The Big Problem with Taking Back Control

Is ‘taking back control’ a useful slogan for the left? BEN SALTONSTALL responds to Barry Winter’s ‘beguiling’ question.

I was beguiled by Barry Winter’s talk at the recent ILP dayschool in Sheffield. What began by sounding like a debating point actually raised many issues the left should be considering critically in the run-up to the next general election. The question he raises allows us to reflect on where we are now and what we need to do before we can trigger a transformation of our failing economic and political systems.

Barry’s question seemed to be: should the left consider pitching to the general public by saying, ‘If you vote Labour, you can take back control’? Or something along the same lines. There are arguments both for and against this. But, on balance, I am against for a number of reasons.

Big differences

The first is that I don’t think there is sufficient consensus in the Labour Party about what taking back control means.

In his adept summary, Barry shows that there is a resurgence of left-wing thinking about the economy and increasing calls to give people more of a say over their lives. This not only comes from the Labour left, but its ‘right’ as well, as the quote from former Progress vice chair and Corbyn critic Steve Reed MP (below) shows.

Reading Barry’s selected quotes, one might begin to think there was an emerging consensus in Labour again about ‘the commanding heights of the economy’ (even if the form of those heights has altered since the days of steel and coal). Sadly, while there is clearly some common ground, there remain some pretty big differences too.

Notwithstanding my admiration for his parliamentary work,[1] I have reservations about Reed’s position on the economy. A strong supporter of the co-operative movement, over many years he has stressed the benefits of co-operative public services, and won an OBE as leader of Lambeth council for turning it into a ‘co-operative council’.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with this approach, of course. However, in the past, he seems to have proposed it as part of an agenda for diversifying public suppliers of local authority services – in other words, as a progressive, community-based form of marketisation.[2]

Personally, I am not automatically against this way of doing things, but I would be more convinced if it extended more robustly to oligopolistic private sector operations, such as tech companies, supermarkets, the media and banking sectors. To put it crudely, I’d be happier if it seemed to be part of an expansive movement to transform the economy, rather than making  public services more sustainable in the context of Tory austerity. 

According to Barry, Reed has more recently said he wants “a radical distribution of power that reshapes our politics, public services and the economy” – so perhaps under Corbyn’s leadership, he feels able to be more ambitious.[3] But I can’t help noting the primacy he still gives to reshaping public services rather than capitalism itself.

Big promises

The second reason I think ‘taking back control’ is too risky as a slogan is that it promises too much. The left has a long way to go before it can plausibly hope to do more than extend accountability and wealth through creating new economic structures. Indeed, if it ever achieves as much, we should be pleased with the result, if not accept it as an end point.

It is true to say that since the financial crash, left-wing economic thinking has begun to flourish again. Barry’s article mentions the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and others. Added to these sources, there is a new generation of ‘heterodox’ (neo-Keynesian) economists, such as Ha-Joon Chang and Mariana Mazzucato, making persuasive critiques of neo-liberalism and stating the case for state intervention and state owned enterprises.[4]

Indeed, as Mazzucato has proved, this is not just a theoretical pursuit. State enterprise is now an established, permanent and vibrant feature of the global capitalist economy – piratical, neo-liberal, ‘anglo-saxon’ capitalism is a fantasy, which bears little resemblance to how corporate capitalism actually functions.[5]

Both the NEF and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis are transcending the left’s microeconomic obsession with democratically run enterprises, with macroeconomic analysis and policies (see Barry’s reference to the NEF’s comment on the way private banks’ profits depend on their power to generate money[6], or read Varoufakis’s Global Minotaur[7]).

The left is not alone in developing radical financial ideas. The billionaire financier and philosopher, George Soros, has for many years been proposing global financial solutions to humanity’s biggest challenges, arguing for international government agreement on massive (in fact, mind-boggling) public investment to alleviate global poverty, instability and inequality.[8] While this is not all part of one intellectual movement, or ideology, it does show there is now more scope for state-led transformations of the world’s economies.

