Last Thursday (5 January), Keir Starmer took control of the slogan “take back control”, as the catchy title for Labour’s plan for devolution. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that journalists reacted as if this was all about Brexit. But politics did not start in 2016. This move was effective long before Dominic Cummings boiled it down to those three notorious words. It neatly puts an insurgent party on the side of the “British people” against a small, over-dominant group who are holding the country back and who need to be dethroned.
In 1945, the Labour manifesto railed against the force of finance which had “control of the government… the banks, the mines, the big industries”. Labour invited voters to take back control – and won a landslide. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher told the public that winter strikes had revealed trade union tyranny: “We all saw at first hand that power and felt our own powerlessness.” People should use their votes to reassert their power.
This was the trick that Cummings repeated in 2016, successfully casting Remain as an out-of-touch elite, which had concentrated power in London to its own benefit. As he explained a few months later:
“For a lot of people, ‘take back control’ made them think, ‘Yeah, these are the guys who screwed up the economy, who drove it off a cliff in 2008, whose mates are all Goldman Sachs bankers and hedge funders on massive bonuses. Us mugs on PAYE are the ones paying the bills for this. We’ll show those guys – we’ll take back control from you lot in London.’”
As a source close to Starmer told me: “2016 shattered a consensus and ‘take back control’ was the slogan that did it.”
This idea has been stirring in Labour circles for some time. In 2021, the Preston council leader Matthew Brown published a book about how they had encouraged the city’s institutions to buy local, not from distant corporations. It was called Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too.
And for all the surprise at his purloining of Cummings’s slogan, last week was not the first time Starmer has talked this way. In his conference speech last September, he insisted the Leave vote expressed people’s demand for “opportunities for the next generation, communities they felt proud of, public services they could rely on”.
So no, Brexit is not back at the forefront of our politics. Instead, the cost-of-living crisis has given Labour the chance to fold it into a story about economic disempowerment. Exactly what Cummings said he had in mind. As my source put it: “It’s right to take on that mantle – people want change, wanted it then, but they want solutions to match the slogans.”
Those winning narratives in 1945 and 1979 worked because each came after a decade of crises, for which those in control could be blamed – licensing the radical changes that followed. The question is whether Starmer’s attempt to do this will be more successful than Cummings’s, beyond just winning a vote.
[See also: Can Rishi Sunak survive the wrath of the right?]