20 February 2016

Farage’s Grassroots Out operation won’t win over floating voters


We live in interesting times. Back when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour party leader, some friends and I tried to figure out who would be the Conservative equivalent. Who would be the person you’d probably least expect to ever lead the Conservative party – a rebellious sort, with deeply entrenched beliefs? ‘Peter Bone’ one person exclaimed, to laughs.

Such a scenario was and is still unbelievable. Yet last night, at the Grassroots Out rally in Westminster, Peter Bone probably got as close as he is ever going to get to a leadership role. He introduced and chaired a panel of Brexiteers. This unlikely hero is having his moment in the sun – trying to unite disparate forces into a grassroots uprising leading to Brexit.

I like Peter. It’s people such as him who have got us to this stage by pushing and pushing for a referendum. Those tireless campaigners who have been badgering on this issue for years – many from before I was born. Bill Cash, Kate Hoey, and many others not at the rally. These guys, and even more so UKIP, the real organisers of this event and the backroom boys of the whole GO operation, have kept this issue alive and brought us within touching distance of Brexit.

But the sad truth is that UKIP-run, or at least dominated, rallies such as that seen in the Queen Elizabeth II Centre yesterday will not win the referendum. Speaker after speaker, the euroscpetic stalwarts, from Ruth Lea to David Campbell-Bannerman, Gerard Batten to Kate Hoey, lined up to rail against Brussels. Yet the whole time the calibre and tone of the event felt as if it were an outside-the-secure-zone Tory fringe event from 2011, albeit packed with 2,000 people.

As the ink was drying on David Cameron’s deal, this was the opportunity to start the campaign proper: pitching, in a reassuring way, to the undecided voters at home who will see the 20 second clip of the event on the 10 o’clock news. Instead the speakers offered red meat to an audience who had already made up their minds.

You might say that this was a necessary rallying of the troops. A chance to bring together the committed, fire them up and then send them across the country to win the ground war. And make no mistake, if Brexiteers are to win, they will need all these ground troops to be active and unrelenting.

But they will also need to win the air war too, and ultimately get 50+ per cent of the vote. If this event was anything to go by, Grassroots Out winning the official designation will make this task more difficult. Their rally, as advertised, was indeed cross-party and the better for it. But it was a Question Time-type balance, with the extremes of both ends of the spectrum. Ask yourself whether any event which headlines with Nigel Farage introducing George Galloway to talk about Iran can really be likely to convince reasonable, undecided voters with nagging concerns about membership of an international political union.

UKIP and Galloway both have their amazing political fairytales at times. But as the General Election showed, neither UKIP’s nor Galloway’s grassroots model is enough to harness the millions of voters necessary to win – and a campaign dominated by the likes of them will repel as many people as it attracts.

I’m still confident Brexit will win the referendum. The fundamentals point in favour of exit. David Cameron’s deal is rubbish and has already been exposed. There are many brilliant advocates of Brexit who weren’t at the rally yesterday. Anyway, politicians and status matter less in referenda than in other elections. But a good effective air war is sometimes necessary to clear the battlefield and to convince those not as politically engaged. On last night’s showing, Grassroots Out as the official designated campaign group will not be up to that task.

Ryan Bourne is Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Director of the Paragon Initiative,