Take back control – the slogan the left should make its own | Steve Richards

The right seized power with that ingenious mantra, but the true beneficiaries aren’t ordinary people. The real winner is the state

The slogan of the year, and perhaps the century, is the one about the need to “take back control”. Those intoxicating words took centre stage in the EU referendum and won the vote for the Brexiteers. Donald Trump noted the potency of the slogan and made it a central theme of his victorious campaign. This is a slogan that triggers tumultuous change.

But it does so with little or no scrutiny. One of the oddities about vote-winning slogans is that they become so familiar there is little curiosity as to precise meaning. Repetition is an alternative to clarity. In this case, the ubiquitous words are much more interesting than they seem. What form will “control” take? Who or what will be the mediating agencies? Presumably the advocates in the UK do not mean they want a private company to “take back control”. They are not calling for the likes of Southern trains to have more control over our lives.

Instead the users of the slogan can only mean it is time for government or the state to take back control. Their focus produces a bizarre contortion. Thatcherite free marketeers in the UK and anti-government Tea Partyites in the US dance to statist tunes. During the UK referendum Michael Gove argued with his usual clarity that leaving the EU would enable government to intervene more to protect industries threatened by global competition. All the leading Brexiteers called for state intervention in the labour market. In a later rally with his friend Donald Trump, Nigel Farage pledged, to ecstatic cheers, that they would take on the banks and the multinationals. Farage sounded like Bernie Sanders.

Trump is the most statist US president-elect for decades. His economic policies make Ed Balls’ fiscal stimulus, proposed long before he became a famous dancer, seem ridiculously tame. In particular Trump won the election by proposing to borrow billions for capital investment projects. He did not talk about the state. Instead he would build roads, railways and the rest. He had personified the state.

The shift in the framing of the debate about the role of government is seismic. During the Thatcher/Reagan/Blair/Cameron era, the overwhelming pitch was also about “control”, but it took a different form. Then, “control” was supposed to be about the empowerment of the individual. Yet individuals have never felt less empowered, hence the power of this year’s vote-winning slogan.

In Britain patients were promised “choice” in a more market-based NHS, and parents were promised the power to choose a school of their choice. Try telling a patient they are empowered as they struggle to see a GP and fail powerlessly to navigate their way around a chaotic NHS. Schools are similarly fractured. There is a growing teacher recruitment crisis, and in some cases head teachers assume responsibilities when they are not remotely experienced enough. Choosing a school where the head is in their early 30s and with staff leaving in droves is not a form of empowerment for parents.

Nor do commuters in the south of England feel empowered by the fractured railway system where so many agencies are involved no one is responsible. The rail strikes and other forms of industrial action are unforgivably ruthless, but they do not erupt in a vacuum. They happen when there is no clear leadership and sense of direction. Who is in control? The train companies, Network Rail, the regulators, the transport secretary? The answer is all of these agencies and therefore none of them. The entire service is a shambles, uniting the CBI, passengers needing to get to work, and any sane person in their despair. There is no control.

Chaos too can be seen in the NHS. A senior health official told me recently that in his area there are seven inefficient agencies supposedly responsible for health provision. It is not clear which of them has overall responsibility. He had been a strong supporter of the market-based reforms until he discovered that the NHS as constituted was not a market and the only way one agency could improve was to undermine one of the others. The official is now a convert to clear lines of control from the top down with prominent individuals held to account.

The slogan about “control” should be one that marks a move to the left. It is the left that on the whole believes markets should be regulated and the state can be a benevolent mediator – an instrument that can empower rather than stifle individuals. But across much of the democratic world the left is as fractured as the providers of public services in the UK. Its leaders lack the ability to communicate and use language as weapon. It is split between those who believe with a shallow intensity there is no left/right divide any more and those who do but are not sure how to pitch an argument.

The vacuum matters because the slogan of the year could move in two very different directions. The words might propel us towards an ugly debate about kicking out foreigners; alternatively they could begin a constructive debate in which we seek to answer what forms a modern, efficient accountable government should take in order to give voters a sense of control.

So far in the UK it is Theresa May who is moving gingerly on to fertile terrain. When she noted at her party conference that it was time to recognise the good that governments can do, her words marked the end of one era and a stumbling towards the next.

Contributor

Steve Richards

The GuardianTramp

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