But there are limits to this resurgence. The first is that, despite some rethinking on the left about social ownership – admirably summed up in Andrew Cumber’s excellent book, Reclaiming Public Ownership, in which he imagines what a market-based socialism could look like – there is a long way to go before we can be confident about the results.[9]

Indeed, Labour’s summary of alternative forms of ownership, which Barry mentions,  provides a sober outline of the limits of these models. My initial thoughts on reading it is that it gives us both cause for hope and pause for thought. Its stories of social ownership show that often they have not been spectacularly successful and that while there are pathways to progress, they are tentative and, in some cases, speculative.[10]

The second limitation is that Labour still does not link alternative forms of ownership to a bigger narrative about reforming the financial system. True, it does mention providing better finance and trade associations for co-operatives, but as yet it has not sketched out an alternative investment architecture to bear comparison with capitalism’s elaborate structures.[11]

This shows there is some way to go yet before we even work out what we might need to do to take back control.

Big Brexit

Which brings me to my third reason: the lessons of Brexit. As Barry says, leaving the European Union was sold on the basis of ‘taking back control’, but as the UK struggles to find a deal with the EU that can work, it has become clearer and clearer that this was a slogan with little substance.

While some people may now have changed their minds about Brexit, a lot more leavers are likely to end up looking for someone to blame (such as slippery foreigners who won’t give us the deal we want, covert remainers like Theresa May negotiating a bad deal on purpose, the ‘liberal elite’, foreigners taking over our country, the Jews and international finance, etc). This in turn will lead to a further reactionary backlash.

The last thing we should do is over-promise, win an election and fail to deliver. That really would be a source of mass disillusionment.

The fourth and final reason for not adopting ‘taking back control’ as a slogan for the left is that its meaning is so volatile. This may be good for politics but, as we have found out through the process of Brexit, good politics does not necessarily translate into good policy. Phrases like ‘new Labour, new Britain’ sound great, but they mean different things to different people and can lead to great disappointment.

‘Taking back control’ could mean simply having a voice in policy making; it could mean having a say over economic policy; it could translate into something that one person wants, but not another, whose interests are ignored as a result (for example, a Romanian migrant worker). Indeed, should we always want ‘control’? Should men want to control women? Or bosses, workers?

All in all, I think ‘taking back control’ could be a poisoned chalice. But then again, I’m not a successful politician and perhaps you need to offer big imprecise slogans to the public to succeed in elections.



1. Since his election in 2012, Reed has enjoyed striking success in Parliament. Recently, he tabled a private members bill (PMB) to radically reform the use of restraint in mental health units, which became law on 1 November 2018. The Mental Health Unit (Use of Force) Act 2018 is known as Seni’s Law, after Oluseni Lewis, a young Black man who was killed by the police in a mental health unit. Seni’s incredible mother, supported by the charity Inquest, fought long and hard to set up a formal Inquest into her son’s death.

As Mrs Lewis’s MP, Steve Reed took up her case and developed one of the most advanced pieces of human rights legislation this country has ever seen, gathering the support, along the way, of the prime minister, Theresa May. Perhaps she was moved by Mrs Lewis’s powerful faith in the grace of God, which has had such a healing effect on those around her, and ultimately on the country, since Seni’s death.

2. For example, see this balanced but critical piece about Reed’s legacy in Lambeth from Inside Croydon (November 2012) [available here]. Lambeth’s co-operative principles at the time sound like a fairly standard corporate service model, with an emphasis on co-production, commissioning, agility and being ‘risk-aware not risk-averse’.

3. Reed seems enthusiastic about McDonnell’s policy of giving employees shares in the companies they work for: Reed, Steve (October 2018) ‘People power is the antidote to populism’, Labourlist [available here].

4. For example, Mazzucato, Mariana, ‘The Value of Everything – making and taking in the global economy’ (film of a lecture, introduced by Paul Mason), Youtube (July 2018) [available here.]. Note her assertion that there are many forms of capitalism, that the one we have isn’t a very good one and we should be co-producing a different kind of capitalism.

5. For example, HBS working knowledge (2013) ‘What capitalists should know about state-owned enterprises’, Forbes (available here).

6. NEF (2017) ‘Making money from making money’ [available here].

7. There’s a reasonable summary of the book in Wikipedia, available here. But I would recommend reading the book to get a sense of how the global economy has been constructed by civil servants and corporate interests.

8. Bessner, Daniel (2018) ‘The George Soros philosophy and its fatal flaw’ (Guardian) [available here].

9. Details of the book, including reviews, can be accessed here.

10. The Labour Party (2017) ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ [available here].

11. For example, Ha Joon-Chang (2010), ‘Institutions and economic development – theory, policy and history’ [available here]. 


  1. Ben Saltonstall
    5 June 2019

    “We now face a future economy which is based on the unregulated laundering of dirty foreign money and a labour market of menial zero-hour, low-paid employment, together with a permanent political class which is solely motivated by greedy self-interest and the dismantling of our national health system, with one foot in property speculation and the other in hedge fund finance.”

