How Not To Deal With Activists, Courtesy the Britain Stronger in Europe Campaign

I believe that in the forthcoming referendum, Britain is likely to leave the EU. I believed it as soon as the referendum was announced, but became convinced when the board of directors was announced, with its director of strategy being Ryan Coetzee, who was personally responsible for the Lib Dems’ massive success at the last general election, when he was paid £110,000 a year as its General Election Director of Strategy, and managed to take the Lib Dems from a paltry fifty-seven seats to a gargantuan eight.

With the rest of the board being a similar bunch of overpaid failures and politicians’ children, I thought our only hope of not leaving the EU, and thus losing what little influence the country still has, any human rights, and first-world status, was for them to at least learn from the mistakes of the AV referendum campaign, and to have a volunteer-driven ground-up campaign, so it wouldn’t matter how incompetent the leadership of the campaign was.

So a few months ago I signed up to volunteer for the Stronger In campaign, in the hope of maybe doing anything useful. However, I am autistic, and one of the ways that manifests itself is in detesting telephone calls (those few of my friends who have my number will know that when you *do* call me it’s often difficult to get me to stop talking, but I am *terrified* of telephone calls interrupting me — it’s one of the more important reasons I refuse to own a mobile phone). The forms wouldn’t let you continue unless you filled in a phone number, so I put it in, but said that I wanted *only* to be contacted by email, and didn’t give them permission to contact me in any other way.

To be fair to them, I *have* since received a whole four emails from them — two surveys about what volunteering I’d like to do, which they haven’t followed up on, and two requests to share things on social media. All four also coming with requests for money to put into their vital survey-ignoring and meme-sharing work.

They *might* have also wanted me to actually do something, as I’ve stated I’d do, but I’ll never know, because the only personal, as opposed to bulk, communication I’ve had from them has been when they’ve telephoned me. The first time, about a month ago, my wife answered the phone, and I told her to tell them not to phone me again. The second time, about two weeks ago, I answered the phone and told them not to phone me again, but to communicate with me by email, as I had asked. The third time, last night, I was woken from a doze, disturbed the dog that was sleeping on my lap, and hobbled painfully and arthritically to the phone, to discover them phoning me yet again. I fear that my request that they not phone me again was phrased rather less politely than it would have been were I not half-asleep and in pain.

And that was going to be the end of my rant about the Stronger In campaign’s complete inability to organise a piss-up in a brewery. Except that in order to check how many emails I have had from them for the paragraph above, I just checked my account, and read one from yesterday.

This email was from Will Straw, the head of the Stronger In campaign whose main personal achievements have been to, as a Labour candidate in the last general election, see the Tories increase their majority by 1200 votes in his constituency; to be removed as the governor of a primary school by Lambeth council because the school wasn’t being run properly; and to have had 50% of his genetic material shoot out of the penis of a former Home Secretary — the latter, rather than his other achievements, being the apparent principal reason for his success in life.

This email from the founder of the Left Foot Forward blog, which contributed so much to Labour’s electoral success in 2010, asked me to share an “infographic” on social media. That infographic praises David Cameron’s renegotiation of the terms on which the UK will be in the EU, and in particular the fact that “migrants” will now have to wait four years before being entitled to claiming any benefits.

I repeat, the campaign to stay in the EU asked me to share an image saying “Limiting migrant access to benefits until they’ve paid in for 4 years” (poor English the image-makers’ own).

Quite apart from the personal consequences to me of sharing that image — I suspect my marriage to an immigrant who is currently claiming benefits for her rather severe disabilities would not last very long after doing so — the tactical stupidity of this is breathtaking. In a fight between “in Europe” and “out of Europe”, playing up myths about immigrants being benefit scroungers will only ever reinforce the ideas of xenophobes, and while not all those who want to leave the EU are xenophobes by any means, I’m pretty sure that all xenophobes want to leave the EU.

So I’m out of this utter shambles. I’ve heard this tune before, when it was the AV referendum and “whatever you do, don’t discuss the new voting system we’re advocating, just hand out leaflets about making MPs work harder and don’t say why it would do that, and whatever you do don’t deviate from the central messaging”. And I’ve heard it when it was “‘Unity, Stability, and Decency’ isn’t a crypto-fascist slogan at all and will definitely appeal to Liberals. Also stick the face of the most despised politician in Britain all over the leaflets — that’s a sure vote-winner. And whatever you do, don’t deviate from the central messaging”.

I am sick, as a volunteer activist, of putting time and energy I don’t have into using a tiny bucket to bail water out of sinking ships while rich imbeciles are being paid triple my wages to fire cannon at the hull of our own ship. I’m sick of being on the right side of the argument but being told to share mealy-mouthed apologies that concede the principle to the other side. And I’m sick of getting phone calls from people who apparently think they’re above the law when it comes to their use of personal data.

