Why a liberal response to taking back control matters

When Vote Leave chose their slogan they broke the mould of British politics. It stood in stark contrast to the established formula of successful general election narratives. New. Better. Ambition. Difference. Forward. Fairness. Future.

Vote Leave initially intended to go down the same route. Vote Leave, Get Change. But a last minute change from campaign director Dominic Cummings left the campaign as Vote Leave, Take Back Control. Cummings, fascinated by psychometric voter profiles, intended the slogan to act as a direct channel to voters with authoritarian tendencies. It worked. Campaigners hammered in the message at every opportunity and Leave won both the narrative battle and the vote.

Their success has seen Jeremy Corbyn consciously co-opt the language of control. With Labour considering its strength with graduates banked, the control narrative is seen as a shortcut to the Leave voters Corbyn failed to convince in 2017. It’s working. Labour’s headline conference policies, nationalising the water industry and the second home tax, are 5% more popular with Leave voters than the average voter.

If Labour’s adoption of a control narrative is a strategical decision, for the Conservatives it is a matter of necessity. There’s no return to the Cameron era coalition, with the Conservatives locked into a play for authoritarian voters by May’s interpretation of the referendum vote. So far as it exists outside of Europe, their agenda consists of random acts of paternalist taxation. On migration, surveillance, cannabis, pornography, foreign home ownership, executive power, elections and above all Brexit, the instincts of the government are clearly to control.

The attractions of the control narrative are clear. In the post-crash world, most voters are desperate to regain control from the forces of international markets. Poll after poll suggests that the centre ground of British politics is authoritarian, interventionist and lean towards protection. Building a majority party of the centre or winning a second referendum will mean leaning into control narratives, something those dreaming of a New Centrist Party have yet to reckon with.

For now the Liberal Democrats are locked into the role of the anti-Brexit party, with an issue that is both continually salient and where the party’s stance far outstrips its own popularity. But once Brexit reaches its conclusion, Europe will subside as a dividing line. A narrative built around opposition to control allows the party to maintain a distinctive identity, the “open” elements of the remain electorate – and the best chance of permanent reconciliation with the 700,000 Liberal Democrat voters who backed leave.

Freedom, to be sure, isn’t narrative capable of winning a general election. But for a minority party pitching to the low-conscientiousness, high openness voters who should be forming their core vote, freedom offers a compelling narrative. This isn’t a call for policy change and an economic shift rightwards; freedom is as much about freedom to as freedom from. It’s about the narrative the party builds with the policies it already has, something the party will be in desperate need of after March 2019.

* James Gilmour is a Liberal Democrat member.

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13 Comments

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 1st Oct '18 - 10:21am

    Is it not the case that Lib Dems also often speak of “control”? As in “we believe people should have control over their lives”. Used in this sense, “control” is not authoritarian. It is compatible with belief in freedom. Indeed having control over ones life *is* freedom.
    Is it not the case that people who voted Leave often saw Brexit as being about gaining freedom? The country having “control” over its future? Isn’t this a motivation that the “party of freedom” should have some empathy with, even if we believe that people were mistaken in seeing Brexit as the way to gain freedom?

  • The analysis presented is interesting. The conclusion seems to be that we as a party need to make a choice between different words. This is the are that I believe needs to be explored. My view is that the issue of control must be defined as deciding who has control. Thus if control cannot sensibly be in the hands of the individual it must be placed as low as possible in order to involve the individual. This would be my criterion for judging the Europe project. Decisions in Europe are taken democratically. The implementation is largely in the hands of national governments. They are democratically elected, but certainly the U.K. government has not involved people in deciding how to implement agreed rules or programmes. This is a failure of our country. We need a simple means of demonstrating this.
    And of course we need to ensure that when our party has influence we do not fall into the trap of only letting the people decide when we think we will get the “right” decision.