    I know it’s a bit unusual on this site to say you’re 100% in agreement, but this is exactly my view of our economy too. Brexit will kill off our economy because it will put power in the hands of Nigel Farage and his class of corrupt wheeler dealers.

  2. john stephen enderby
    25 May 2019

    I agree with Ben’s comments, taking back control means means more than just managing a capitalist economy, it means taking control and ownership of key areas of the economy for the public good. This cannot be achieved at a national level in a globalised world, with powerful economic actors using influential leverage to scupper any form of socialist planning which might impinge on their power and profits – look at the Labour government and its struggle with the IMF in the 1970s.

    Whether we like it or not, the European Union was the only transnational institution we had to implement an effective socialist project on a wider scale which could withstand these global forces.

    Any socialist government acting alone in a globalised world would be as powerless as Venezuela, with its financial assets frozen by British and American banks because it had the temerity to nationalise its own oil resources. Despite its many faults, and it has many, leaving the European Union will be a disaster for the UK and will give any future Labour government little room for manoeuvre in a globalised world.

    The Brexit campaign was based on a shocking narrow nationalism which was last seen in the 1930s and cynically targeted foreign workers and immigrants as the cause of Britain’s ten years of austerity. The issue of national sovereignty was a powerful player for many on the left who also voted to leave – although how anyone who defines themself as socialist could share a vote with Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson beggars the belief of this reader.

    We now face a future economy which is based on the unregulated laundering of dirty foreign money and a labour market of menial zero-hour, low-paid employment, together with a permanent political class which is solely motivated by greedy self-interest and the dismantling of our national health system, with one foot in property speculation and the other in hedge fund finance.

    It is time to fight back for our future.

  3. Harry Barnes
    29 March 2019

    If the PLP would pursue the issues you stress, this would be of considerable benefit and would appeal to deprived members of the much-changed working class. They are the very people who voted strongly to leave the EU. We should, therefore, not alienate them over this issue.

    But dragging matters on and on hoping for a Customs Union or a fresh referendum means that we can see them lost by the Labour Party for good – either abstaining at elections or moving over to back a new right wing Tory leader or the children of UKIP. Corbyn, of all people, should understand this.

  4. Ernie Jacques
    28 March 2019


    I cannot disagree, but what a sad state of affairs when money, greed and free market capitalism trumps everything else, including common sense and cooperation. While the EU has a lot to recommend it, at heart it is a neoliberal capitalist, big money club.

    This contradiction doesn’t seem to bother Labour’s EU supporters who seem to think the world will end with Brexit. I only wish they would get as excited and angry at growing inequality, homelessness, zero hour contracts and the privatisation and outsourcing of our public services and NHS, and at the welfare state rapidly being replaced by food banks and charitable giving.

  5. Harry Barnes
    27 March 2019

    The only way that the Commons can now decide on the eight opinions that were put before them on Brexit is to employ the technique of the single tranfersable vote. If it ends as a draw, the Speaker could then pick the winner from a hat. Meanwhile the world is collapsing due to climate change and massive forms of exploitation, military actions and greed.

  6. Ernest Jacques
    23 March 2019


    While politics is about airing differences, the ILP has taught me the importance of airing differences and listening to differing perspectives in an atmosphere of tolerance and goodwill. Difficult at times, especially when up against Tories and right ringers whose politics can be anathema and the opposite of social cohesion, compassion and equality.

    Brexit has, to my mind, brought about the worst in political intolerance and a lack of understanding of what motivates differing shades of opinion, not least in the Labour Party and among remainers who make a lot of noise, abuse working class Leave voters as racist and thick ‘rude mechanicals’, many of whom want to overturn the referendum result by campaigning for a peoples’ vote.

    The level of intolerance among Labour Party members, especially the young and students who are in the vanguard of the no platforming brigade, is unprecedented in its intensity and volume. It’s OK to have strong feelings but not to shut people out of politics simply because they are different and because you don’t like what they say and advocate. On that basis, I for one would talk to hardly anyone.

