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6 January 2023

Labour’s attempt to make “take back control” its own could win back Brexit voters

In his New Year speech, Keir Starmer retold the Leave vote as a call for greater devolution.

By Freddie Hayward

If you tried to watch Keir Starmer’s speech on 5 January (and what else would you be doing at 10am on a Thursday?) but couldn’t because of the poor audio, don’t worry, I trudged across London to see it live.

Starmer said Westminster was too short-sighted to meet the problems of today. As we noted in our review on the New Statesman Podcast, he drew on his background to empathise with the cost-of-living crisis. But the key announcement was that his party would introduce a “take back control” bill in the first year of a Labour government. The bill would create the legal framework for a programme of devolution, drawing on the proposals of Gordon Brown’s recent report.

When Starmer resigned from Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench as a shadow immigration minister in 2016 he labelled the Brexit vote a “catastrophe”. In the following years, he was instrumental in shifting party policy towards a second referendum.

Is this a Damascene conversion or the culmination of a months-long strategy to channel the sentiment behind the Brexit vote into a programme for greater devolution? Labour sources, unsurprisingly, argue the latter. They point to Starmer’s conference speech in October and his speech on economic growth last July.

One question is whether the public will accept Starmer’s shift from a Remain fanatic to a born-again champion of “take back control”. Voters don’t follow the intricacies of Westminster politics. That’s part of the reason Starmer’s abandonment of his pledges during the leadership campaign is immaterial to the political prospects of the party. (Of course, there’s the debate around whether Labour needs to adopt more radical policies to win power and succeed in government.) Most people won’t register that Starmer has reneged on those promises. Equally, it seems unlikely that they will criticise him for taking a different line on Brexit.

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The next question is whether adopting the language of Brexit will benefit Labour politically. There’s no denying the political force of “take back control”. As the pollster Frank Luntz put it to me last year, “[it’s] brilliant, because it’s active. It’s not ‘Get control’. It’s not ‘Take control’. It’s ‘Take back control’. And that is a focus on language that most people do not have.” As I have previously noted, in one swoop Labour has taken a dry set of constitutional reforms and given them the legitimacy of the largest democratic vote in British history. Finally, speaking the language of Brexit day-in day-out could reconcile the party with those voters who abandoned Labour over its position on Brexit in 2019. 

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The idea behind the bill is to replace the ad hoc, tortuous process councils have to go through to negotiate a devolved settlement. That could prove fruitful. A Savanta ComRes survey commissioned by the think tank Power to Change found 75 per cent of Britons feel they have little to no influence or control over important local decisions. If Labour tells a consistent story – and remember it took nearly five months of messaging for the party’s policy on a windfall tax to cut through – then its form of Brexit could look compelling compared to the Conservatives’ debate over whether they should repeal EU laws. 

A final thought: this is a topic that Lisa Nandy has championed for a while. The re-telling of the Brexit vote as a call to devolve power to communities makes moving Nandy from the levelling-up brief in any forthcoming Labour reshuffle trickier for Starmer.

[See also: Britain has never faced decline like this before]