ALASTAIR CURTIS reports on the pro-EU campaign Best for Britain, Gina Miller, and their impact on the General Election result.
The result of the General Election seemed a dead cert in April. Few doubted its outcome, least of all Theresa May. She announced the election from the steps of Downing Street, flushed with confidence and safe in the knowledge that June 8th would deliver a Tory majority of 100 seats, if not more. The plan: Labour, then faltering in opinion polls, would be crushed, and plunge, perhaps irreparably, into civil war. Dissent amongst Remainer Tory backbenchers over the terms of the Brexit deal would be stifled. Energised by her election victory, May planned to arrive in Brussels for the Brexit negotiations armed with a blank cheque. The result of this election—which then seemed irrevocable—would be a Hard Brexit, difficult to negotiate and damaging to the British economy, to business and industry. Events, however, did not unfold according to plan.
The Tory campaign started confidently but became complacent: U-turn followed U-turn, May refused to take part in the TV debates, and then, with just two weeks until polling day, the Tories went into meltdown over the Dementia Tax debacle—an unpopular ‘Nasty Party’ policy that compromised their support from older voters who were once reliably Tory. Labour, meanwhile, began to creep up in the polls, buoyed by the collapse of UKIP, a popular manifesto and an unprecedented turnout of young and first-time voters. On the night, the party carved inroads into Tory strongholds like Canterbury and Kensington, and—perhaps most unexpectedly of all— won back several seats from the SNP in Scotland. May’s hubris turned to humiliation, and Britain awoke to the news of a hung parliament.
Early on in the campaign May had warned Tory voters that if she lost just six seats she would lose the election. In the end, she lost 31 seats. Something had happened at the ballot box which few pollsters and pundits had predicted: hundreds of thousands of people voted for the first time—and, significantly, many of them voted tactically. Britain’s electoral landscape had fundamentally changed: how? The answer lies in Gina Miller and the Best for Britain campaign.
Miller is an investment manager who rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, when she brought a legal challenge against the government’s decision to invoke Article 50—the bill which would trigger Britain’s withdrawal from the EU—without parliamentary approval. Her case was successful in the High Court, and when the government launched an appeal in the Supreme Court—spending millions of taxpayer money in the process—the justices ruled in her favour once again. Recognising that ‘millions of people had a stake in Brexit’, Miller helped to give MPs a say over the terms of the final deal. Her victory against the government was historic; students in Oxbridge law schools are already being lectured on it.
Miller’s critics—the usual slew of tabloid rags and virulent right-wing trolls—claimed that her legal challenge was intended to obstruct Brexit. She was called an ‘enemy of the people’, and worse. In an interview with the BBC after her legal victory, Miller admits she voted Remain, but she insists that she is not anti-Brexit, and that she has no desire to reverse the outcome of the EU referendum. Her challenge, she says, was designed to ensure the government achieved the ‘best Brexit deal’ possible—one that has the backs of the British people as well as their backing. This could mean a Soft Brexit—a deal preserving access to the Customs Union, as well as some of the rights and privileges attached to EU membership—or it could mean the government returns to the drawing board and has a rethink: whatever Parliament agrees is Best for Britain.
Article 50 was passed with overwhelming support in the Commons, but it was nevertheless a victory for Miller: the more obstreperous Tory ministers, those hellbent on a Hard Brexit like Boris Johnson and David Davis, were forced to submit their Brexit plans to the rigorous scrutiny of MPs. Before her legal intervention, these cabinet members were living in ‘la la land’—deceiving themselves as well as the public by denying the difficulties involved in a Hard Brexit; Miller gave them a reality check.
Fast forward to April, when a snap General Election was called. With EU negotiations looming, Miller called this election ‘more important than any in living memory’. She joined the board of Best for Britain, headed by former campaign director of the ONE Campaign, Eloise Todd. Together, they rallied their supporters; a GoFundMe page was established, and people gave generously. Within weeks it had reached £400,000, assembled from individual donations totalling no more than £500—a remarkable achievement, and a grassroots social movement in the making. This movement was given the name ‘Best for Britain’ because it would prioritise the interests of Britain in the Brexit negotiations, and it launched just one week into the General Election campaign, with Miller as its figurehead. By funding and promoting Pro-EU parliamentary candidates across the country, they believed they could alter parliament’s makeup and therefore revise the government’s current stance on the UK-EU agreement.
