On Wednesday, 13 April 2016, the UK Electoral Commission designated the two lead campaign groups for the EU Referendum. For the Remain side the lead group will be ‘The IN Campaign Ltd.’, formerly known as ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. For the Leave side the lead group will be ‘Vote Leave Ltd.’
The designated groups will have access to specific benefits during the regulated referendum period which begins on 15 April. These benefits are:
· a spending limit of £7 million;
· one free distribution of information to voters;
· the use of certain public rooms;
· referendum campaign broadcasts;
· a grant of up to £600,000 towards administration costs and costs associated with the TV broadcasts and free mailing items.
In addition, the lead groups can have a dedicated page in the Electoral Commission public information booklet to be distributed to all households in the UK and, in the booklet, a link to a page on the group’s website which, it says, “should include their opinion on what will happen in the event of either referendum result.”
The IN Campaign
The application by Britain Stronger in Europe / The IN Campaign was uncontested. The Commission accepted that it adequately represented those campaigning for this outcome.
Britain Stronger in Europe was established specifically to compete in the upcoming referendum for the ‘Remain’ outcome and says its campaign is based on the core belief “that Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe than we would be out on our own.” The group operates through regional or national brands in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.
The group is determined to work with all other campaigners committed to the same result. Its documentation indicates support from the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, three Northern Ireland parties (Alliance, Green Party, SDLP) and Plaid Cymru in Wales. It further lists supporting statements from organisations including The European Movement, Friends of the Earth, Universities UK, National Union of Students, Conservative Group for Europe, and the trade union London First and Community. It has the support of groups such as Environmentalists for Europe and Scientists for Europe.
The Chairman of the campaign is Lord Stuart Rose, former CEO of Marks and Spencer, and the Executive Director is Will Straw, former Whitehall advisor. The Board includes such prominent figures as Brendan Barber, the former TUC General Secretary; Peter Mandelson; the MPs Damian Green and Caroline Lucas; Trevor Phillips, OBE; and Lady Karen Brady, the Vice Chair of West Ham United FC.
The campaign has a strong media operation headed by Stuart Hand who led the Conservative Party’s field campaign in the 2015 General Election. It claims to have more than 18,000 volunteers engaged in newsletter and leaflet distribution. A stakeholder campaign seeks to engage business, trade union, community, youth and other groups, for example by providing speakers for events organised by other organisations.
The Electoral Commission designated ‘Vote Leave Ltd’ as the official campaign group for the ‘Leave’ side. The communication states that it received two applications, from ‘Vote Leave Ltd’ and ‘The Go Movement Ltd’, justifying its decision thus:
After careful consideration, the Commission decided that ‘Vote Leave Ltd’ better demonstrated that it has the structures in place to ensure the views of other campaigners are represented in the delivery of its campaign.
Vote Leave was founded in September 2015 to campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union: “The sole purpose of our organisation is to campaign to leave the European Union […] and help maximise voter participation and turnout in this historic decision, both through our own efforts and in collaboration with other like-minded groups.”
Vote Leave has the backing of individuals from the Conservative, Labour, Democratic Unionist and United Kingdom Independence parties. It is linked to groups including Business for Britain, Conservatives for Britain, Conservative Voice, Labour Leave, Liberal Leave and Green Leaves. Its documentation lists supporting organisations such as The City for Britain, Farmers for Britain and Lawyers for Britain.
The Group has the active participation of a number of significant political and business figures. The six serving Ministers who opted to avail of the agreement permitting them to campaign against the formal Government position all support Vote Leave. The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is a member of the group’s Campaign Committee. Endorsements have been received from present and former party leaders including Arlene Foster, the Northern Ireland First Minister; Lord David Owen; Lord Michael Howard; and Lord David Trimble.
Other key figures are the former Chancellors, Lords Lawson and Lamont, John Redwood. Lord Tebbit, Liam Fox MP and former Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson. A number of Labour Party figures are included in the list of supporters, such as Frank Field MP and Lord Stoddart. The only UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, is a notable supporter.
The Chairman of Vote Leave is the Labour Party MP, Gisela Stuart, who was one of Tony Blair’s nominees to the European Convention in 2001-2003 where she served with John Bruton as representatives of national parliamentarians on the Convention Praesidium. The executive leadership of the group includes John Mills, who was part of the ‘No’ campaign in 1975, Matthew Elliott, former Chief Executive of Business for Britain, and Dominic Cummings who led the Business for Sterling campaign against Britain joining the euro.
Vote Leave claims support from more than 43,000 individuals and has local and regional groups – with full-time teams in thirteen regions, based on the model of the European Parliament election constituencies.
Fallout on the ‘Leave’ side
The decision to choose Vote Leave meant that Grassroots Out – formerly known as Leave.eu – was not seen to meet the Electoral Commission criteria. The Commission concluded that Vote Leave “represents, to a greater extent than Go Movement Ltd, those campaigning for the ‘Leave’ outcome, which is the test we must apply.”
Grassroots Out responded in different ways.
Its co-founder, Peter Bone, congratulated Vote Leave and spoke of working closely with all those who shared the goal of leaving the EU. The UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, made it clear that his party would work with Vote Leave and all other like-minded groups and stressed that Vote Leave had moved closer to UKIP on the issue of immigration. “I have always wanted all on the Leave side to come together and have done my best to try and make this happen.”
However, the initial reaction of Arron Banks, the founder of Grassroots Out, announced that he was considering a legal challenge to the Electoral Commission decision, referring to a ‘political stitch-up’ (though Banks has since withdrawn this threat, arguing that the campaign was better served by focusing its energies on combatting the Remain campaign).
A third group, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which was not considered to be sufficiently representative, also expressed dissatisfaction with the process and decision.
The decisions of the Electoral Commission mean that the referendum campaign has moved to the stage of formal engagement. With opinion polls showing the two sides locked at fifty-fifty and unrelated issues appearing to have reduced public trust in Prime Minister Cameron, the performance of the designated groups, the evolving position of the Labour Party and the degree of participation by the critical younger age-group will come to the fore.