Over the last few days, the question of who will be designated as the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum has occupied more column inches than the reasons why we would be better off out of the EU. Those following the headlines from Doncaster in particular could not have failed to miss the topic, and yesterday the FT reported on the work the competing groups are doing to build their operations.
The race is between two organisations. The first, led by Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings, is an outgrowth of Business for Britain – Elliott’s campaigning organisation which has for the last two years pressurised the Government on its renegotiation pledges – and the wider For Britain group. Contrary to some pronouncements by UKIP, Elliott and Cummings are officially and decidedly for leaving the EU (along with Labour For Britain; Conservatives For Britain has stated it will decide when the renegotiation is presented, though many of its members are declared Outists). I gather the BfB board formally approved the establishment of a Leave campaign in July, once it became clear that no treaty change would be offered. Their Leave campaign will launch soon, but for ease of use in the meantime we’ll call them Elliott/Cummings.
The second is “Leave.EU”, run by Arron Banks, the millionaire UKIP donor, who relaunched last Friday at UKIP’s conference after having to ditch his previous brand – TheKnow – when the Electoral Commission changed the referendum question (though apparently heir stall in Doncaster was, somewhat confusingly, still labeled with the old name).
Both organisations will seek the designation as the official Leave campaign, and the criteria by which the Electoral Commission will decide are therefore crucial. Sebastian Payne laid out the five criteria over the weekend:
Boil those down and you have three Cs – cash, competence and a cross-party campaign.
On this measure, both organisations can tick the box. Having gathered thousands of business people over the last two years, and with a strong track record of political fundraising, Elliott/Cummings are well-prepared. Banks and his close friend Jim Mellon could undoubtedly bankroll their campaign personally – and they are also operating a call centre in Bristol to phone supporters asking for donations. With other eurosceptic groups reporting unprecedented enthusiasm and income from donors as the referendum approaches, there’s little doubt that either campaign could fund the fight.
The second area is a more interesting question. Elliott ran the victorious No2AV campaign, and Cummings ran the North East Says No campaign in 2004, so between them they have fought and won the only UK-wide and the only regional referendums held in the UK this century. As Douglas Carswell said recently, “I’m not a gambling man but if I was I would probably bet on form…I can’t help noticing that Matthew Elliott has a track record of victory.” The referendum is not a common tool in this country, and experience on the winning side of two of the largest is therefore a rare asset (an asset recognised by Banks, when he reportedly sought to recruit Cummings to run his operation).
Leave.EU, by contrast, has a more challenging time making its case. There is no doubt that Banks is a very successful businessman, but that doesn’t automatically translate to being a very effective political campaigner – for the same reason that politicians are not automatically brilliant business-people. So far at least, he hasn’t signed up a campaign team with a comparable track record – though he has struck a deal with American political consultants Goddard Gunster, who have fought many a referendum campaign in the US. They’re a company with a hard-earned reputation, but they will be operating in an environment in which both the voters and the rules (particularly those banning political adverts on television) are very different to their home ground.
The third criterion, a cross-party campaign, is the most controversial. Leave.EU has close ties to UKIP – having been launched at their conference by a major UKIP donor, with a warm welcome from Nigel Farage – and of course UKIP will play a major part in the referendum regardless of the Electoral Commission’s eventual decision. They demonstrated in May that they have access to almost four million voters, who are overwhelmingly on the Leave side of the fence for obvious reasons. Getting out those voters on referendum day will be important, but they cannot deliver victory alone. This is why the breadth of a campaign, and the degree to which it can work with others, is one of the yardsticks for choosing the official Leave campaign. Banks has identified his campaign as an anti-politics one (except, apparently, one brand of politics) and what talks he has held with MPs have borne no fruit as yet, so his campaign is struggling to measure up.
By contrast, Elliott and Cummings have managed to assemble a broader alliance across the political parties – thus far they have Conservative, Labour, DUP and UKIP MPs signed up (Carswell is working with them rather than with Leave.EU, which presumably explains some of the attacks on him from the Banks camp) and will be announcing others soon. That’s a compelling argument that they have the wider cross-party base at this point by quite a long way.