The campaign found their most ardent supporters in young people: we are more sympathetic to the EU than our elders—73% of 18-24 year-olds voted Remain in last year’s referendum—and it is our generation who are set to suffer the most when we leave the EU. Young people could deliver a blow to the government’s Brexit plans—but only if they turned out to vote. Of the 7.4 million 18-24 year-olds living in the UK, only half are on the electoral register: in 2015, just 43% of those registered to vote went to the polls, and a meagre 36% voted in the EU referendum last year. Anger and frustration are powerful forces capable of democratic change—but they can also breed voter apathy and indolence.
Best for Britain played a crucial role in mobilising young people in the run-up to June 8th: an energetic campaign on the streets and on social media publicised voter registration, while substantial, five-figure sums were given to charities designed to engage young and first-time voters. This included My Life My Say, a non-partisan movement campaigning to advance the interests of young people in the Brexit deal. Their #MyBrexit campaign was innovative and empowering: ‘Brexit cafes’ in Leave-voting areas created a forum where young people could meet and discuss their views on the future of the UK-EU relationship. Rise Up, another charity sponsored by Best for Britain, reached out to Grime celebrities like Stormzy and JME, who rallied their followers on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to the ballot box. #Grime4Corbyn snowballed into a social media sensation.
MPs started to reach out to young people, listening and responding to our concerns; we returned the favour later, at the ballot box. No official data has been released for the scale of the youth vote, but early reports suggest that 72% of 18-24 year olds voted in the election. An NME-led exit poll delivered a lower turnout of 56%—but still a sizeable 12-point improvement on the 2015 election. Two-thirds of young people backed Labour, NME found—and, significantly, Brexit was their main concern. The election has since been branded the #Revengeoftheyoung. Best for Britain played a significant part in kickstarting this electoral revolution—long may it last.
Best for Britain’s aim to build the ‘biggest tactical voting effort in history’ was no less revolutionary. Young voters tend to be receptive to tactical voting initiatives: websites like swapmyvote.co.uk are invariably popular, while university students are able to choose whether to cast their vote at their home or term-time address, according to where they think it will make the most impact. But pundits and pollsters argue that tactical voting has less traction across a wider demographic. All too often voters are indifferent or unaware of where best to place their vote and they stay loyal to their preferred party irrespective of their candidate’s chances of winning: voting Labour in Reading, Portsmouth or Bournemouth is as futile as voting Tory in Liverpool, Manchester, or Dundee. Due to our first past the post electoral system, this creates millions of wasted votes: in 2015, only a quarter of votes cast in the election were necessary for the candidates to win.
Best for Britain hoped to make every vote count. ‘Vote thoughtfully’ was their advice. They reckoned Remain voters could be persuaded to vote for pro-EU candidates in marginal constituencies where the incumbent MP advocated a Hard Brexit. They also hoped to safeguard those prominent pro-EU MPs sitting on wafer thin majorities of 500 votes or less. The team drew up a list of 36 ‘British Champions’, including Labour, Lib Dem and Green candidates, who supported a choice on the final Brexit deal. Many of the Champions were vocal advocates of the EU in parliament, including Nick Clegg, Chuka Umunna and Caroline Lucas; others chose to remain anonymous. Best for Britain poured money into the seats of their Champions to help with canvassing and targeted digital marketing, including bespoke Facebook and Google ads for Remain-voting constituencies. Gina Miller visited many of these seats, often with the media in tow. An online tactical voting database was established and it accrued over 500,000 visitors during the course of the election campaign.
