“Take back control.” It has become clear that these words, more than anything else, helped the leave side to win the EU referendum vote last year. The result laid bare just how little power millions of voters felt they could exercise over their own lives. Politically, the fallout has damaged Labour more than the other national parties, as the Conservatives rally around the prime minister’s insistence that “Brexit means Brexit” and the Lib Dems – with only nine seats to risk – court remain voters. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to instruct MPs to vote in favour of triggering article 50 may be vindicated if Labour holds Copeland and Stoke Central in the upcoming by-elections. If one or – worse still – both seats fall, it is hard to see how the stance can be maintained.
Positioning aside, the message voters sent to politicians about feelings of powerlessness has at least been received. The Co-Operative Party, celebrating its centenary this year, certainly appears to have heard the message loud and clear. At a conference in London last weekend to coincide with the launch of a new collection of essays, experts with links to the Co-Operative movement gave their views on the major economic challenges facing the country in 2017. The conference was subtitled: ‘building an economy for all’. It could just as easily have been: “taking back control’. Panellists spoke at length about the various ways in which a lack of economic agency makes its impact felt on the lives of people who the Labour party has traditionally stood up for.
Sian Williams of Toynbee Hall told the conference about the estimated 2 million people in the UK who are “underbanked”, not having access to the most basic of financial services. Tom Watson MP, during a glimpse into the first meetings of his commission on the future of work, made reference to a little-observed feature of the rise of Uber: that taxi drivers no longer have control over which routes they drive (these decisions are made for them, by algorithm). Deb Oxley of the Employee Ownership Association, in one of the best addresses of the day, pointed to studies demonstrating that employees experience lower morale, higher turnover and are less productive when they feel they have no stake in their place of work. Unsurprisingly, this sense of economic powerlessness has coincided with a precipitous decline of trust in big business, as personified by the likes of Philip Green and Mike Ashley.
An approach to business which prioritises the empowerment of workers seems an obvious place for Labour to gain traction. After Theresa May softened her commitment to installing workers on company boards, Labour should adopt this position as a starting point for a progressive recasting of workplace organisation. Employee-owned businesses, as advocated by Oxley, are increasing in number, proving popular both with retiring private sector business owners wanting to leave a legacy and twenty-something entrepreneurs looking to set up companies which reflect their values. AltGen, a London-based agency, is seeking to adapt the co-operative model to the modern gig economy, in an attempt to allow young workers to combine flexibility with security. AltGen assists workers, including freelancers, to set up businesses without recourse to the staid, hierarchical culture that still dominates many British companies.
Alongside the promotion of a more democratic corporate culture, Labour would be well advised to consider education and employment in a far more joined-up way. Technological change over the last few decades has destroyed some jobs, and rendered many more insecure. The coming advances of robotics and greater automation mean this trend is likely to become even more pronounced. If Conservative instincts continue to tend toward a laissez-faire reliance on market forces to create jobs, Labour can advance a more proactive approach aimed at ensuring that workers can retrain multiple times throughout their career: “harnessing the power of the enabling state” as Watson puts it.
More than one speaker told of a sense of newfound optimism at the start of 2017, prompted in no small part by the scale of the recent Women’s Marches across the UK. Certainly, growing numbers of people are expressing a determination to resist the right-wing populism that appears in the ascendant following Brexit and the inauguration of President Donald Trump, and to create an inclusive, progressive alternative. Labour should be able to harness this mood, particularly if it focuses on concrete ways in which it can offer people what they want: more control over their lives.
The worry, of course, is that the proponents of many of the ideas given an airing at the Co-Op conference may not consider the Labour party to be a natural ally for much longer. It was notable that the three most impressive addresses of the day – Deb Oxley, Sian Williams and Constance Laisné of AltGen – all came from non-Labour party speakers. Of even more concern was that they all stressed their desire to work with “politicians of all stripes”, or else presented themselves as distinctly apolitical.
Labour victories in the upcoming by-elections in Northumberland and Stoke will go a long way to changing the narrative of a party in decline. Following this, it is not hard to imagine a Labour party harnessing the widespread anti-populist sentiment that has been belatedly released, to inform a comprehensive economic programme with empowerment at its core. But if last weekend’s conference is anything to go by, Labour’s recent downward trajectory needs to be arrested right away. Otherwise, the party’s natural allies are likely to look elsewhere for influential actors to advance the very reforms Labour would hope to bring about.
Image: Chris Henderson