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Brexit – The Uncivil War: The former Chair of Labour Leave responds

As we look for ways through the current Brexit impasse, it’s crucial to understand both the key role played by Labour Eurosceptics in swinging the vote – and that movement’s long history.

Image: Brexit, The Uncivil War. Credit: C4.

Was the widely acclaimed film The Uncivil War an accurate record of what happened?

I was Chair of Vote Leave for much of the time covered by the film – and there’s another story to tell. While Dominic Cummings, played extremely effectively by Benedict Cumberbatch, is portrayed as a flawed but highly effective genius, I am given a bit part with two or three short scenes portraying me as an incompetent and disloyal figurehead. As Brian Monteith said in a review of the film for City AM, “the portrayal of John Mills – a highly successful businessman and Labour’s largest private donor – as an out-of-touch dinosaur was hugely unfair.”

Both Cummings – and the film – underestimated the key role played by Labour Eurosceptics – a movement with a long history and one that needs to be understood as we look for ways through the current impasse.

A little history

My involvement with what was originally the European Economic Community (EEC) and the Common Market goes back a long way. As an Oxford PPE undergraduate at the dawn of the 1960s, I came to the view that membership of the Common Market would not be in the UK’s best interest. Far from improving our economic performance or political advantage, I foresaw that it would lead to higher food prices, a deteriorating trade balance, significant net financial contributions and to an “ever closer union”, which was not what the British people wanted.  I was not at all against co-operation across Europe, recognising the benefits that the EEC had brought about in reconciling France and Germany, but I thought European co-operation would work better on an inter-governmental basis than as part of a political project. Events since the early 1960s have not significantly shifted my views.  

During the 1975 EU referendum I was co-opted onto the Eurosceptic National Referendum Campaign (NRC) Committee. As its other members were generally much more interested in policy than in organisation I rapidly found myself in charge of managing the national campaign – arranging nightly TV interviews, creating a national network of willing helpers, and distributing millions of leaflets and posters. I ran the London area myself. Despite valiant efforts by the NRC – out-financed by the Britain in Europe campaign by a factor of some ten to one – the electorate voted two to one in favour of the UK staying in the Common Market. Those of us on the Leave side thought that we had won the argument but – clearly - we had not won the referendum.

I have been a life-long Labour supporter and in the 1970s most of the opposition to Common Market membership came from the left. An organisation to link together Labour Eurosceptics was clearly required. Ron Leighton, later to become an MP, and I therefore set up the Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee (LCMSC) shortly after the referendum. I have been its Secretary ever since. It attracted a large number of heavyweight Labour MPs to its ranks, including Gordon Brown and Jack Straw – and even Tony Blair at his first parliamentary election. During the 1970s and ‘80s Euroscepticism was widespread in the Labour and Trade Union movements but as time wore on, sentiment changed.  A highly effective speech by Jaques Delors at the 1988 Trades Union Congress swung key union leaders towards a more favourable view of what was still the EEC while Neil Kinnock – again an ex-Eurosceptic – pulled Labour towards a more favourable view of what was becoming the European Union.

From around 1990 until the mid-2010s, the Labour Euro-Safeguards Campaign (LESC), as the LCMSC had by then become, carried the torch for left-of-centre Euroscepticism. We fought against the UK joining the euro. We opposed the Stability and Security Pact. We published bi-monthly Bulletins, had regular public meetings particularly at the Labour Party Conference, and provided support to small number of Eurosceptic Labour MPs who shared our views. By the early 2010s, however, mainly as a result of Conservatives becoming much more Eurosceptic, and partly driven by the rise of UKIP, it was clear that the prospects of an EU referendum were becoming much more substantial.  I therefore got involved with – and helped to fund – a number of cross-party organisations, in addition to the Campaign for an Independent Britain for which LESC had long provided membership support. In particular, I became the Chair of The People’s Pledge, which campaigned for an EU referendum. And at the same time I helped to found and became Joint Chair of Business for Britain, the organisation which eventually spawned Vote Leave, which I also chaired until I stood down in February 2016 in favour of Lord Lawson, who in turn stood down in March 2016 in favour of Gisela Stuart MP. In 2015, I also founded a specifically Labour organisation with Brendan Chilton to campaign within the Labour Party for a referendum. This organisation, which I also chaired, eventually became Labour Leave.

