will be unleashed by widespread automation. Basic income will be more effective than means-tested benefits because it will free people up to combine work and creativity. Some will launch businesses, some will get involved in the community.” Replace automation with Covid-19 and this statement seems more important than ever.
We have seen the commentary shift dramatically in recent weeks, with voters and politicians campaigning for a universal basic income to be introduced. If there was ever a time to trial such a scheme, then this is it. Among the many excellent reasons why we need UBI, I believe it is the most significant single action the government can take to not only ensure that the creative industries survive, but that they go on to thrive.
As Teer puts it: “UBI gives everyone a chance to play, not just those who can afford to. It’s a great leveller. It provides the opportunity to dedicate time to developing your skills as an artist, or just to find out if you have any skill.”
Universal basic income not only protects the most vulnerable from financial crisis, it also gives us all the time and space to rebuild. We will all need to be as creative as we can to reimagine a world post-Covid-19 – UBI allows us that opportunity.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.