Populism and fake news appears to be gaining ground across Europe. It is more important than ever that people who care about the future of their countries and local communities, who have until now watched from the sideline, are motivated to stand up and take action. Our job as campaigners is to develop engaging campaigns that gather the broadest range of support even around divisive issues such as Brexit.
As someone who worked on the EU referendum in the UK, I am immensely proud of the campaign we built. The legacy of that campaign is lasting, and the lessons have helped us build additional grassroots efforts as the UK continues to grapple with the aftermath of the Brexit vote. For me personally, it’s also an opportunity to examine the way I develop grassroots campaigns and enact changes that help more effectively build a campaign movement.
For us at Open Britain, this is one of our goals with People’s Vote — the group calling for a public vote on the final Brexit deal between the UK and the EU.
For too long, activists have only been seen as people who deliver the national message by handing out campaign leaflets or knocking on doors to spread the word. They were not trusted to develop campaigns or messages for their own communities. Yet how trusted were national politicians and business leaders during the referendum? The answer is not much, despite the fact that they dominated the campaign.
One thing that’s clear from our perspective: in the eyes of many locals, they came across as the establishment during the EU referendum — the liberal elite who simply didn’t understand how the factory worker in Sunderland felt.
As we continue to build the pro-European movement in the UK, we see a change in the role of politicians – as actors which are increasingly encouraging grassroots activists to take action. Politicians are still leading the national campaign, sending emails to supporters, appearing on TV and radio and writing op-eds in national newspapers. But the balance is shifting as empowering our local supporters has taken on a newfound importance in the grassroots effort.
The result: authenticity is now a driving force of the campaign as local supporters are encouraged to take a new level of ownership in the effort. The best example of this is in our email programs. At Open Britain, the largest grassroots organisation supporting the People’s Vote campaign, an increasing number of our local campaign emails are sent to supporters from local activists rather than from HQ staff. Local campaign leaders are writing local newsletters and producing their own campaign materials. Not all of it is the polished and slick campaign with which I and others are familiar, but these efforts are genuinely built from the ground up and are showing results.
Emails detailing complicated trade policies are gradually being replaced with emails focused on changing the local community for the better. By linking the impacts of Brexit to schools, hospitals and jobs we appeal to a broader base of people and make the campaign relevant to people’s everyday lives.
Parents, office workers and health professionals are the new campaign message carriers. Reaching out to their own communities and asking others who care to get involved with the campaign. This approach is starting to pay off.
Twelve months ago in the UK, very few would have predicted pro-European community campaign groups springing up across the country culminating in more than 100,000 people marching on Parliament in London calling for a People’s Vote. Recent polls show support is growing.
Investing In the Future
So what about the role of the professional campaigner? Our role is changing to focus on inspiring volunteer activists from all walks of life to take up leadership roles in our campaigns. We must invest in our volunteer activists through campaign training and sharing of best practice. I am a strong believer that training is the key to success, which is why I worked hard to develop new campaign training programmes in my role as a deputy director at the Conservative Party in the successful 2015 General Election.
The future of campaigns requires a more balanced partnership between volunteers and professionals working at HQ.
Whatever the outcome of our current efforts, what the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum has made clear is that it’s critical for us to not neglect the grassroots. The lasting effect is that people who have never campaigned before have been mobilised and will be ready to take action on this issue and others they care passionately about. As campaigners, that’s one of our most important jobs, and campaign professionals across Europe should be serious about it.
Stuart Hand is the Director of Field Campaigns at Open Britain.