LONDON — Britain’s Remainers plan to secure a second Brexit vote — with the help of a summer rock concert and a mobile app.
The spring and summer will see a major uptick in campaigning by various pro-European groups, according to several figures involved, who are now better coordinated thanks to a 60-person email group, better financing and a shared strategy.
Remainers have set their sights on a key parliamentary vote in the fall that will see MPs accept or reject Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU. While not everyone wants to reverse the referendum outright, campaigners hope to knock Brexit off course by defeating the government in that key vote and then either force a general election or secure a second referendum on the deal.
Labour and Momentum’s 2017 general election campaign is regarded as the “benchmark.”
“There has been, for the first time probably, a great deal of coordination and coming together on email, through meetings and a determination I think to present a joined-up message against Brexit that’s been absent up until now,” said Matt Kelly, editor of the New European newspaper.
As bullish as Remainers feel, the odds are stacked against them. While polling data analyzed by John Curtice for the U.K. In A Changing Europe initiative suggests there has been a modest shift of public opinion toward a small Remain majority since the middle of last year, there is little “consistent evidence,” according to Curtice, of any real appetite for a second vote.
Moreover, campaigners leave themselves exposed to the accusation from both sides that they are simply reopening old wounds.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson this week said that revisiting the Brexit question would be a “disastrous mistake” that would lead to “permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal.” Johnson’s comments won unlikely support from Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former communications chief and no Johnson fan. “The referendum unleashed demons, and we’re still struggling to recover. It would be worse a second time — making debate even more toxic,” Oliver said.
For now, though, such warnings only serve to galvanize the Remain cause.
A recent Daily Telegraph front page, which reported Hungarian billionaire George Soros is a major funder of one of the main pro-EU groups, Best for Britain, led to a surge in support for the group. Crowd-funding is rolling in, which Soros haspledged to match.
Best for Britain is just one of a growing number of pro-EU forces pushing variously to overturn the referendum result altogether or for the U.K. to stay in the EU single market and customs union.
A coordinator for Best for Britain said the group has planned a summer campaign, including election-style billboards across the country; “barnstormer” meetings in Leave-voting areas where campaigners will be briefed on the best arguments to persuade Brexit supporters; and a mobile phone app inspired by Labour’s Momentum movement, which will direct campaigners toward nearby constituencies with wavering MPs who could sway the key parliamentary vote.
And with a gap in the market while the Glastonbury festival pauses for a “fallow year,” the group has teamed up with a Remain-leaning music promoter, secured liability insurance for a major concert, and is now scouting locations in London with a view to an August bank holiday date, the Best for Britain coordinator said.
Several pro-EU groups date back to the 2016 referendum but only now have they begun formally coordinating activity under the aegis of the Grassroots Coordinating Group, chaired by the Labour MP Chuka Umunna.
The GCG grew out of an email chain including 10 of the pro-EU groups, said New European editor Kelly.
“It grew up organically through an email list which is now a very active email group of about 50 to 60 people,” he said. The email chain now includes Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, Best for Britain chair Mark Malloch Brown, Conservative peer Ros Altmann, businesswoman Gina Miller and Labour peer Andrew Adonis.
A parliamentary vote in December, which saw Conservative rebels vote with Labour to defeat the government on an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which guaranteed a “meaningful” vote in parliament, was a “eureka” moment, according to James McGrory, executive director of Open Britain. “Behind the scenes, it proved what an extraordinary asset we have across all of the pro-European campaigns in that there was a very, very large-scale lobbying operation [aimed at] MPs ahead of that vote.”
A strategy document from the best-funded of the groups, Best for Britain, was drawn up by political consultant Mike Moffo, who was the deputy national field director for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, one of the group’s coordinators said.
Labour and Momentum’s 2017 general election campaign, which saw the party go from more than 20 points behind in the polls to denying the Tories an outright majority, is regarded as the “benchmark,” the coordinator said.
“The new money that we’ve got in the last few days and the Soros match-funding is to deploy guerrilla marketing, also on social media,” they said. One focus will be on the NHS, which became a key issue in the EU referendum after the Vote Leave campaign pledged to spend repatriated EU budget cash on the health service. Pro-EU forces will point to rising waiting times in the NHS this winter as stark evidence of how this money has failed to materialize.
The “youth focus” described by the strategy document, meanwhile, emerged in an unplanned fashion via a new pro-EU campaign group, Our Future, Our Choice (OFOC), whose mission is to convince Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of the need for a second referendum.
One of its four co-founders, Femi Oluwole, a 27-year-old law graduate, quit a traineeship at a human rights advocacy firm in Vienna to head up the anti-Brexit fight. “I realized that if all the problems I know Brexit will produce happen, and I did nothing … I would hate myself,” he said. “So I’m now coordinating a national campaign from my parents’ loft in Sheffield.”
Another of the OFOC’s co-founders, Cambridge student Lara Spirit, said the group had representatives at over 40 universities willing to start campus groups, and two other co-founders are focusing on rallying young apprentices, the young unemployed and others not in higher education.
“Young people should be at the center of this debate,” Spirit said. “They stand the most to lose, and yet they voted most decisively to stay” — according to YouGov, 75 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted Remain in 2016.