One of the most frequently repeated refrains from the Leave camp during the EU referendum was: ‘It’s time to take back control!’ The pro-Brexit campaigners were, of course, talking about Brussels, but their words appear to have had a deeper resonance. It seems they chimed with the general anti-establishment mood—even when being mouthed by establishment figures—that has characterised the last couple of years.
At the Conservative conference last week, Theresa May announced the Government would trigger Article 50 before the end of next March, leading to increased speculation about what would happen once Britain exits the European Union. It has made the questions ‘who are we taking control from?’ and ‘who will be in control in the future?’ more pertinent. I spoke to Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green Party alongside Caroline Lucas, about politics in a post-Brexit Britain.
‘What we’ve seen in this Conservative party conference is the mask slip,’ Mr Bartley explains. Despite the prime minister’s attempts to appeal to the centre ground of British politics, he says, this is a return to ‘the nasty party’.
Theresa May, capitalising on Labour’s swing to the left, tried to position the Government on the ‘centre ground’ in her conference speeches. Addressing the packed auditorium on the last day, she announced: ‘I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics…where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person - regardless of their background, or that of their parents - is given the chance to be all they want to be.’
Mr Bartley is unconvinced by this moderate rhetoric. He is especially unconvinced by the prime minister’s claim to be fulfilling the wishes of Leavers who want to ‘take back control’. ‘People aren’t being given back the control they were promised,’ he tells me. ‘The concerns that people raised on both sides during the referendum, like lack of investment in the NHS, the taking away of workers’ rights, the increase of insecurity in the work place, the dismantling of the welfare state…these are not being addressed.’
For the Greens, as for many on the left, the 23 June vote to leave the European Union can be chalked up to misdirected anger. Brussels, in this interpretation, represents the wider, disruptive forces of globalisation that have lead to many feeling a pervasive sense of alienation. By voting against the EU those who felt they had gained little and lost a lot in recent years were hoping to still the world just long enough to ‘take back control’.
In reality, however, a United Kingdom unshackled from the constraints of the European Union would not necessarily lead to power shifting from a global to a local context. Mr Bartley argues the policies that opened the British economy up to international competition would only be intensified under the Tory Party. ‘I think when you look at the three stooges around Theresa May—Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis—they are set very clearly on one path and they want to go down a path of deregulation.’
What about the Great Repeal Bill? Mrs May announced this new bill at the conference and said it would ensure a lot of EU legislation would be moved into British law. Wouldn’t this prevent the current Government from overhauling a lot of the rights derived from EU law? On the contrary, Mr Bartley says, the likelihood is we will see ‘an assault on those rights from Parliamentarians on the Conservative side’. ‘If the parties on the left don’t get together and take on the Conservatives,’ he adds, ‘we’re staring down the barrel of Tory party rule for decades to come.’
Another issue Mr Bartley believes was highlighted in the referendum was the iniquities of the First Past the Post electoral system. As the former vice chairs of the electoral reform society and the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign during the 2011 referendum, it is not a huge shock he is concerned about this.
Electoral reform is also, unsurprisingly, something the Greens have been calling for for some time. Like other small parties, such as Ukip and the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party often finds itself with a lot of votes but not much to show for it. Two parties dominate the political system, which means many voters are not properly represented in Parliament.
This was not the case in the EU referendum. ‘In the referendum for the first time people said my vote is really going to count, it’s going to register,’ Mr Bartley explains. For him, electoral reform would go some way to genuinely giving people more control over their lives. ‘I think there is a clear message that we need to change the way we do politics and we need to change the electoral system,’ he says. ‘We need to give people back control and the electoral system is the way of doing it, it’s a way of putting all the important issues on the agenda.’
Mr Bartley points out the north, in particular, is one area where there was ‘a huge cry about taking back control’ during the referendum. Neither of the two parties, he explains, was invested in cultivating the northern vote. ‘Labour, when they were in Government, had no real incentive to look after those areas because they knew they’d always get their Labour politicians elected. Tories never touched them because they knew they had no hope of winning there.’
What about the northern powerhouse? Could this be a way for Westminster to show they are interested in parts of the country located outside the southeast? Perhaps by rebalancing the economy and devolving power to local authorities, I suggest, those who argue they have lost out to the southern metropolitan elite might feel more empowered. Mr Bartley responds it has to be done in an environmentally sustainable manner. ‘If we’re going to have the northern powerhouse,’ he says, ‘it needs to be jobs rich and it has to be transitioning away from industries which we know are not sustainable into new and better industries.’
On the specific question of what local authorities should do during this difficult time, Mr Bartley is unequivocal: ‘local government should be fighting the cuts.’ He recognises everyone is ‘scrabbling round for money’, but said it was important not to ‘endorse’ austerity. ‘Im very concerned, for example, that the replacement for the Independent Living Fund hasn’t been ring fenced for disabled people by local authorities,’ he says. He is also worried that some councils are ‘drawing medical money in from the NHS to replace what should be going to carers and disabled people.’
Councils should also give residents more say in the budgeting process, he says, using what he calls ‘participatory budgeting’. Rather than local authorities laying out a number of options for the public to choose from in a consultation, residents should have direct input about what options go out for consultation in the first place. ‘If you’re going to consult local people,’ he explains, ‘if you’re going to give them power, you’re going to give them a stake in local services and the local authority. You’re going to have to give them a stake in everything and that includes in tax raising and not just what should be cut.’
This is, essentially, inline with the Green philosophy of localism. It could be argued such direct democracy is impractical. This may be the case. However, given the anti-establishment mood, the generalised suspicion of authority and repeated calls to ‘take back control’, it might be something the public finds appealing.