The Control Agenda

13/07/2016 11:41 | Updated 13 July 2016

Over the last few weeks one word has begun to feature more prominently in our political debate. Not referendum, not uncertainty, not leadership... but control.

The Brexit campaign was won on the campaign slogan 'Take back control'. And in her announcements on Monday, the incoming Prime Minister Theresa May vowed that her government would give people 'more control over their lives.'

The reason why control has become such a potent rallying cry is not hard to see. Our economy has become more complex, decisions more distant and politics less able to shape what happens in society. The make-up of local high streets is determined by global market forces, not just the choices of local people. Work, for millions of people, has become more precarious as technology develops and labour markets change. Home life is more risky for many, as more people are in private rented accommodation.

A rising lack of control is something we have identified in our data on the economy and business over the last two years. On the one hand, the evidence is clear and strong that if you give people a voice and a stake in economic life, they are more motivated, more productive and more open to innovation. On the other hand, long-term trends are working against that sense of control.

The number of individual shareholders on the London Stock Exchange has halved over the last thirty years (from 20% to 11% as a proportion of overall ownership). The number of people in secure, social rented homes has close to halved over the same period (from 20% to 11%), while those in private rental has doubled (from 9% to 22%). The percentage of people who are self-employed - the so-called 'precariat' - has increased by around a third (30%), again over the same period.

This is matched by customer data, looking at how they view business and the economy. 59% of people simply think the economy is out of control. 62% think they lack influence over the businesses they use. Not surprisingly, 68% of all workers and 75% of part time workers want more influence at work.

Ironically, transnational institutions - like the European Union - exist in part to exert some control over these forces. But the referendum result showed that they themselves appear beyond influence and so simply compound the sense of disconnection people feel.

As such, Theresa May's aspiration to give people control over their lives and create an economy that works for everyone, is welcome. We have Brexit. Can we therefore have Breconomics - an agenda to give people more of a stake and a say in the world around them?

There will be time for detailed discussions of policy levers, mechanisms and regulation. Right now it is worth reflecting on the areas where action is needed to give people control.

We need to harness the enthusiasm for local ownership. Hundreds of thousands of people have already pooled their resources and invested in local enterprises through community shares or supported the transfer of local authority buildings into community ownership. We need to find ways to build on this bootstrap agenda of community economic development.

We need to make it easy for employees to have a voice at work. With demands for a greater voice at work and the body of evidence on the benefits or employee ownership growing, Theresa May's proposals around worker representation on boards is one among a number of ways to meet the demand for a more influential employee voice at work.

We need to recognise the needs of self-employed workers. The number of people in self-employment is expected to exceed those in public sector jobs by 2018. This is a huge change in the nature of work and there are opportunities to ensure that these 'precarious workers' - now accounting for 15% of the workforce - have a level of long-term financial security. Freelancer co-ops, a model being promoted by the smaller, more agile trade unions, are one solution.

We need to make it easier for small businesses to compete collaboratively. Small businesses already struggle to compete with the big players or access finance or new markets, and with the uncertainties of Brexit ahead this is likely to continue. We need to find new platforms for small and micro-enterprises to work together as independent businesses so that they can reduce costs and increase their clout in the market.

We need to give more people a say over the businesses they use. With people saying they feel the economy is out of control, more radical options like workers, and in some cases customers on boards (long established in the co-op sector), are approaches to be explored in order to ensure that we can all exert some influence over the retailers, phone or energy providers that we rely on.

Co-operative and mutual ownership - where those closest to a business own and control it - offer a way to achieve these aspirations of course. But this social economy is just part of a bigger picture of the control agenda.

If Theresa May wants to give people control over things that matter to them, then we need to identify a range of ways to give people a stake and genuine influence, whether in the local area, at work, or in society and the economy more widely.

It is a time for new thinking. Whether you voted for Brexit or not, the control agenda is a vital invitation now to come forward, to all those of who want to see an economy that works for everyone.