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Saturday 16 March 2019

Inside the People’s Vote machine

  • The campaign for a fresh referendum on Brexit defines itself not as one option among many but as a last resort, the only escape route from parliamentary impasse
  • In a few months last autumn the identity of the campaign, known as the People’s Vote, was transformed by the remarkable growth of its youth wing, with branches at universities, colleges, and youth groups
  • Campaigners are acutely aware that the battle to stop Brexit cannot in any way resemble the 2016 Remain fiasco nor be closely associated with failed establishment figures

By Matthew d’Ancona

Be the last man standing: this has become the butch, if somewhat cryptic, mantra inside the Millbank headquarters of the People’s Vote campaign, in sight of the Houses of Parliament. It is the pro-referendum group’s unofficial workplace slogan, as it waits to discover what, if any, its role in history will turn out to be.

To explain what this commandment means, and why it matters, is to chart the evolution of a pressure group that started as a self-styled “Hail Mary” bid by a handful of MPs to thwart Brexit, and became a national movement preparing for a mighty battle that may, or may not, come. Ten key figures associated with this movement – MPs, activists, lawyers – spoke to Tortoise on condition of anonymity (there remains a reluctance to speak publicly about a plan which, in their eyes, is not ready for launch).

The logic is as follows, and has been pressed upon the campaign most forcefully by Tom Baldwin, its restless and entrepreneurial director of communications (a role he played for Ed Miliband when he was Labour leader). To wit: the option of a fresh referendum on Britain’s departure from the European Union cannot be one option among many, just another tick-box on the Brexit multiple-choice quiz facing MPs.

Instead, a new public vote must be perceived as the fire-alarm solution to the crisis as a whole, the only escape route from parliamentary impasse. Unusually for a campaign body, People’s Vote is not selling its argument as a shimmering ideal, but as the last resort.

Ed Miliband, left, with Tom Baldwin

According to this strategy, the force that may yet drive MPs to embrace a referendum will not be a parliamentary resurgence of passionate attachment to the EU, but the sheer desperation of MPs to break the log-jam by going back to the electorate for fresh instructions.

To stand even a chance, this strategy requires immense patience, a counter-intuitive readiness to resist definitive contact with the enemy until precisely the right moment. It is the political equivalent of the “rope-a-dope” technique used by Muhammad Ali in his 1974 Rumble in the Jungle defeat of George Foreman.

Which is why, on March 14, the day of the Commons vote to extend Article 50, there was immense frustration at the People’s Vote campaign that the newly formed Independent Group laid down a motion calling for a referendum – a motion that stood no chance of success, was indeed defeated by the embarrassingly heavy margin of 334 votes to 85, and could only reinforce the notion that MPs would never opt for a final say public vote.

In its often surreal twists and turns, the Brexit process has shown that the word “never” is now politically meaningless. But the damage was still done.

The “last man standing” strategy has always depended upon meticulous use of the proposed extension period. First, Parliament, having rejected Theresa May’s deal once and for all – assuming that day ever comes – must review, at length and without a pistol held to its head, the alternative varieties of Brexit and their respective merits.

Then, and only then (the logic continues), should the Commons be invited to attach its preferred form of departure from the EU to a motion for a fresh referendum. This formula was devised by two Labour MPs, Phil Wilson and Peter Kyle, initially as a means of putting May’s deal to the test in a public vote.

Scorned by both parties when first made public in February, the Kyle-Wilson amendment has now been discussed by its draftsmen at the most senior level: with David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, and John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor. Though People’s Vote campaigners welcome any conversation that gives credibility to the eventual prospect of a referendum, they are especially nervous that the amendment will be hijacked by Labour, rewritten and drained of its power (the party’s membership is pro-public vote, while Jeremy Corbyn and his team are much less enthusiastic). For now, the campaign wants to keep the Kyle-Wilson option in reserve, choosing its moment with the greatest care.

Yet the fact that such a choice faces People’s Vote at all is in itself remarkable. Scroll back to April 2018 when the campaign was launched at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, north London. No Brexiteer could have asked for a crisper pageant of the liberal elite’s sulky defiance of the “will of the people” or the reliable detachment of celebrities from mainstream opinion.

Peter Kyle, centre, with Chuka Umunna

There were the usual suspects: Chuka Umunna, still a Labour MP, joined forces with Anna Soubry, the Conservatives’ most vocal Remainer, the Greens’ Caroline Lucas, Layla Moran, Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and Lord Adonis, former Labour Transport Secretary. Cheerleading the politicians in their plea for a fresh referendum were the actor Sir Patrick Stewart and well-known comedian Andy Parsons. Nobody doubted the sincerity of the participants. But – in all candour – nobody cared much, either.

Inside the Westminster village, most assumed that the campaign was an ill-concealed exploratory committee for the formation of a new centre party (true to the extent that Umunna and Soubry would indeed go on to leave their respective parties in February to form The Independent Group). At this point, the prevailing argument was – as May had always hoped – between the merits of the deal she was still seeking and the risks of a no-deal departure on March 29 should Parliament not endorse the agreement that she eventually reached with Brussels in November. The needle of the Brexit debate was conspicuously unshifted by the launch of the People’s Vote campaign.

