Sizeable Anti-Brexit 'eco-system' emerges to halt Article 50
With just a year to go until the U.K.’s official exit date from the EU, leading anti-Brexit group Best for Britain is assembling an army of volunteers.
Apart from the enviable war chest the group has amassed for the final battle to halt the Article 50 process, it stands out among the U.K.’s spread of pro-EU campaigns for its different approach — an ardent focus on breaking the echo chamber of anguished Europhiles. If they can successfully reach out to “soft Leavers” and convert them to their cause, they believe the Brexit juggernaut can be stopped before the point of no return.
Alongside a national media campaign launched this week, calling for a referendum on the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the group has conducted dozens of so-called “barnstormer” events around the country since the end of last year, often in heavily Leave-voting areas, where would-be campaigners are tooled with the strategies, techniques and messages they need to persuade Leave voters to change their mind.
In their sights: the crunch parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal that Theresa May’s government hopes to agree with Brussels this autumn. Best for Britain wants MPs to vote it down, and then to legislate for a referendum on the deal, with one of the options before voters being “no Brexit.” To do that, they need a groundswell of public support for the idea that the U.K. doesn’t have to leave the EU.
And that means breaking the echo chamber.
“People voted how they did for the reason that they did. What we remind people of in these sessions is that we lost. We’re the losing side. We have to work harder, we have to do more,” says the Best for Britain national field campaigns director, Kyle Taylor. “Our core thing is that we want to reach out to people who voted to Leave and to have productive, persuasive conversations.”
Borrowed from U.S. politics, the barnstormer technique takes a band of green volunteers, gives them a crash course in political messaging and persuasion techniques and packs them off to convert their fellow citizens and lobby their MPs.
Inspired by the structure of Barack Obama’s election rallies, Taylor, working from a slide presentation headed “Best for Britain 2018 Training Tour,” first asks the 20 or so attendees, sitting on plastic chairs in the middle of an echoey community center sports hall, to “tell their story” and say why they are here. Many say they are motivated by a sense of European identity, prompting some hard truths from Taylor.
“You feel European? Well, a lot of people don’t. And that is as much their right to feel that identity as it is ours to feel ours,” he tells them.
Next follows a session on lobbying MPs, with campaigners urged to email, call and repeatedly visit their MP’s surgery to get the message across that they want a “no Brexit” option when it comes to the key parliamentary vote. They are urged to alert local newspapers to their campaign events.
Best for Britain’s public profile was hugely increased last month when the Daily Telegraph confirmed, on its front page, in a piece co-written by Theresa May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy, that it receives funding from the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
The paper’s hostile coverage emboldened Best for Britain organizers, under CEO Eloise Todd, a former European Parliament official and charity campaigner, who launched a crowdfunding drive in response. That raised more than £200,000, which was matched by donors: £100,000 from Soros (on top of £400,000 he’d already committed) and another £100,000 from businessman and former Olympic rower Stephen Peel.
The Telegraph splash was “the best thing that ever happened to us,” says one campaign insider. “Cheers Nick Timothy.”
Best for Britain is one of the best-funded pro-EU groups. Besides Soros, there are other donors, who have asked to remain anonymous, according to a campaign official, partly for fear of the public backlash that those associated with the group have received from Brexit-backing papers. A spokesman said the group was not obligated to publish full details of donors outside election time.
This week, the campaign kicked into a higher gear with a new billboard campaign, which Best for Britain hopes will reach 7 million people over 10 weeks. It is aimed squarely at “soft Leave voters and reluctant Remainers.” Following that, they plan a summer of campaigning ahead of the fall parliamentary vote.
Best for Britain fits within what Hugo Dixon, the journalist and entrepreneur who founded the anti-Brexit, fact-checking site InFacts, calls an “ecosystem” of anti-Brexit groups.
The other key group is Open Britain, led by former Remain campaign press chief James McGrory and boasting deep contacts with senior, Remain-backing politicians. It and five other pro-EU groups — InFacts, the European Movement, Scientists for EU, Healthier In, and Britain for Europe — have now all moved into one office in London’s Millbank Tower. Best for Britain, generously funded and staffed in its own right, sits slightly apart, but works more or less in harmony, under the aegis of the umbrella Grassroots Coordinating Group headed up by Labour MP Chuka Umunna.
Having previously differed in what they were calling for — soft Brexit, no Brexit or a second referendum — there is, Dixon says, “alignment” now among all the groups around a single campaign goal: a public vote on the final Brexit deal.
“A few months ago we wouldn’t have been there. There was quite a dispersion of views,” Dixon says. “I’m not saying everybody in all these different forums agrees on everything but that’s the sweet spot around which there is a very large consensus.”
Campaigners should not hector, but seek common ground, he says.
“A good persuasive conversation: They’re talking 90 percent of the time, you’re talking 10,” he adds.
At the end of the session, volunteers split off into groups to hatch plans for further campaign events. Chevan Ilangaratne, 24, from Vauxhall, south London, has taken on board the echo chamber message.
“The majority of my friends are Remain voters and talking to them all the time isn’t really going to help so I’ve got to work out how to connect with people that do hold a different opinion,” he says.
He, for one, certainly isn’t losing heart.
“I don’t want to tell the next generation I sat idle while our country drove off a cliff and hurt ourselves economically, socially and culturally,” he says. “We’ll face a rancorous verdict from the next generation if we sit here and let this happen.”