In a typically brilliant essay Will Davies writes:
The slogan ‘take back control’ was a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic…What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect. Farage’s political strategy was to take seriously communities who’d otherwise been taken for granted for much of the past 50 years.
This point broadens. Consider some popular political positions. There’s support for immigration controls and fiscal austerity on the one hand but also for nationalization and even price controls on the other: one Yougov poll found (pdf) that 45% of people favour rent controls and 35% even controls on food prices.
These positions make no sense if you think in terms of left and right. But they become perfectly consistent once you see that people want things to be controlled: the popularity of austerity, I suspect, arises from the view that the public finances are “out of control.”
This demand for control is, if not the sigh of the oppressed, then the sigh of the insecure. When faced with uncertainty – not just about their economic lives but about cultural change too – people want a sense of control.
Of course, mainstream economists will see a flaw in these demands. The economy is a complex process which can’t necessarily be controlled for the better. Attempts to control immigration and the public finances have well-known costs. What we’re seeing here is an example of what David Leiser and Zeev Krill call the “good begets good” heuristic. People think control is a good thing and must therefore have good effects. But it ain’t necessarily so.
Herein, however, lies a massive opportunity for the left. We should be offering solutions to uncertainty – a stronger better social safety net and a job guarantee. We should also be offering people real control over their lives – and not control exercised on their behalf by the sort of elites they profess to despise.
This sort of platform should be able to unite the left and right of the Labour party – or at least it might insofar as that division is founded in ideas rather than personal animosities. From the right, it means developing the sort of community politics advocated by Liz Kendall:
We’ve got to start giving people a say and a stake in the decisions that impact their lives. And that starts in our communities, sharing power rather than just hoarding in in Whitehall or the Town Hall.
On housing, health, unemployment and a range of other areas, we have to trust the British people, and understand that those who know what is needed in their local area are the people who live there.
I’d add that there’s one policy which might both improve the social safety net, thus reducing insecurity, and increase people’s control over their own lives by offering them what Philippe Van Parijs calls (pdf) “real freedom” – a citizens’ income.
This might be an argument for another day. My broader point is simple. If we can ditch tribalism about left and right and think about how some good economic policies can fit in with people’s demands for control over their lives, the Labour party might just have a bright future.