Yet, by the summer, the landscape looked very different. According to a YouGov poll in August, 45 per cent of voters now supported a final-say referendum, 11 points ahead of those who did not. In September, Labour’s conference adopted a Brexit policy that explicitly endorsed the possibility of a public vote (albeit after an acrimonious internal battle). By October, the newly energised People’s Vote campaign was able to rally hundreds of thousands of marchers to its standard in London.

What changed? Traditional institutional analysis would ascribe its growth to the recruitment of serious and experienced professionals under the undoubtedly impressive leadership of James McGrory, former special adviser to Nick Clegg and a veteran of the defeated 2016 Remain campaign.

In addition to Baldwin, McGrory hired Labour’s former international policy officer Francis Grove-White as his deputy. Patrick Heneghan, Labour’s former executive director, is now chief executive of the affiliated European Movement and is running the People’s Vote’s field operations. Sarah Baumann, a high-flyer from adland, is head of marketing, while the data unit includes the US consultant Denise Baron and the digital scientist Dr Rob Davidson.

This team has indeed brought structure, expertise and discipline to what started as a resentful twinkle in the collective Remainer eye. There is a daily meeting at Millbank from 9 to 9:30am, supplemented by a weekly conference on Tuesdays, chaired by Baldwin, to set the media grid and a larger gathering, and the Grassroots Coordinating Group (GCG) on Wednesday – at which all the campaign’s affiliated groups and champions chip in with their updates, gripes and queries.

John Kerr, former Ambassador to the US

The GCG is presently chaired by John Kerr, Baron Kerr of Kinlochard, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Ambassador to the US and British Representative to the EU. In Kerr’s leadership of these meetings – and his wry interventions, the observations and asides of a 77-year-old front-rank diplomat – lies a clue to the transition of People’s Vote from a well-meaning irrelevance to a force in the unfolding Brexit saga.

We live now in a world increasingly governed by networks rather than institutions, in which old systems and structures are crumbling fast, drained of trust and superseded by digital connectivity.

When Kerr says “I must call [Michel] Barnier to talk about the extension” – and he does – he sounds like an old school ambassador, pulling the strings in time-honoured fashion. But he is also acting in sync with the spirit of the age, which cuts through protocol and formality, and feeds greedily on connection, affinity and direct communication.

The transformative symptom of this shift in the campaign’s identity has been the remarkable growth of its youth wing. Of the nine sub-groups that gather under the People’s Vote umbrella, the most important have been FFS (For Our Future’s Sake) and OFOC (Our Future Our Choice).

The former campaign now boasts 100 branches at universities, colleges, and youth groups. Both organisations regard email databases as laughably old-fashioned (email addresses go out of date quickly) and communicate with their activists and contacts via social media and (especially) WhatsApp (Twitter handles and mobile numbers last longer).

In the space of a few months last autumn, the public face of People’s Vote changed fundamentally as the new network fizzed and buzzed and did its work. A campaign that had started life looking like the liberal elite demanding its job back morphed into a grassroots uprising of the young against their elders. A retrospective whinge became a future-facing clamour.

Suddenly it was no longer just the losers of the 2016 referendum taking on the Brexiteers but a new cohort of young activists enraged that they were being denied key life-chances by what they regarded as a senseless act of nationalist idiocy.

Femi Oluwole, the co-founder of OFOC, has become a Twitter star, posting his often-hilarious encounters with ill-informed Leavers, while Lara Spirit, co-president of the same group, is now well-established on the airwaves as a voice of intergenerational dissent – calling the middle-aged Westminster class to account.


OFOC’s other co-president, Will Dry, has taken a year’s sabbatical from studying PPE at Oxford to devote himself full time to the cause. His rhetorical destruction on Sky News of Robert Oulds, director of the Bruges Group, is a YouTube masterclass in how to crush arrogance and magical thinking with passion and evidence-based argument.

The energy that this has bequeathed to the People’s Vote campaign is beyond dispute – witness the success of its march in London on 20 October 2018 – and is welcomed at every level of the organisation. But there are frissons of tension, too, between the youth wing and what one leading activist described to me as the “salon class” of Remainers.

This refers to the dinner gatherings at the homes, respectively, of Roland Rudd, the chair and founder of The Finsbury Group business consultancy (and brother of Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd), and of Hugo Dixon, the business journalist and co-founder of the financial site Breakingviews.

The T-shirt-wearing OFOC-FFS campaigners fear that these upscale private meetings – typically of senior politicians, businessmen and journalists – entrench the liberal-patrician view that the public will inevitably come to its senses over Brexit, realise how foolish it has been, and seek forgiveness from the metropolitan oligarchy. (Full disclosure: I have attended dinners at Rudd’s home.)

The tension spilt into the public domain during the Davos World Economic Forum in January when a series of prominent Remainers were interviewed against the backdrop of the Swiss alps.

Femi Oluwole, co-founder of OFOC

Oluwole tweeted furiously: “Dear Tony Blair, George Osborne, and any of the other universally hated politicians who lack the self-awareness to realise they’re hurting their own cause. Shh. That’s it. Just be quiet. Give us a couple of years. Let us fix the country. But button it now. OK? Sincerely, The UK.”