By the time Labour Leave got going and people like Dominic Cummings got involved, I had spent forty years campaigning in the Eurosceptic world. I had chaired and supported financially a spectrum of cross-party and specifically Labour Eurosceptic organisations. I had written and published hundreds of thousands of words on EU issues in bulletins, pamphlets and books. I had a huge web of contacts on which to draw. Although by the time of the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum, the Parliamentary Labour Party was probably 90% for Remain, as were maybe 80% of Labour Party members, among traditional Labour voters there was much more Leave support, which I think my activities had helped to create.

Vote Leave

Vote Leave got underway as a campaigning organisation during the autumn of 2015. In many ways it was very effective. Dominic Cummings had originally intended just to help set up the organisation and then to leave others to run it, instead he became its main driving force. Dominic was acutely aware of the potential for using up-to-date social media techniques for identifying and then fostering supporters. He also clearly understood the psychology required to motivate people. No-one could doubt either his high intelligence or his commitment. In all these respects, he had the full support of the Vote Leave Board.

All these positive aspects of the way in which Vote Leave was run did not, however, make for a very happy ship – or for easy relations between Dominic, the Board, and various other key groups of people who needed to be kept on side, not least MPs and donors. Underlying the tensions which built up, there were major bones of contention.

Firstly, Vote Leave found itself in competition for being the principal Leave campaign with Leave.eu, a rival organisation financed and largely organised by Arron Banks and fronted by Nigel Farage.  Clearly, this was a problem, but I always thought that it was a mistake for Vote Leave to distance itself and to foster antagonism with Leave.eu to the extent it did.  It was obvious that Nigel Farage had a strong but limited appeal so that two different campaigns had to be fought at the same time – one to reinforce the UKIP hardcore sceptical vote and the other to win over the undecideds, with the acrimony that resulted from the failure to develop better relations  being largely Vote Leave’s fault. It seemed to me that much more was lost in terms of the external perception of internal warfare and lost fundraising opportunities than was gained by increasing Vote Leave’s appeal to the middle ground by distancing itself from Leave.eu.

Secondly, it was always obvious that a key Leave constituency was the Leave-leaning Labour voter, but Vote Leave did remarkably little to cultivate such voters. Labour only had a very limited number of Leave adherents at national level, and it was of key importance to have people like Kate Hoey MP on board. Vote Leave made them so unwelcome, however, that in the end most of them decamped to Leave.eu – leaving me personally, as a reasonably well-known Labour figure still heavily involved with Vote Leave, in an increasingly impossible position.

Then there was Grassroots Out (GO). I was at the original meeting on behalf of Vote Leave when Peter Bone MP and Tom Pursglove MP proposed setting up what became GO to expand traditional electioneering activity, particularly by holding large meetings to supplement what was being done on social media. It seemed to me that Vote Leave ought to have welcomed this initiative and taken it under its wing. Instead, it cold-shouldered it, so that in the end GO joined forces with Leave.eu, putting designation for Vote Leave very substantially at risk. Vote Leave, of course, subsequently won the designation battle, albeit by a narrow margin, but the inter-regnum until this happened, apart from anything else, made it much more difficult for Vote Leave to raise funds in the crucial period before the full campaign began.

And finally – and crucially – there was a neglect of Post-Referendum Policy  Vote Leave was always against formulating any details as to what policies should be followed if Leave won the referendum. I could see the arguments for avoiding very detailed proposals about which there was bound to be disagreement, but it did seem to me that far too little was done by Vote Leave to prepare the ground in policy terms for a Leave victory and to counter the Remain argument that Leave had no idea what Brexit would entail. Although this happened two and a half months after I left, I was extremely surprised to see Vote Leave almost totally disbanding itself within days of the referendum being held, rather than continuing – albeit on a slimmed down basis – to play an important role in monitoring and influence events.  

