Keeping Control

Keir Starmer’s version of ‘Take back control’ is the opposite of what Leave voters were seeking, argues Philip Cunliffe.

It would be difficult to find a politician less principled than Keir Starmer. 

After years of explicitly seeking to overturn the outcome of the Brexit referendum of 2016, Starmer now claims the Brexit slogan ‘Take back control’ as his own. He even had the temerity to say he ‘couldn’t disagree with the basic case so many Leave voters made to me’. After years of personally trying to repress the demands raised by the referendum, Starmer now promises that a Labour-led government will seek to slake those very same demands by giving power back to the people through a radical programme of devolution to the local level.

There are immediate grounds for scepticism. Starmer’s shilly-shallying alone  makes Tony Blair seem a paragon of political principle and virtue. And what should we make of a political party that promises to rule on the basis of giving power away? Is it possible to trust a political party that invites support on the basis that it claims no interest in wielding political power? Perhaps Starmer’s opportunism would be easier to stomach if it involved the possibility of at least approaching the popular concerns underlying  the Brexit vote. But Starmer’s policy of radicalising and extending devolution is in fact the polar opposite of the demands raised by Brexit. 

The demand for control that propelled the Leave vote was most strongly associated with sovereignty and concern over immigration, as the Ashcroft poll in the wake of the Brexit vote made plain. Both sovereignty and immigration are very clearly questions of national, not local, government, and neither can be addressed by devolving power from Westminster. By its very nature, sovereignty concerns the nature and scope of centralised political power and authority. Starmer’s Labour has now leaped back from supranationalism to localism, skipping over the national level – precisely that level where Leave voters’ interests lay.  By reframing the demand for control in terms of devolution, Starmer is showing that he and his supporters are still hostile to the idea of national sovereignty, whatever slogans they adopt. 

Starmer has enough low cunning to see the appeal of the Brexit slogan, and how it emerged from deep scepticism and hostility to the political elite. After having strained so hard to thwart Brexit, he now seeks to take advantage of the Tories’ failure to reap any rewards from it by claiming the slogan for his own and bidding for the support of Leave-voting former Labour constituencies in northern England and the Midlands. His promise is to devolve new powers over transport, employment support, housing, culture, energy and childcare, promising nothing less than a ‘huge power shift’ beyond Westminster. Yet at the same time, he is dampening expectations of extra public spending, intending to devolve power without resources – the perfect alibi for evading political responsibility.

In claiming to restore power to the people from Westminster, Starmer is clearly banking on the populace’s hatred and suspicion of the political elite. Starmer intends to respond by abolishing national politics. However, instead of doing this by evaporating national sovereignty into the supranational forums of the EU, Starmer proposes to dissolve it away into local government. But if the Brexit vote was a vote against politicians it was also a vote for national politics. Starmer’s vision will not only abolish national politics, it would substitute a new local elite for that of Westminster, strengthening an unelected system of parallel governance comprising quangos and publicly-funded institutions captured by middle class activists. He can also rely on an ideologically homogeneous one-party system of Green, Labour, Lib-Dem and even Tory councillors, legitimated by the shallow pool of voters in local elections, to ensure that Starmer’s real constituents – the professional middle classes – will remain firmly in ‘control’.  

Instead of a coordinated process of national rebalancing and levelling up, Starmer’s vision will raise up NIMBYism, self-appointed ‘community leaders’ and NGOcracy while also boosting communal identity politics. Starmer’s vision will do nothing to arrest the collapse of national-level public services such as the NHS – indeed it will exacerbate it, as the national level of politics crumbles away. 

To see a glimpse of the Starmerite future of local control, one need only look at local authorities’ recent attempts across England’s south-east to establish Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and so-called ’15 minute cities’. In certain London districts as well as Oxford and Canterbury, local authorities are pushing ahead with efforts to exert tighter control over their citizens’ movements through zoning restrictions on car use  – measures that are expressly intended to cultivate supposedly self-sufficient neighbourhoods and encourage walking and bicycle use. The 15-minute-neighbourhoods are the prim dream of the green Labour-supporting middle classes, while cycling is now the prime marker of their personal virtue. Local authorities are also using emission zones and parking charges to tax poorer citizens out of their cars. Organised through a network of global mayoral pledges over climate and the environment, Labour’s vision is of a globally-connected set of towns and city-states in which the national level of policy and governmental planning has once again disappeared. It will come with a new swathe of impoverished ‘left behind’ regions dedicated to serving and maintaining the privileged in their nice green LTNs and metropolitan enclaves. That local authorities have already ignored their own public consultation on the traffic plans, when they returned significant majorities against the proposals, tells us who will really get control locally under Starmer’s plan.

That the Labour party is now responding to Brexit by divesting the centre of national power indicates yet again that British elites still intend to rule Britain as a member-state rather than an independent nation-state. No longer able openly to outsource power to Brussels, they still promise that there will be no sovereign core of power – and no means to attribute political responsibility and blame at the state level, as all politics will be local. In place of an independent nation-state, we are seeing the involution of the member-state, a member-state collapsing in on itself as the national level crumples into the local. Again, if Starmer’s new localism offered a meaningful prospect of empowering ordinary people, it might be worth considering. But the prospect of fragmenting national power will mean political disenfranchisement – once again, making the national vote less meaningful. However cosy and eco-friendly Starmer’s new localism may be, there is no avoiding the issue: if you want to take control, you need sovereignty and the nation.

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