    But to my mind free speech, alongside a decent home, food, warmth, a living wage, and respect, is a fundamental human right which trumps all other political rights no matter how desirable. To my mind historian, Evelyn Beatrice Hall got it right when she said: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

  7. Harry Barnes
    16 March 2019

    There is turmoil within the Parliamentary Labour Party. (a) 16 of its MPs have either defected or have been suspended. (b) Some 90 remaining Labour members from Commons and the Lords attended a meeting organised by their Deputy Leader Tom Watson to found a rebel “Future Britain Group” – including Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandleson, David Blunkett and John Prescott. (c) There are major divisions over Brexit. On the vote as to whether there should be a second referendum the official PLP line was to abstain, but 41 voted either for or against the proposal, leading on to numbers of junior front bench resignations. Has the ILP or its contributors got any views on these developments? They would provide scope for a serious debate.

  8. Harry Barnes
    21 February 2019

    The ILP’s response to Labour MPs recently leaving the Labour Party will be of interest. It has experience of its own MPs departing in 1932 and then only returning to Labour’s ranks more than four decades later as a Publications Group. These were my own first thoughts on the current situation –

  9. Ben Saltonstall
    3 February 2019

    I’d like to thank Barry for his thoughtful response to my article.

    When he attributes views to me that are not mine, when in fact I believe I’ve said the opposite, I must conclude that I don’t share either Barry’s clarity or his persuasiveness. So when he regrets the fact that I don’t think I can work with Steve Reed, I get rather worried about my writing style. For the record, I think that Steve Reed MP is an exemplary politician, who wants to make public services more participatory. He is great to work with and really cares about what he does, not just stopping at the headlines, but likes to be involved with the nitty gritty of delivery.

    However, in economic terms, whilst his politics overlaps with my politics, there are sharp differences. In my view, capitalism needs to be transformed, from top to bottom; in his, public services should be run co-operatively, and employees should own shares in the companies they work for. There is clearly common ground but in essence I still think he accepts the neo-liberal settlement, where ‘progressive’ politics is mainly about the way that public services – rather than the economic system – are run. We can clearly work together, but not entirely in the spirit of unanimity Barry suggested in his article on this website.

    I’d also like to reiterate another point I made last time, but which clearly failed to make an impression, in the hope that it makes more sense when I say it again now. The Left won’t be taking back anything until it starts to understand macro-economic policy. Setting up co-ops and renationalising utilities and rail – and other such micro-economic measures – won’t change the rules of the game.

    Well-intentioned people have tried before and failed, miserably. Gorbachov tried to introduce a market-based co-operative sector in the USSR in the 1980s, which he hoped would help the Soviet Union transform itself into an advanced social democracy like Finland. He failed because the dysfunctional and corrupt economic system he inherited simply swallowed up his reforms in the general weirdness of a command economy. Similarly, Venezuala, under Chavez and Maduro, genuinely attempted to take back control. They tried every imaginable micro-economic initiative the Left has ever come up with, from micro-finance, through small-scale urban organic market gardening to setting up co-operatives and renationalising utilities under workers’ control. We can see the results when we switch on the television.

    Of course, these initiatives did not cause the chaos, repression, poverty and social unrest, it was because of the way oil dominates the economy and the corruption that follows (along with some some disastrous exchange rate policies). Much the same thing happened in the 1980s when the neo-liberal right were in power (although without additional destabilisation from the US). It is the structure of the economy that led to the crises.

    In essence, 21st century socialism didn’t change the foundations of that system – in fact, it was wedded to a mixed economy (despite the rhetoric, in substance it was more Shirley Williams circa 1978 than Rosa Luxembourg circa 1918). Indeed, under Chavez, the private sector boomed and Venezuala enjoyed a public sector budget surplus after the 2008 crash whilst neo-liberal economies went spiralling downwards. Ultimately, the Bolivarian revolution failed because Chavez milked the same old cash cow rather than diversified the farm, though not for want of trying on a micro-economic level. Amongst all the dreadfully biased commentary, Al Jazeera have provided the only balanced and sensible account of what went wrong with the economy and why: Is Socialism to blame for Venezuala’s never ending crisis?

    However, I don’t agree with the conclusion of the Al Jazeera article. Instead, I think the analysis points to the need to talk more about boring things, such as community-based finance, investment and banking systems, the rule of law, effective money laundering legislation, and other really essential matters, which are preconditions for any form of meaningful politics. Until those foundations are in place, no one is taking back control.

    I know to some this may sound a bit pessimistic. But, actually, I think I’m an optimist and am very encouraged by some of the initiatives that are going on at the moment. For example, in Hartlepool, there is an insurgency against the council leadership, proposing a Hartlepool version of the ‘Preston Model’, where local ‘anchor institutions’ spend more of their money on local businesses.