  • Neil Sandison 1st Oct '18 - 11:49am

    A slogan didnt win it for Brexit but some pretty horrendous immigration figures the week before the vote helped firm up their vote and played into their narrative .as UKIP played the race card remember the Turkey poster .Those long ignored by the political elite at the sharp end of the economy decided to take their revenge and the vote was much more about kicking the government of the day for other failings which is now being exploited by Corbyn who was never pro-european and who sees the EU as a capitalist club.I would suggest we take a more progressive stance based on freedom and choice ,liberty from oppression and an authoritarian state and the maintainance of rights and civil liberity

  • Sue Sutherland 1st Oct '18 - 12:55pm

    This is a very interesting post, especially as it show us why we haven’t been able to attract centre ground voters, given that the two main parties have become more extreme. We are trying to attract a centre ground which is reasonable, likes evidence based policies and is liberal towards other people. That’s not what the actual centre ground is any more, it’s “authoritarian, interventionist and leans toward protection”.
    It’s also useful to go back and look at the figures about the way people voted. We all know a majority of graduates voted Remain, but it was only 57%, not an overwhelming majority at all. That came as quite a shock because the narrative has become: the well educated voted Remain, the less educated voted Leave. The binary choice question has tempted us all into thinking the population is polarised, but it isn’t, except in terms of Leave or Remain.
    So what can we do to attract the centre ground? I don’t wish to change our policies to attract these voters because I believe that is very dangerous. Politicians should be leading the way not following it. However, I think it’s possible to frame these policies in attractive terms. If people want more control over their lives, show them how our policies of devolving decision making do this. Maybe instead of talking about PR talk about how Parliament can be reformed so it’s more accessible to everyone. The present system of petitions being heard is a joke. People should be able to address Parliament directly, to really influence the way the governing party thinks.
    We have to put more thought into how we present our policies. A really good paper has come out from the party showing what we want to do under the Demand Better slogan, but what it doesn’t do is answer why we have come up with the solutions, our core beliefs. If we do this we can link them to the analysis of the centre ground. For example, we believe you should be free to control your own life as long as you’re not harming anyone else.
    We have to encourage those who understand these processes much better than I do, to help the party persuade voters that its solutions to problems will benefit them much more than the extreme right or left. I think it’s now or never.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Oct '18 - 3:02pm

    The article from James is so mixed in that it seems to speak from real individual perspectives, yet conflate ideas nothing to do with the reality as we know it.

    Terrific responses, especially, Catherine, also Sue and Martin.

    James does not do what Catherine advises, Sue understands, and Martin is staunch on , he does not realise centre, liberal, libertarian vary.

    We are a Liberal Democrat party.

    Freedom , liberty, control, security, are or must be in balance. This party is truly foolish on the centre ground description , even Corbyn accepts it as he knows it moves, and he embraces that more than Liberal Democrats in constant mania to be radical.

    The article links to daft polls and articles with data that prove, big surprise, we are all prioritising various policies and are thus as groups, inconsistent.

    Take me and Catherine above. We disagree on nuclear weapons, the word moderate as exciting, and the extent of immigration. But even on those issues we can compromise and within them agree on much, that current policies do not allow spouses to be together , that is terrible, and current governments do not do enough on disarmament, also lousy. Are we not of the same ilk? I favour releasing from prison , nearly all completely non violent offeners. But I favour a form of full time work akin to hard labour, life to mean life, for all pre meditated murderers, and far longer sentences with similar work scheme for rape and crimes of abuse or injuring. n the former non violent I am kin to the libertarians, on the violent I am kin to the authoritarians, both compatible with Mill, the harm principle. Indeed I think much of the left of our party are Greens, much of the right of it are libertarians. I am a Liberal Democrat, my heroes are Mill, Roosevelt, JFK.

    I think we need policies that are moral and popular and a mix of left, right, centre, radical, progressive, moderate.

    Start with my view on crime and we move up ten points!!!

  • Steve Trevethan 1st Oct '18 - 5:10pm

    Might taking control be a facet of power management?
    Might power management be most efficiently and compassionately realised through accuracy of perception and clarity of thought, communication, action and restraint of action?
    Might realistic control taking be best achieved through well informed cooperation?
    Might maximising well informed cooperation take us further than moderation?

  • Neil Sandison hit the nail on the head.

    The liberal left have failed almost entirely by being squeamish about talking to the workers at the sharp end.

    Neil has great analysis although the big question is why did the political elites not foresee events? In short what sort of economy rubbishes its own citizens and creates an economy predicated on mass migration? Since the vote was also about kicking the establishment why have these same people not changed their policies? The reason is because the Lib Dems don’t believe that every single person with aspirations should be able to not only make their own talents but also create their own talents. Constantly belittled in favour of an over-exoticisation view of the economy.