So I’m not going to be involved any further with the official Stronger In campaign — not that they’ve yet given me any opportunity to be involved. I’ll be involved in the *LIB DEM* campaigning on the issue, because the Lib Dems as a party have finally, under Tim Farron, rediscovered the campaigning spirit we should have had all along. And if any of the activists I know locally are planning any off-message campaigning, let me know and I’ll do what I can. But I’ll not share UKIP leaflets with UKIP crossed out and “please stay in the EU anyway” scribbled in its place.

There is some small honour in being a lion led by donkeys. But if I kept letting them lead me, I’d be letting them make an ass of me, too.

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25 Responses to How Not To Deal With Activists, Courtesy the Britain Stronger in Europe Campaign

  1. Zom says:

    All the poll data I’ve seen – and to be fair I haven’t seen much, or thought about it much, just stuff I’ve picked up in the press – seems to suggest that Brits want to stay in Europe, and that full withdrawal is a fringe enthusiasm. Why the pessimism? Are you worried it’s AV all over again?

    • Andrew Hickey says:
      Online polls show a slight lead for leave, while phone polls show a larger lead for remain. Given how catastrophically wrong pollsters have been in recent elections, I don’t trust either, but it’s certainly not a definite for stay (and remember at this point before the AV referendum the public were 2/3 in favour of the change).
      It’ll come down entirely to get-out-the-vote. And if the referendum is in June, most political activists will be exhausted after May’s council/devolved parliaments/London mayor elections, and not in any state to get out the vote, while the Kippers won’t have put much effort into those. And while enthusiasm for leaving is a minority thing, that minority *do* have enthusiasm, while very few people have any enthusiasm at all for staying, despite how important it is.
      The only hope was to have an inspiring, activist-led, enthusiastic get-out-the-vote campaign. Instead we’ve got Coetzee, Danny Alexander, Straw, Stuart Rose (the bloke who was in charge of M&S when their share price dropped 30%), and someone from off of the Apprentice, telling us to share memes about how the forrins are taking our money.

  2. Zom says:

    We were 2/3 in favour going into the AV referendum? Wow, what a miserable bloody journey that turned out to be.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Quite. All thanks to the inspired leadership of the same Westminster types who are now leading this referendum campaign. Nearly five years later, and I can *almost* think of that campaign without my blood pressure getting to dangerous levels.

  3. David Brain says:

    The only vaguely positive thing I can think to say at this point is that the Leave campaign – or, rather, campaigns – appear to be even more of a shambles.
    But I entirely agree with your basic observation that if the narrative has been hijacked to such an extent that the Stay campaign has been reduced to proclaiming a triumph for something that the Leave people were campaigning for, then we’re pretty screwed.

  4. Francis says:

    By leaving European Union we will lose our human rights and ALL the influence? What are you talking about?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      What I’m talking about, drive-by commenter who filled in a fake email address, is that major figures in both major parties have spoken, many times, about their desire to get rid of the Human Rights Act, and the only reason they haven’t is that that act only puts into British law what our treaty obligations are anyway. Pulling out of the EU would make it much easier to pull out of the Council of Europe and thus get rid of those obligations.
      As for losing all our influence, the only reason the UK has any influence in the world at all any more is that we’re one of only two English-speaking countries in the EU, and so are useful for the US as a way of trading with the EU. Get rid of that single advantage, and bang goes any point to the UK’s existence, as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

  5. gavinburrows says:

    I guess this is going to put me in a monority but…

    One of the worst aspects of recent years in politics,and heaven knows there’s been some stiff competition there, is that UKIP have colonised the anti-EU arguments to the degree they’ve poisoned the well. I couldn’t care less even if there were Bulgarians on benefits, but seeing there aren’t (in anything like significant numbers) there doesn’t seem much point worrying about it too much. Yet if you criticise the EU it’s just assumed you’re some little Englander drawbridge-upping xenophobe. Not exactly me.

    It seems to me UKIP even act as a handy distraction, in that all the genuine problems of the EU they either entirely ignore or only passingly allude to. It’s the EU who are bringing in the ultra-free-market TTIP. It’s the EU who forbad minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland, a move which would have had a positive effect upon public health and could quite conceivably have saved lives. But above all it’s the EU who over-rode the wishes of the Greek people after their last election, slashing public services and pensions. The Kippers barking insanely, in completely defiance of reality, about how the EU is ‘anti-competitive’ just helps conceal how pro big business the whole operation is.

    That said, it also seems naïve to suggest that Britain leaving the EU would achieve anything. Britain would either have to stop trading with the majority of mainland Europe, including its main trading partners, or else accept EU regulation with no influence over it whatsoever.

    Though it’s likely to be tight, my guess will be the Ins will win. It will mostly come down to which side has the deepest pockets, and more businesses will see it in their interests to stay than to go. But then again an Out vote probably wouldn’t count for much if it happened. When both Denmark and Ireland had referendums which went against EU enlargement they were simply told to have the vote again until it went the right way.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yes, there’s definitely a good progressive case against the EU — as made for example by Tony Benn — and I agree with a lot of it. My wish to stay in is more in a “well, if I was going there I wouldn’t start from here” way than down to a love or support of the institution. As you say, an out vote would leave us with all the disadvantages of membership, and none of the advantages.
      Were I given the opportunity to vote on having joined in the first place, I may well have voted differently, but the choice now is between the bad system we have and a worse option.
      But no, I don’t think everyone opposed to the EU is a bigot. Far from it.

