An 1862 newspaper illustration showing people queueing for food and coal tickets at a district Provident Society office

Manchester has grown in size and wealth by extracting value from poor workers, both at home and abroad. How about the people get something in return?

In the spring of 2023, it was announced that Manchester was to take after other European cities by introducing a “Tourism Tax”. This was met with mixed reactions amongst residents – not because of the tax itself, but because it was hard for some Mancunians to imagine their city as a major holiday destination. On paper, there’s little reason to be confused; Manchester’s tourism industry is the third largest in the UK, outranked only by Edinburgh and London. The city hosts two multimillion-pound football clubs, a booming nightlife, and a rich musical heritage.

The issue, however, is that Mancs don’t live solely on paper. They have reality to deal with, and for many, it’s not a particularly prosperous one. The stark difference between the soaring corporate profits of Manchester and the diminished social wellbeing of its citizens is undeniable. If foreign concepts like the tourism tax can capture the attention of regional decision-makers, then isn’t it only logical to engage in discourse about a radical idea that has been garnering international traction, not just in Europe, but worldwide? Mancunians are historically and morally owed a guaranteed, sustainable, Universal Basic Income.

In a nutshell for those unfamiliar, a guaranteed Universal Basic Income (UBI) does exactly what it says on the tin – it provides a no-strings-attached regular payment towards citizens so that they can afford basic necessities. The idea of UBI has been discussed increasingly over the past several years, even in the North West itself. In 2022, the Basic Income North conference was held in Manchester to discuss how basic income could reshape the lives of everyday working people. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said that a UBI should “seriously be considered” as a means to rejuvenate the economy post-lockdown.

Modern-day Manchester has quickly become a Northern business hub. The UK Government reported in 2021 that the number of tech jobs in Manchester increased by 164.6% in just that year. Despite this increase, members of the workforce are voicing their concerns on how the rapid advancement of artificial technology (AI) may threaten their employment. This isn’t the first time new technology has caused this fear in the North West. Whilst there are plenty of economic arguments for how a UBI would be beneficial for Manchester, it’s worth initially exploring a historical one.

Unless you’re from the area, you might not know that Manchester was the world’s very first industrial city. Whilst businessmen and other profiteers of the 19th Century marveled at their experimental town’s productivity, its working people saw their land turn towards pollution, overcrowded narrow streets, and unsanitary conditions. Rural villages became sparser as the work force began to flock to the city. The Northern labourer’s average life expectancy in 1837 was 17. Friedrich Engels, in his book ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ famously described the city as “Hell upon Earth”.

The term ‘Luddite‘ is based on the English textile workers of the early 19th century who opposed the use of new machinery to displace skilled weavers and labourers. In April of 1812, swarms of Luddites poured into Middleton in Lancashire (now Greater Manchester) and began aggressively crowding the gates of Burton’s Mill. This lead to a violent suppression by the Manchester militia in which at least seven people were killed.

The Luddites were ultimately suppressed and are often looked back on as ignorant, knee-jerk reactionaries who had a general dislike of technology. In all actuality, much of what they warned about became true. Mass unemployment ensued as the British economy suffered. It would take several more decades, and an incredibly violent workers’ movement before conditions became better.

But the mistreatment didn’t end in the 1800s. If we fast-forward several generations after the Industrial Revolution, we can see that the lessons of the workers’ issues and the profit-fueled mistreatment of Manchester did very little to stop Thatcherism from deepening the North-South divide. Industries became privatised, coal mines were shut down, and a vast amount of social programmes were cut.

Continuing forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, the same pattern towards the North appears. A report by Northern Health Science Alliance found that “during the pandemic, the COVID-19 mortality rate in the North is always statistically significantly higher than in the rest of England”. The report continues: “Deprivation/poverty and worse health pre-COVID-19 are potential mediators – i.e. they could potentially explain the mechanisms by which through living in the North can lead to worse COVID-19 outcomes.”

The consequences of industrialisation (and consequent deindustrialisation) continue to reverberate in the city today. Conditions aren’t as horrendous as they once were, but residents still lack sufficient access to green spaces, clean air, affordable housing, and economic resources. Greater Manchester Poverty Monitor reported in 2022 an estimated 620,000 people lived below the poverty line in the city region. A report from the University of Sheffield reveals Manchester is among the least green city centres in the UK. As of 2019, Manchester ranks second for the most deprived local authority in all of the UK, with only Blackpool ranking higher, according to a report by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities.