    There are really only two economic models – the Osbornite devil take the hindmost that assumes all migration is always positive (the more the merrier!) OR one that keeps a hawk eye on those at the bottom end of the market with a British first attitude relentlessly focussing patriotically on these people to encourage them to achieve their potential. That does mean controlled migration from Zero up!

    It’s no good banging on about rights and liberties if there are people being economically oppressed by mass migration – what about the right to training, job placements and an enabling state?

  • Neil Sandison 1st Oct '18 - 9:57pm

    James part of the problem with the immigration figures is counting overseas students as migrants and not temporary visitors here to study ,This inflates the figures .Other migrants are here to carry out seasonal employment like harvesting crops and will return home once the different harvests are collected in between the spring and the autumn .Some people will be involved in the hotel and catering industry and have long supplimented the shortage of labour in those industries, The situation in the south east and midlands is different with many more brought in by agency agreement to fill logistic and building trade vacancies because demand outstrips local supply .Part of the problem dates back to the Blair government who failed to put in transitional arrangements and under estimated the number of economic migrants who actually arrived .This does not make migration bad but does mean it has to be managed .settled communities particularly those most affected by the financial crisis and following recession felt powerless and unwanted and they were egged on by UKIP and other alt right followers to blame migrants escaping a worse recession in their homelands and seeking work in our economy much as Brits do in Australia , USA and the EU.I do not believe BrexIt or no Brexit we can put the globalisation genie back in the bottle .All we can do is ensure additional support for regions where skills shortages are impacting and an even playing field for all those economically active in the work place.

  • As Catherine Jane Crosland says, the desire for ‘control’ is, in context, just another way of expressing the urge for freedom.

    The media barons may routinely slag off Labour for being committed to class war but it’s the Tories who are the real experts at it. Little by little the playing field has been tilted in favour of the 1% with most of their gains coming at the expense of ordinary working people since, despite their claims to the contrary, the Tories have been terrible managers of the economy.

    A key strategy in the Tory version of class war is globalisation. It has many good features but crucially also allows regulatory and tax arbitrage when done the Tory way. That means that regulations can be avoided, and taxes shifted to low tax jurisdictions. That’s why, in one of the allegedly richest countries on Earth, there isn’t enough money to fix potholes, fund schools properly, provide decent care for the elderly and the rest.

    Another strand is for production to be shifted to wherever wages are lowest or, when more convenient, cheap labour can be imported with the added ‘benefit’ that the government doesn’t have to take training seriously – only to make the right noises about it. The net result is zero-hour contracts etc. that guarantee a growing percentage a life of low skills, poverty and insecurity while living in bad housing.

    It all adds up to as clear an assault on ‘freedom’ (both to & from) as it’s possible to imagine.

    If you doubt any of this, read the comments on any relevant Daily Mail online article to see the intense rage against a system that’s disempowered so many. There may be a racist minority, but Lib Dems must stop using that as an excuse for wilful blindness.

    LEAVE’s skill was directing this justified rage against the EU. The EU is far from perfect but it’s not the culprit. That’s to be found much closer to home – in the Tory party and its fellow travellers.

    Lib Dems need to argue for taking back control, but so far, they’ve usually been against that, confused I think by libertarian (and hence fundamentally anti-human) tendencies on one hand and, on the other, by naïve enthusiasm for ‘globalisation’ as proposed by TPTB without questioning the tricky 1%-friendly details.

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Oct '18 - 5:02pm

    Taking back control only makes sense and then not much when it refers to our borders. Otherwise it means local democracy, individual choice and forming our own trade deals. It has been taken over for the Vote Leave campaign to mean interference by the eu. We must confront this messaging of control and steal the Conservatives’ mantra of individual responsibility and choice while they are still blinkered by Brexit.

  • David Evershed 6th Oct '18 - 5:38pm

    The slogan take back control is not advocating more control but that control is exercised locally within the UK not by the EU.

    The EU subsidiarity rules should also favour localism but have been interpreted to favour centralism.

  • Liberal Party, February 1974: TAKE POWER, VOTE LIBERAL.

    The centre of UK politics is authoritarian etc? I suggest “the centre” is almost meaningless in this case. You measure views on different things and for each thing, there’s a centre position. It’s not the same as swing voters. Between Labour and UKIP, for instance, the swing voters are redistributionist and authoritarian, many of them highly authoritarian. Between Tory and Liberal Democrat, they’re economically moderate and moderately anti-authoritarian – on the whole, of course.

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