A three-word flourish turned out to be a rhetorical masterpiece. The Vote Leave campaign slogan “Taking Back Control” captured a visceral undercurrent of desire that had been bubbling for decades and weaved it into a nasty but compelling story, one in which migrants and EU bureaucrats became the villainous protagonists responsible for all of society’s ills.
We should both despise and admire Michael Gove and his fellow Brexiteers for being so smart. We should question how he beat us to it. Working-class, regional communities cast aside since Margaret Thatcher have seen industry and opportunity snatched away by a global market everybody said was inevitable.
The metropolitan, educated and young are corralled into low-paid service work and overpriced box rooms, working harder, faster and longer for less. Those claiming benefits are faced with a cruel, complicated bureaucracy designed to disempower and punish. Migrants, both from within and outside of the EU, struggle to plan their lives due to increasing fear of deportation.
All of these groups reel from a lack of control. All desire an antidote to the precariousness and powerlessness of modern life, an answer to the feeling that old certainties are crumbling while nothing new is being built in their place.
To view the lives of these varied groups of people through the lens of control reveals acres of common ground, with the differences between such communities – which the right never stop highlighting – fading into the background.
For Jeremy Corbyn and Labour this couldn’t be more important. The ugly clichés and political divide created by the Leave and Remain narrative are absolutely terminal. In pitting different sections of the base against each other, it puts any Labour leader in an impossible bind where the only votes that could be won would be habitual, compromised and through gritted teeth.
If Labour were to talk in terms of control, they could actually be convincing and cut through. Not only does it cover nearly all of the left’s natural terrain – increased democracy, workplace organising, strengthening union laws, secure housing, renationalisation of public services – but it has that ardent, warlike edge that the current Corbyn narrative of unity, co-operation and togetherness sorely lacks. It implies a powerful but assailable enemy from whom we must seize control.
Nigel Farage was a master of defining the enemy. The EU bureaucrats he’d been trolling for years along with the Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan migrants attempting to escape wars we started became the unquestionable source of society’s ills, and no one doubted Farage’s conviction in doing something about them.
Similarly, Corbyn’s Labour must outline precisely who they’re going to wrest control from and then relentlessly hammer them at every opportunity. The Spanish insurgent party Podemos managed this well with “la casta” – a subset of corrupt politicians and economic elites that aren’t only rich, but rig the system in their favour.
The latent potential for such a narrative has been present in Britain for decades, with the cultural touchstone of a “sense of fair play” melding with the burgeoning feeling that the system is rigged and a few unfairly benefit. The nascent showing of this was UK Uncut. Now the left has a parliamentary footing, this narrative could be built on the shoulders of bold, radical policy proposals.
One way of overcoming a hostile media is to relentlessly grab the headlines by announcing policy too good not to print. This doesn’t mean an important but tepid Keynesianism of building houses, roads and hospitals. It means Overton Window-shifting policies that crash onto the front pages and upset establishment economists.
We saw a glimmer of this with Corbyn’s distressingly short-lived maximum wages announcement. But he should go further, and harder. A heady cocktail of radical economic policies and symbolic political propositions could be explosive. Why not levy a 100 per cent tax on bankers’ bonuses, move Parliament to Manchester and threaten jail time for politicians who sell themselves to the City? Heck, while we’re at it – why not confiscate Philip Green’s yacht?
These policies aren’t the foundations for a new economic system or a radically altered society. But they are the beginning of a story that could end in radical change. If we seize the narrative, we define the enemy, deflect anger away from migrants and build an oppositional coalition from which a propositional programme can emerge.
Taking back control, at this point, could become more than a media strategy. We must remember that slogans bereft of politics are readily emptied of meaning. Revolution – a word now more often used to describe a new street food than a political rupture – is hackneyed, clichéed and easily commodified precisely because nobody has been able to articulate just what revolution in 21st-century Britain would look like.
The question, then, is what would taking back control look like? While it would mean hammering the CEOs of tax-evading corporations, the politicians who stitch up regulation for their mates in the City and that shadowy, rentier class whose fortunes effortlessly balloon – it will also mean a future-oriented, 21st-century socialism that goes further than a reheated Keynesianism of the 1970s. Psychologically and technologically things have changed, and so should our politics.
This means directly addressing the emerging generation of plugged-in, technologically-advanced and DIY-minded people discussed by Paul Mason and others before him. These individuals, often young and born in the hearth of neoliberalism, are uninspired by the centralism and paternalistic politics of the past. While well-funded public services, affordable housing and well-paid jobs are important, they must be coupled with policies that give individuals and communities the opportunity to flourish in exciting and unexpected ways.
An embrace of the universal basic income, state support for platform cooperativism, a renewed seriousness about regional devolution, the acceleration of democracy using new technologies and experimentations with participatory economic planning could all help dispel the idea that the left is dull, uniform and didactic. They are pieces of the new left puzzle that is waiting to be assembled, and taking back control could be the story that makes sense of the policy, the frame that gives vision to a truly new politics.