As we enter another massive shift in technology and work practices, we now have the foresight and opportunity to make a smarter and more democratic reality come to fruition.

A Universal Basic Income could not only act as a reparation for Manchester’s past, it can also provide residents with the means to get essentials like food, transport, prescriptions, and toiletries, as well as:

  • Help students stay in university and afford rent
  • Decrease stress of citizens and improve mental wellbeing
  • Eradicate the stigma of receiving benefits
  • Strengthen workers’ rights by providing striking union members a safety net
  • Protect residents during future disruptions such as climate disasters and pandemics
  • Revolutionise the imaginations of citizens and what they consider politically possible

A universal basic income would materially put life-changing solutions in the hands of residents. A participant of California’s UBI experiment, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), stated: “Before SEED came along, I was paying a lot of bills and didn’t know how I was gonna eat. It’s like being able to breathe.”

Countries such as Finland, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Brazil, Iran, and the USA have all started pilot programmes in certain regions. The few UBI experiments being trialled in the UK thus far include a three-year trial in Wales in which 500 care leavers are being given £1,600 a month with no strings attached. In England, a UBI income of £1,600 is being trialled on 30 people, hailing from Jarrow in the North East and East Finchley in North London.

Skeptics of UBI tend to argue that giving a population a guaranteed income would decrease productivity and increase inflation. This argument is based on an outdated economics of scarcity that just doesn’t reflect our era of extreme excess in the Western world. Manchester is already seeing the cost of goods rise along with the rest of Britain, primarily as a result of Britain’s departure from the EU. On the contrary, a Universal Basic Income would breathe life back into a post-Brexit Northern Economy. Northern working communities would have further access to not only basic necessities, but to the elbow room required to innovate and create.

Others inevitably ask where the money would come from to pay for a scheme like UBI. This question continues to have several ongoing answers as different methods are being tested to this day. In Stockton, California, the SEED programme was funded by donors such as the Economic Security Project, a non-profit that advocates and organises for a guaranteed income. Other proposals for funding have included raising certain taxes, or implementing new ones. Some suggest funding it by expanding or even completely replacing welfare programmes. States such as Alaska and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have even utilised dividends from their state’s most successful (and controversial) industries to provide residents with a basic income.

Examples from these other countries act merely as a springboard for further ideas. A city such as Manchester would certainly need a tailored approach. This could be done through co-operation between local government, financial institutions and community organisations. Public awareness campaigns would inform residents on the initiative, as careful monitoring and data collecting from consenting individuals would be required to examine the scheme’s effectiveness after a certain timeframe. Once proven to be effective, existing welfare programmes could be consolidated into one singular UBI, thereby eliminating mountains of paperwork and bureaucracy, and simplifying life for countless citizens.  

Whilst we’re still a long way from seeing a nationwide Universal Basic Income, conversations are happening which would have been considered absurd or unfathomable a decade ago. Manchester specifically deserves to be in these conversations. Its history is haunted with victims of cruelty and oppression, but that same history now gives it an opportunity to be a leading force and a beacon of hope for a fairer future. UBI in Manchester would be life-altering for countless residents of one of Britain’s most deprived cities. Most of all, it would increase the flexibility of all involved to enjoy a Manchester they have culturally been robbed from for the last several decades. 

As Britain imitates ideas from Europe, such as a ‘tourism tax’ and four-day work weeks, it’s necessary to reconnect people to the historical context of the city these measures ought to be tested in.  Manchester would benefit from UBI as artificial intelligence changes the face of the tech industry. It would benefit from UBI in a post-Brexit economy where the cost of living is continuing to rise. It would benefit from UBI as a means of helping working people who were hit hard financially from the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of all – it would act as a reparation for the brutal conditions the city faced during the Industrial Revolution, and beyond. Manchester is morally owed a Universal Basic Income – not because it’s a poor city, but because it’s an exploited one.

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Featured image: Wikipedia

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  • Andrew J. Boyer

    Andrew J. Boyer is a pianist, community organizer, and activist writer from Dallas Texas, now based in Greater Manchester. With a focus on topics such as neurodiversity, prison abolition, social ecology, and anti-authoritarianism - they've written for publications such as Freedom, Steady State Manchester, Organise Magazine, and Dissident Voice.

Reader Interactions


  1. Excellent. We need these progressive policies spread and this is the way to get it started.
    Very good.

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