That isn’t quite the end of the matter. After all, this isn’t just a party political issue – and it’s true to say the criteria I bunched together as “a cross-party campaign” in my enthusiasm to have all of them begin with C are broader than that. An ability to reach across party divides is evidently important, but “other campaigners” must include the non-partisan eurosceptic movement and the grassroots, too.
It is for this reason that Leave.EU was launched last week with an announcement that it had gained the support of some of the long-established anti-EU campaign groups – a quick way to establish a claim to a hinterland. The organisations involved – the Bruges Group, Global Britain, Get Britain Out, the Democracy Movement and the Campaign for an Independent Britain – have an admirable heritage in anti-EU campaigning.
Their support is undoubtedly an aid to the Banks campaign – though the news isn’t quite as portrayed. The declaration that Leave.EU has led to the groups “putting past differences aside” for the first time is odd – there has been a lot of co-operation between the various small platoons of the eurosceptic world, particularly over the last decade. Better Off Out, the Freedom Association’s campaign, has hosted monthly meetings in Parliament including most of these groups for some years. The reality is that, far from being riven with petty differences, most eurosceptic organisations are more than happy to work together – many of them share members and even personnel, and are rightly happy to work with whichever group wins the eventual Electoral Commission designation to lead the Leave campaign. The Bruges Group’s insistence over the weekend that they are working with Banks but remain independent was a reminder that they haven’t simply been subsumed by Leave.EU.
And while it certainly helps Banks’ claim to be representative of more than just UKIP, it doesn’t seal the deal. Aside from his limited success with other political parties, his new alliance can’t be claimed to represent a majority of the anti-EU grassroots. He has certainly secured a lot of Facebook Likes under his TheKnow brand, though as we reported during the election campaign a Like is not quite the same as a fully engaged activist.
Better Off Out (which I helped to launch in 2006) is one of the largest activist groups, and hasn’t signed up to either side yet. I’m told they are focusing on upping their own campaigning activity and will work with whoever wins the official designation. In terms of a grassroots base, it is one of the largest the last few weeks its tens of thousands of supporters have delivered 1.2 million leaflets – strategically, it functions as a link between many UKIP and Conservative activists who wouldn’t encounter one another in the ordinary run of party politics.
The home of most anti-EU activists is the Conservative Party
Conservative members remain an important resource, too. The 40,000 or so UKIPers are normally described as the largest group of anti-EU group activists in the country – which is to neglect the actual largest group, which is Conservative Party members. Denouncing “old parties” and so on makes for a good soundbite, but he General Election and the AV referendum demonstrated the power of people, experience and resources to be found in what are still, even after years of shrinkage, the biggest political organisations in the country. CCHQ will remain neutral, happily, but the grassroots Conservative membership are likely to mobilise in large numbers.
We are again asking Tory members their voting intention for the referendum (have your say here) but our past surveys have found around 58 per cent planning to vote to Leave. Depending on your preferred Party membership figure, that means there are something over 90,000 Tory activists on the Out side. They are seasoned campaigners who can’t be ignored, and who will prove more useful in practice than a simple Facebook Like – and they seem more likely to join Conservatives for Britain. Conservative Way Forward, too, is training up thousands of activists with an intention of playing a fighting part in the referendum campaign.
Ultimately, there will only be one official Leave campaign. It’s entirely possible – indeed likely – that there will be more than one declared campaign group, and no-one expects whoever does not get the official nod to just pack up and go home. The referendum is more important than partisan differences or personal rivalries, which is precisely why getting the campaign right is so important.
If both possible campaigns have the money, both have some claim to a grassroots activist base of one degree or another but only one has a true cross-party reach and a track record of fighting and winning referendums, it should be clear which organisation is best equipped to lead the Leave side. That organisation is the Elliott/Cummings campaign, and as long-standing supporters of Brexit we look forward to its launch.