The most delicate subset of this dilemma is what has become known as the “Tony Problem”. As one of the former PM’s closest advisers puts it: “How do you tell your greatest strategic asset, a guy who won three elections, that he can’t be front and centre if we move to a real referendum campaign? We can’t have a public vote that is overshadowed every day by questions about trust and bloody Iraq.”

To date, Blair has been fully cooperative with the campaign, posting short clips on social media, advising its senior members and rationing his own public interventions on Brexit. Whether he would find this policy of restraint easy to maintain in the heat of battle is another question. In this respect, the crucial mediating figure would be Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former director of communications, deeply embedded in Millbank’s youthful culture but also, as more than one source put it to me, the go-to “Tony whisperer”.

And as for that battle: the arrival in October of Heneghan, the former Labour executive director, accelerated preparations for a prospective conflict for the hearts and minds of 47 million voters. There are presently around 90 staff at Millbank. In the event of a new referendum campaign, Heneghan wants between 400 and 500 working full-time – 300 of them outside London.

What those at the heart of the People’s Vote machine already accept, some to the point of rhetorical aggression, is that the battle to stop Brexit cannot in any way resemble the 2016 Remain fiasco.

The infrastructural foundations must be laid well in advance (which is to say, starting now). And – crucially – the proto-campaign must be designed with a heavy emphasis upon the white working-class communities that scorned Remain three years ago.

The last referendum result tested to destruction the idea that Brexit can be thwarted by a “turn-out” campaign that mobilises every last pro-EU vote: if there is a next time, it will be necessary to convert natural Leavers, a formidable electoral task.

How to go about this? Whereas the 2016 Remain campaign was complacent in its assumption that economic caution would win the day, Heneghan and his team are much more open-minded, testing and piloting a broad spectrum of messages against a backdrop that is very different to the political context of the first referendum.

That said, there is broad consensus on three core propositions. First, that the campaign should have a team of figureheads, representatives from all sectors and backgrounds, and local champions in preference to a single leader.

The names of Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, are often touted as potential contenders to speak, say, in prospective televised debates. But there is a gravitational pull away from anything with a whiff of party politics or the cult of personality.

Remainers were badly burned by the inextricable association of the 2016 campaign with David Cameron and the Number Ten team. If there is to be a People’s Vote, there must also be a people’s movement – not only a centralised team in Westminster overseeing message discipline and daily schedules, but a thousand flowers blooming nationwide to give the campaign the grassroots authenticity so spectacularly lacking from the first.

The People’s Vote march in October 2018

Devolution of this sort still unnerves the generation of strategists reared in the command-and-control culture of the New Labour and Cameron era. But they know that era is over.

The difference between success and failure may lie in the capacity of so-called “nodal figures” such as Baldwin and Grove-White to speak to, and negotiate differences between, the movement’s many constituent parts. In the age of network politics, it helps to be a cultural polyglot.

Second, it follows that the Stop Brexit campaign – if it happens – should mobilise and expand the generational movement launched by People’s Vote, emphasising youth, diversity and the kinetic energy intrinsic to both. This is not without risk. A fine line divides infectious youthful confidence and alienating arrogance. But the campaign’s strategists believe it is a risk worth taking.

Third, and most important, is the need for a campaign narrative that embraces emotion, exudes optimism and promises change. A certain lesson of the last referendum is that a torrent of economic statistics intended to terrify voters is not a winning strategy. Nor will a forensic inventory of May’s failures or Parliament’s ineptitudes do the trick.

“We have to signal that we understand why people were frustrated in 2016, but that Brexit is definitely not the answer,” says one senior source. “The question – the biggest question of all – is whether we can at least suggest the outlines of a better way.”

The psychological complexity of this challenge has thus far eluded the best brains at Millbank: how do you say no to one proposition (Brexit), and yes to another (as yet undefined) without confusing the voters? What is the People’s Vote equivalent of “Take Back Control”?

Even now, the campaign presents itself as the plucky underdog of the Brexit struggle. It is not yet ready to be pack leader, and may never get the chance. But in its contrarian strategy, its preference for networks over command-and-control structures and its absolute preference for long-term strategy over rapid response to the hourly news cycle, it is already rewriting the campaign rule-book. In this sense, against all expectation, its true legacy may transcend and outlast Brexit itself.

The question of the question

I wrote here a little while ago about how one of the most serious difficulties for a second referendum campaign was deciding on a question, writes Chris Cook. MPs would not only need to decide to hold a vote, they would need to agree a question.

There is certainly no energy at the moment in a campaign for any question that does not have “Remain” on the paper. There is also a strong constituency that would prefer “No Deal” to any settlement on offer. Indeed, that bloc is the reason the prime minister cannot get her deal through the Commons. It might be hard to keep off any ballot.

One new idea that has emerged since this piece was written: should Northern Ireland get an extra question on whether it should prioritise smooth links with Ireland or its relationship with the rest of the UK? If Northern Ireland expressed a desire to prioritise a frictionless border with the Republic, that would make a solution easier to reach.

Further reading