The outcome of these disagreements was that relations between me and Dominic Cummings, particularly around Vote Leave’s lack of positive relationships with potential Labour-leaning Leave supporters, deteriorated to a point where my position become intolerable. At the end of April 2016, I resigned from Vote Leave to concentrate full time on Labour Leave for the remainder of the EU referendum campaign.

Labour Leave

Labour Leave is barely mentioned in All Out War, the book by Tim Shipman on which the film The Uncivil War was largely based. In my view, Labour Leave played a lot more critical a role in bringing Leave over the line than the book suggests might have been the case. The film does not mention Labour Leave at all.

9.3 million people voted Labour in the 2015 General Election and it was always clear that Leave would never win unless a substantial proportion of these people could be persuaded to vote Leave in 2016. The problem was that Vote Leave, no doubt partly because it was essentially a heavily Tory-oriented organisation, showed little interest in appealing specifically to these people.  Leave.eu, on the other hand, undoubtedly appealed strongly to some of them but repelled others. There was thus an urgent need for a non-UKIP Labour organisation with which Leave-leaning Labour voters could identify and in which they could find a home. Labour Leave did exist from October 2015 but not as an effective organisation. Although nominally part of Vote Leave, Kate Hoey, Brendan Chilton and others decamped to GO and Leave.eu because of the unsympathetic way they were treated. Vote Leave had control  of Labour Leave’s bank account and social media resources but blocked the Labour Leave management from using them, all of which made effective campaigning by Labour Leave impossible.

When matters came to a head at the end of April 2016, it was agreed that I should resign from Vote Leave to run Labour Leave as a separate organisation, with control of our own bank account and social media activity. As soon as this was done, all the Labour Leave campaigners came back together again and in very short order a major campaign was under way. Over a two-month period – between the end of April and 23rd June 2016 – Labour Leave raised and spent nearly £0.5 million, much of it on a social media campaign very similar to the one adopted by Vote Leave, but specifically targeted to Labour-leaning voters. By 23rd June 2016, Labour Leave had recruited an army of 140,000 supporters to enable us to be effective on the ground as well as in the air.

We monitored how effective our campaigning was by watching the poll figures and our best estimate was that over this two-month period the proportion of 2015 General Election Labour voters who were going to vote Leave rose from 27% to 37%.  It is interesting – and, I think, very revealing – that this 10% swing correlates exactly with what was reported in All Out War which is that at the same time as we were swinging into action, Britain Stronger in Europe found Labour-leaning support dropping from 70% to 60%. Of course, many other factors were at work, but this 10% shift in the way 9.3 million people came to vote when the referendum took place certainly helped to secure the result which was achieved – which might well not have been attained without it. 930,000 people switching to vote Leave instead of Remain put Leave 1.8 million ahead of where it otherwise would have been – and the Leave majority was only 1.3 million.

Conclusion

In The Uncivil War film there are three scenes in which I am a significant figure. I am portrayed in a swimming pool with Arron Banks, apparently plotting on my own initiative to give Leave.eu a bigger role in the Leave referendum campaign. No such event ever took place. There were a couple of occasions over this period when I did meet Arron Banks to try to improve working relations, but these meetings were all sanctioned in advance by the Vote Leave Board and none of them involved my meeting Arron Banks on my own. The scene covering the Vote Leave Board trying – unsuccessfully – to alter Dominic Cumming’s role to one which was less dominant did take place, but did not result in my ceasing to be chair of the Vote Leave Board. I resigned several weeks later – to become Vice-Chair – for completely different reasons. The scene where, after this abortive meeting, I am shown ringing Arron Banks to tell him what had happened is pure fabrication. 

The respective contributions of Dominic Cummings and myself to the outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum will be for history to decide. But a fictionalised history which almost completely writes out the role of left Eurosceptics will do no-one any favours in providing an accurate record of what actually happened.

John Mills is a businessman and economist. He is chairman of direct to consumer retailer, JML, and has published widely as an economist. He sits on the openDemocracy board and is a donor to oD. His most recent book is Exchange Rate Allignments.

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