    To general surprise, this insurgency comes not from Momentum, but from a local Fabian group, and the council are changing their strategies and plans (though they would probably deny that this had anything to do with the Fabians). This plays to one of the strengths of rejuvenated left-wing economic practice: restructuring economies around communities, rather than abstract international markets that simply concentrate capital and exacerbate inequalities (focussing away from the production of goods and services to asset investment). What’s novel about it is that it seems to work in practice.

    So, if I was forced to come up with a slogan, bamboo splints under my fingernails, it would be something about ‘bringing the money back home’ because that’s what could happen if Labour wins power.

  10. Barry Winter
    21 January 2019

    My thanks to Ben for his thoughtful, albeit critical, rejection of the call to Take Back Control. He provides a formidable and well-informed critique, although it’s a pity that he offers no alternatives.

    My short talk was intended to stimulate debate at the ILP day school on the Open Left about how that left might frame its political message, how it might begin to widen and deepen its support. Unlike Ben, the more I considered the call to take back control, the more I warmed to it.

    This was reinforced recently when I came across a podcast where Guardian journalist, John Harris, met the campaign to Take Back the City of London. This suggests there may be other struggles which draw upon the demand; that the call continues to have both relevance and resonance.

    Of course, any demand which you hope will have wide appeal politically and emotionally, and that might help mobilise and motivate support, will have its limitations. But we desperately need to counter the growing sense of powerlessness and defeatism in society. The dangers of this become more obvious with every day that passes. And we have to talk in a language that is positive, accessible and widely understood – and indeed further developed. It’s offers a starting point not an end point.

    Three questions
    I did have three questions for the discussion groups which were meant to follow the talk but, alas, we ran out of time.
    They were:
    1. How helpful might be the call be to Take Back Control in generating a broad, progressive alliance? Do you have any alternatives?
    2. What particular applications of the slogan appeal to you or might have a wider resonance?
    3. How might the Labour Party fit into the picture?

    My purpose was to suggest that the call has potential to reach people on a number of fronts, including various Labour MPs, the Cooperative Party, and political activists. I deliberately chose MP Steve Reed as an example because he is not a figure on the party’s left. However, for me he remains a voice who should be heard. But if Ben or others would refuse to countenance Reed’s ideas in an alliance, then so be it. That does not diminish the value of the call to take back control itself or the importance of building a progressive alliance.

    What I like about the demand is that it is not just about waiting for a general election but encouraging, linking and supporting actions at different levels in the here and now. Hence the example given from the struggle by parents to stop the closure of their local school in Essex.

    Of course, that does not mean that the call is a panacea and that all will subsequently be well, but it offers a step forward. Labour’s commitment to take the railways back into public ownership has wide support and will no doubt have its difficulties. It also has real potential, providing it’s democratic and encourages participation, at various levels.

    Of course, should anyone have a better rallying point for the struggles we face, I’d be delighted to hear them.

    As to its precise formulation, I’d suggest something like ‘Together, we can start taking back control’, or ‘Let’s begin taking back control’. There may be better versions but the point is to include the wider society in what is a process, indeed a learning process, for all concerned. It’s not about leaving it all to Labour to do what’s needed. That needs to be spelt out.

    In this respect, I also like the call recently made Miatta Fahnbulleh of the New Economics Foundation. She writes: “Let’s use progressive politics to build an economy for the people, by the people.” This also encapsulates the kind of message we need to get across.

    She argues that “above all, it must be an economy that genuinely empowers people.” This is to be done “by giving people greater ownership and a stake in the economy through common ownership of public goods and essential infrastructure and co-operative and mutual ownership of enterprise. It must be supported and stewarded by an active but decentralised state rooted in communities and shaped by strong democratic participation.”

    Indeed, she argues this is already happening. If she’s right then this further strengthens the call for great democratic control.

    Ben is right to warn that we must not over-promise, that the call to take back control “could be a poisoned chalice”. But it could also be a valuable starting point down what is likely to be a long but interesting political road.

  11. Harry Barnes
    12 January 2019

    Although I feel that protestors should not alienate potential supporters by the methods they employ, Labour needs a much higher profile over its stance against fracking. The wide scope of those who will be hit by its development is shown in the first item on the following link. Some of the items which follow are also of relevance, although trawling back too far gets into matters which are rather local to me and have rather been superceded and further hit by more recent developments. See –

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