Research suggests one in five people voted tactically in the election – a record high. But tactical voting can only succeed if voters are open-minded and prepared to compromise—and that is easier said than done. In Twickenham, voters rallied behind Sir Vince Cable. A former cabinet minister with impeccable pro-EU credentials, Cable trounced the Tory incumbent and assumed office with a 9,000 majority. Voters followed the advice of Best for Britain, defecting from Labour—who had no clear route to victory in the seat—and coming out for the Lib Dems. A different story unfolded in Richmond Park. Sarah Olney, another Lib Dem MP, had won the constituency from Zac Goldsmith in a by-election late last year. Goldsmith’s pro-Brexit stance found little favour among his largely Remain-voting constituents. Best for Britain threw their weight behind Olney, expecting a win, but Goldsmith regained the seat—if only by a piddling majority of 45 votes. Olney’s vote had been split by a resurgent local Labour party, whose increased vote share came at her expense. Tactical voting collapsed in Richmond because there was no concerted attempt at cross-party dialogue. The result was a bitter disappointment—made all the worse because it might have been avoided.
Difficult decisions were made at Best for Britain HQ when it came to deciding which candidates to endorse. They were criticised by Labour for backing Lib Dem candidates, and vice versa. Their campaigns occasionally ruffled feathers, too. Supporting Lib Dem candidate George Turner in Vauxhall, a largely pro-Remain constituency, meant standing against the veteran Labour MP Kate Hoey, a hardline Brexiteer who spent last summer campaigning alongside Nigel Farage. The campaign was by turns playful and acrimonious; but, contrary to expectation, anger about Brexit failed to register at the ballot box, and Hoey was returned with an increased majority. In some areas, this election functioned as a proxy vote on the Brexit deal; in others, Brexit barely got a look-in. The student turnout in Sheffield Hallam spelled the end of Nick Clegg, one of the most vocal proponents of the EU in Parliament, the ex-Lib Dem leader, and a Best for Britain champion. His demise was a different sort of #Revengeoftheyoung.
The story of Best for Britain is one of the success stories of this election. It deserves to be shouted about—and most of all it deserves our support. 21 of the Best for Britain champions were elected, including new Labour MPs like Emma Dent Coad in Kensington and Lloyd Russell-Moyle in Brighton Kemptown. They coloured Tory strongholds red because they earned the pro-EU support of traditional Lib Dem and Tory voters. Other pro-EU MPs successfully grew their previously slim majorities, such as Rupa Huq, in Ealing Central and Acton, who increased her majority from 274 to 13,807 votes, or Karen Buck in Westminster North. With the election of their champions, Best for Britain have put a task-force into Parliament who are committed to forging a new Brexit deal; they will be crucial in the tumultuous weeks and months ahead as the government attempts to force a Repeal Bill through the Commons and sever our ties with the EU.
It’s been one month since the election, and one year since since May became Prime Minister. She still resides in 10 Downing Street, for now, while the Tories have bolstered their majority with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party—but don’t be fooled into thinking this is business as usual. May’s mandate for a Hard Brexit has been destroyed and cannot be salvaged. The Tories are bankrupt of ideas and their Brexit negotiations are rudderless; they look to Labour for direction. The momentum for a Soft Brexit is gathering apace in the corridors of Westminster. Vince Cable has started calling on the government to wind back the clock, to forget the referendum ever happened; other MPs are following his lead. The newly-established cross-party parliamentary group for EU relations, chaired by Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry, will ask that all options remain on the table in the EU negotiations. They will stop us tumbling out of the EU without a deal.
What happens next also depends on young people. Calls for a Soft Brexit can be driven by our generation, but only if Britain’s political establishment—those empowered to transform and arrest our future—begin to involve us in the processes of decision-making. The transaction of knowledge and experience between young people and those working in Westminster has the potential to be instructive; but the relationship must evolve from its current moribund state—where politicians dismiss our concerns, or patronise our fears—to become more dynamic, inclusive and, most of all, imaginative. Outside of parliament, Best for Britain successfully mobilised thousands of supporters across the country who can direct the debate, speak to our MPs and shape the Brexit process: this energy and enthusiasm must be sustained, amplified. Everything is up for grabs and all options are on the table: the expected Hard Brexit might be softened—or shelved altogether—but our involvement in the weeks and months ahead is crucial.
Thanks to Sara John from Best for Britain for taking the time to speak to SAVAGE. You can find out more about the organisation, and sign up to volunteer, here.
Featured image courtesy of Associated Press.