    • mooneym1 says:

      ” It’s the EU who forbad minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland”

      Minimum alcohol pricing is being opposed by the alcohol industry, who appealed to the European CoJ, in an attempt to go over the head of the Scottish Government.

      Their ruling (in brief) was:
      “The Court of Justice considers that the effect of the Scottish legislation is significantly to restrict the market, and this might be avoided by the introduction of a tax measure designed to increase the price of alcohol instead of a measure imposing a minimum price per unit of alcohol.
      The court states that it is ultimately for the national court to determine whether measures other than that provided for by the Scottish legislation, such as increased taxation on alcoholic drinks, are capable of protecting human life and health as effectively as the current legislation, while being less restrictive of trade in those products within the EU.”

      So, issue referred back to the domestic courts. Ironically, Court of Session rulings can be appealed to the UK Supreme Court, a UK body which CAN over-rule Scottish courts.

      Now THAT’S an example of super-state dictating to its members…

  6. Argh! My personal policy is to ignore everything to do with the EU referendum until after the local elections in May, as I have *way* too much on my plate already contesting those to attempt anything else on the side. So in a way I have the luxury of being able to assess the situation then and to decide whether or not it is worth getting actively involved. But this doesn’t sound promising.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No :-/
      I signed up because there was talk of street stalls, which is a kind of campaigning I’m rather better at than other forms. But the signs are that this will be an AV-referendum-style disaster. I think the locals are a far better use of your time.

  7. jspinromsey says:

    Your experiences with the volunteering contact with the Stronger In campaign echo mine. I did have a phone call from them but the lad on the phone bank knew nothing. What literature is available I asked? Didn’t know. He asked if I wanted to do canvassing. Where is the data going and what are you going to do with it? Didn’t know. Is there a local organiser? Didn’t know. But he did promise to get someone who might know to call me within 7 days. That would have been convenient as I wanted to report to our Local Party Exec about this campaign last Friday. No phone call. No email. No contact. Piss up in brewery springs to mind.

    So now to see if I can get some answers to those questions from LD HQ.

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  9. Iain Coleman says:

    While I’m sympathetic to much of what you say here, I would think that even in a well-run and well-functioning campaign the literature would be along broadly similar lines. The phone polling that shows a substantial majority for In also shows that majority collapsing if the Prime Minister’s mostly silly renegotiation exercise is perceived not to have delivered. Hence the Europhobe press screaming yesterday about how it was all a failure. Persuading this chunk of voters that whatever vaguely articulated unease they have about the EU has been at least adequately assuaged by the renegotiation is the key to winning the referendum.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Hmm. Possibly — though I suspect that the referendum will come down to GOTV, and the waverers will be the least likely to vote, while stuff like this will alienate the core In vote, so it might be counterproductive *anyway*.
      But it’s also symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of social media, to ask activists to share that kind of thing. In activists will be the people who are most likely to have social circles who are broadly small-l liberal, people who won’t be persuaded by that kind of thing, or will even be put off by it.
      You share that kind of thing on, for example, the “Conservatives for In” Facebook page and ask *them* to share it, rather than trying to get a bunch of Guardian readers to. You give the activist base something about the positives of Europe instead.
      I can see cases where that kind of thing *might* be productive as a general mailshot, or a leaflet to give out on street stalls where you don’t know the target audience. But if *I* shared that on Facebook… well, I have one UKIP-supporting friend, but he wouldn’t like it because he wants Britain out of Europe, and half the rest of my friends would unfriend me. I suspect that goes for many of the activists they’ve asked to share it.

    • ggreig says:

      A campaign on an in or out principle that sounds like it’s actually grudging about being “in” is not going to convince many people to switch away from “out”, or make those who are already “in” but wavering feel good and confident about their decision. Why should anyone vote for a Europe no-one is enthusiastic about? And if it is won that way, through fear of change, at what cost? Ask the parties who had nothing good to say about Scotland’s future in the Independence referendum (or maybe not – they don’t really seem to have learned their lesson yet). It doesn’t have to be blind enthusiasm – but there has to be a detectable belief.

      • Iain Coleman says:

        Andrew: good points all. Of course, a better-run campaign would be more intelligent about tailoring messages to different audiences.

        ggreig: The No campaign did win.

  10. JHSB says:

    Unfortunately the material from the Lib Dem campaign is pretty terrible too – it’s recruitment material for the party. Catherine Bearder MEP’s material looks better – I’m going to see if I can get hold of the source files for it and try and make less Catherine-specific.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Shame. Not actually offensive, but not much use either. Do let me know if you manage to get something useful together, or if I can help.

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