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Did Brexit take back control? Only if you’re David Davis

The Minister for Brexit is keeping a lot of things to himself. 

The EU referendum was supposed to be an example of direct democracy. Those who voted for Brexit wanted to “take back control”. And yet, it seems, only one person’s allowed to know anything about it. 

David Davis, the Minister for Brexit, is in charge of the most significant negotiations in Britain in half a century. But unlike his colleagues in the Cabinet, he doesn’t need to consult on his department's approach or even reveal his plans. 

When grilled by the Foreign Affairs Committee, Davis refused to answer many questions on the basis that it could affect negotiations. He refused to talk about whether free trade or immigration would be prioritised. He refused to discuss in any detail what it would be like to trade under World Trade Organisation rules, except to declare: "I think it's a very bad idea to go into negotiations fearing any of the outcomes."

Other questions, such as on immigration policy, he suggested would be ones for the Home Office. Other questions were "above my paygrade". 

The Labour MP Mike Gapes pointed out that Davis would be negotiating for years. "How long do you think you can sustain this position?" he demanded. "My questions are the kind the people in this country want answers to.”

Davis, though, disagreed. “My job is to deliver,” he said. “We have a mandate like no other.” 

He then elaborated: “It may be your approach to say, 'Oh, because we're asking the question, you've got to tell us the answer before we've worked it out', but to me it seems a daft idea."

When Gapes asked whether this meant the department hadn't worked out anything, Davis retorted: "We've worked out the answers to some questions but not the ones you asked."

Crispin Blunt, a fellow Tory, noted dryly of preparations for Brexit: "I think Mr Gapes’ questions have established the level of negligence."

Mark Hendrick, another Labour MP, said investors and businesses wanted some kind of clarity: “Do you envisage some bespoke arrangement that you’re going to reveal like a rabbit out of a hat?” Japanese companies had specifically asked for more details on negotiations, he said. 

Davis tried to dodge the question by harking back to his background in “big business” (he worked for the sugar company Tate & Lyle).  He promised assessments and strategies. 

Eventually, Blunt asked him to put it down in writing.

Quizzed about his department's budget, Davis said cryptically: "What you get is what you need."

At least there was one thing he could be clear about. When asked about the Brexiteer pledge of spending £350m a week more on the NHS, he said: "I made no such pledge." The negotiations, he insisted, would not be made on the basis of someone else's pledge, some other time. 

Davis may be right to keep schtum about the details of negotiations, even if it is an extraordinarily handy way to deflect searching questions. But Leave voters will have to digest the fact that they have not "taken back control", nor received much transparent information at all. Voting for Brexit has not cleared the clouds around Brussels. It has thickened the ones around Whitehall instead.  

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.