There is a lot of chunter in the press about in-fighting between various organisations that are organising support to vote “Leave” in the EU referendum. The press, and much of the Westminster bubble, seem to think that only one organisation should lead the campaign. It is true that only one organisation gets the opportunity under electoral rules to become the lead campaigner (known as the ‘Designated Campaigner’). It is this organisation which gets the opportunity to spend the most. The biggest spender will ultimately get the most credit in the event of “Leave” winning the most votes. The leaders of that group will also benefit, post referendum, from a seriously boosted c.v. and high salaried jobs offers. There is more than just a whiff of self-interest in some of the groups vying for the position of top dog. Hence the close attention that the press are paying to the Darwinian struggle operating in the Leave camp.
But does it really matter if there is more than one organisation co-ordinating the “Leave” campaign?
To answer that question, I will recount a tale that began in the mid 90s when I found myself (much to my own surprise) involved with an environmental protest group.
It all began with the then leader of Dorset County Council, one Dr Geoffrey Tapper, a Liberal Democrat. The Lib Dems had political control of the County Council, but only by a narrow majority over the Conservatives. Tapper announced to a somewhat surprised electorate that Dorset had a severe waste disposal problem. But the Liberal democrats had, he said, solved the problem by finding an environmentally friendly option in the form of a 400,000 tonne per annum Combined Heat and Power Waste Incinerator. This was to be sited at Holton Heath, on the shores of Poole Harbour. It was also uncomfortably close to the highly populated suburban centres of Sandford, Wareham and Upton. Almost within hours, there was uproar. Someone had pointed out that waste incinerators produced stuff called Dioxins and that this was highly toxic and persistent in the environment. In four weeks, Dorset County Council received thousands of objections to their statutory consultation. So a full public inquiry was instituted.
I found myself attached to a group that styled itself Purbeck Environmental Network, which was a group of about half a dozen middle class, educated, Guardian-reading ladies with vegan tendencies. It would be fair to say that I was that I was a little out of my comfort zone; but nevertheless it fell upon me to go to meetings and start to assemble PEN’s case against the County Council.
Over the next few months, in the run up to submitting objections to the public inquiry, several groups emerged with very different emphases on their objections. At first, there was a good deal of bickering as to who was in charge. But we realised that didn’t matter if any one group was ‘in charge’ or not. We decided to form an umbrella group which was a committee of leaders from each of the separate groups, who would report their own progress and exchange ideas and information. The ‘Brolly Group’ as it became known, met every two weeks in a pub in Wareham. The campaign snowballed and became a highly effective irritation to the County Council, who had never experienced anything like this before. Tapper resorted to getting angry and patronising those of us who were objecting.
By the time documents were submitted to the Inquiry, there were several clear lines of attack established by each different group. My own submission was two pronged: On the one hand it was an examination of planning guidance and environmental law; and on the other it was an analysis of the content and calorific value of the household waste stream. Other submissions included a huge document detailing the toxicity of emissions; others detailed the problems of the lorry movements and increased traffic on already overcrowded roads; yet others detailed the conservation risks. Many submissions pointed out the alternatives of better engineered landfill (Dorset has plenty of holes in the ground) and wholesale recycling options. Each group had made a separate contribution. The inspector heard the oral evidence and then submitted his findings. This concluded that waste incineration was only one of several possible options. There were plenty of others and the County Council should have considered these and balanced them in the light of the objections that had been received.
Meanwhile, yet another consortium of groups were actively lobbying individual councillors.
In the light of the inspector’s report, the County Council had to respond by debating the issue and then vote upon it. Some weeks before the debate, the Conservatives – like a small furry animal emerging from its burrow after a long winter – had sniffed the political wind and determined its direction. The main chamber in County Hall in Dorchester is very large, but the public gallery is a semi circle above the chamber giving the public clear views of the councillors below. As the Liberal Democrat councillors made their speeches, there were polite but audible rumbles of disapproval from the massed middle classes assembled above them. When it came to vote, the Liberal Democrats were split. But the Conservatives were solid against it. The incinerator was defeated by a considerable margin.
In the council elections about a year later, the Conservatives defeated the Lib Dems by a comfortable majority and took control of Dorset County Council – neatly demonstrating the political value of listening to the electorate.
For the purposes of this post, I will mention two of the many lessons I learnt as a result of this exercise. The first was that when party volunteers and politicians are in unison, the Conservative Party is ruthlessly efficient.
The second lesson can be split into a number of sub-categories:
- That the middle classes are slow to anger, but when they do, Heaven help any politician who gets in their way.
- That individuals count; and that people talking to their neighbours and friends are a power to be reckoned with. Criticism travels a long way fast.
- That arrogance and patronising the electorate is political suicide. People pick it up very quickly. And the English in particular do not like this.
- That a simple problem (e.g. incinerator/no incinerator) can have many nuances and that different people have different takes on the problem. So different messages will get a response from a wider range of people.
- Different groups will form part of this message diversity, because each group develops a speciality and that will gel with a particular strata of society. The more groups there are (within sensible limits), the greater the political penetration of the message.
- When a problem is centralised in fact or in concept, a diverse attack coming from all sides at once, will overwhelm the centralised authority.
So how do these lessons translate into achieving Brexit?
- David Cameron is currently behaving with all the arrogance of a Norman feudal baron eyeing up a pretty blonde Saxon girl and thinking about exercising his droit de seigneur. He is also displaying considerable spite towards Boris. This is very good news for Brexit.
- A large diversity of organisations is springing up – not just Grassroots Out, Leave.EU and Vote Leave, but all the little ones like the Christians for Leave, Muslims for Leave, Lawyers for Britain and so on. This is excellent because the penetration will be achieved across all walks of society. Each of these groups, even without registering with the Electoral Commission, can spend up to £10,000 each. When there are lots of groups, there can be a lot of spending in aggregate terms.
- Grassroots Out have just worked a blinder by bringing in George Galloway. He can reach big chunks of the Muslim vote who would otherwise either not vote at all, or would vote ‘Remain’ because of their allegiance to Labour.
- The Remain campaign is concentrated around the political and corporate establishment. Few of them are popular. Mostly, they are fairly colourless characters, even if smooth and successful. They typify all that is disliked by those of us whom they consider to be knuckle-dragging proles. This is a centralised group who can be isolated in an idealogical sense.
So the answer to the question posed by the title of this post is ‘NO‘. That there is no one single leader for the Leave campaign is not a weakness, it is a strength. Farage and Galloway both excite strong emotions in a lot of people. So when there are others like Daniel Hannan and David Davis, who are much less extreme in their demeanour, as well as blisteringly knowledgeable, this is another strength.
What also matters is that the groups co-operate in exchange of information at every level. There does not even have to be a “Brolly Group” as such. As long as this information is exchanged freely and willingly, the outcome will be a higher turnout and victory for Brexit.
The biggest potential weakness of a diverse approach is the potential for fights to break out between the groups. This is a known electoral killer. When different groups contain egos as big as, say, George Galloway’s, Richard North’s or Dominic Cummings’, then you have the potential for sparks leading to massive conflagration.
This referendum is not about a temporary change of a government for a mere five years. It is about the very survival of our country. We need the flexibility of Brexit to survive and prosper over the next few decades. A ‘Remain’ result would guarantee that the United Kingdom as we know it, is swamped after 1000 years of independent history.
We cannot let that happen just because Richard, Louise or Dominic have fallen out with somebody again.