Saturday is the day to show we are taking this joke no longer. ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on why we all need to turn out for the People’s Vote march.
Ever the pessimist, as we gathered in the pub after the big march last October, which was bigger and better than any of us had dared hope for, I was finding the downside.
Surrounded by the noisy, youthful excitement of T-shirted People’s Vote campaigners who could not quite believe just how well it had all gone, just how many hundreds of thousands had come, just how many good speeches we had heard and good films we had watched, just how upbeat and positive the mood had been, I tried to bury the negative thought that was coming into my mind. But I couldn’t help it. Eventually, it just popped out.
‘This gives us a massive problem now though,’ I said. Cue a dip in the noise and a look crossing some of the exuberant faces that I had witnessed before. The look which says ‘granddad is about to piss on our chips’.
‘What?’ asked Rachel Kinnock – who has known me all of my political life, since she was the teenage daughter of then Labour leader Neil – perhaps sensed what was coming, and didn’t want the younger ones to be deflated at this moment of triumph. Her look said ‘don’t go there’.
But holding back on a thought I consider to be important is not something I am very good at. ‘The problem is,’ I said, breaking one of my golden rules of campaigning – never say ‘the problem is’, focus on the solution – ‘that if we have another march, it has to be even bigger and even better.’
‘Give us a break!’ exclaimed Will Dry, a Leave voter who has changed his mind and has since become an indefatigable campaigner for Our Future Our Choice, one of the new youth groups which has emerged from the ashes of the referendum.
‘Just ignore him,’ said my daughter Grace. ‘He can’t cope with everyone having a good time. Especially when he is missing a Burnley game to be here.’ True, my phone had just beeped with the third Manchester City goal against us.
So the young people’s dip around me didn’t last long. Someone got another round in. The exuberance returned.
I continued to stare at my sparkling water and worry. Eventually Burnley lost 5-0. And of the October 20 march and its success, the thought kept nagging away at me: ‘Had we reached peak People’s Vote?’
‘Let’s have another march’ is one of the easiest demands to make in any campaign. Harder to deliver. The bigger the march, the higher the costs. Up to half a million quid just to put the damn thing on. And the coffers were not flowing with dark money from dark sources – as has been alleged of other campaigns you might have heard of… roubles and tax dodgers’ undisclosed donations more than welcome.
Timing is also never easy. You need time to plan. Months are better than weeks in that regard. And if there are two words that don’t go well together, as we have seen just about every week since June 23 2016, those words are ‘Brexit’ and ‘planning’.
Nobody, least of all the prime minister, could have confidently predicted what would be happening in the Brexit process at any given moment as we surveyed the weeks ahead. But eventually we all settled on March 23, six days ahead of the due date of departure. An important day in my calendar when I was younger, and a big Motown fan; the day I made a point of posting a birthday card to Diana Ross. You see, I was a normal-ish teenager too you know. I grew out of it in my twenties. She will be 75 next Tuesday, March 26. I’ll play Theresa May’s Brexit anthem… Do You Know Where You’re Going To?
The one thing we could be sure of was that the date of this week’s European summit would not move. The EU side, after all, has been rather more strong and stable than the UK. And given the divisions exploding across the political landscape here, we could be reasonably sure that our most hapless prime minister in history, served by surely the most useless collection of individuals ever to call itself a cabinet, would be unlikely to have secured the successful passage of any form of Brexit by then.
And even if they had, we already knew that it was so far removed from the Brexit that had been promised in the referendum, so many new facts about real Brexit were known, and the clarity about the future relationship that Theresa May had promised was so lacking, that the demands that she ‘Put It To The People’ were not going to go away.
So the bullet was bit. The date was set. And even though the setting up of the new Independent Group of MPs the day after we announced it took a lot of the media focus away from the People’s Vote, and more onto the broader issues of the state of our politics and whether they are fit for purpose, the numbers signing up looked healthy from the off.
The pessimist in me, ever mindful of challenges to be worked on rather than those already met, continues to operate an ‘l’ll believe it when I see it’ approach. But as things stand, it is hard even for me not to feel an excited confidence that Saturday could be a very big day indeed.
Take a look at the coach travel map. So much for this being an issue for the so-called metropolitan elite. From the West Country, which is home to some of the poorest parts of the country, not only dozens of coaches are coming, but a special train like we used to have in the good old football days.
The north and the Midlands, so often lumped together in the London debate as homogeneously pro-Brexit, are sending people en masse. The sign-ups are way ahead of last time. And every single penny that will fund the staging, the security, the marketing, the whole event, has been raised by crowdfunding. Incredible.
Compare and contrast the March to Leave, launched amid typical Nigel Farage fanfare, trying to get historical resonance with the Jarrow March, as it left the north east last weekend, not realising that the Dulwich College-educated, private jet-flying, City trading, friend of a global network of hard-right billionaires is not quite the look you need.
He and his like keep telling us there are 17.4 million people ready to take to the streets, take up arms even, if their hard Brexit vision fails to be delivered.
Yet as the March to Leave army was outnumbered by stewards, followed every step by the brilliant Led By Donkeys poster campaign, Farage could not get away fast enough, back to the warmth and safety of a metropolitan elite radio studio.
Beneath the carefully cultivated country gent look was an emperor with no clothes, wondering why nobody could be bothered to go on his long walk for freedom.
I don’t know for sure how many will be there on the Put it to the People March. But it’s a lot. And that has been without the kind of blanket mainstream media coverage that the Brextremists can get for any threat or utterance they care to make.
It is still all to play for, and all to march for. The government needs to hear and see that the campaign to put it to the people is growing. Labour needs to see that while there may be a price to pay for failing to go along with the unicorn approach to Brexit, there will be an even bigger price to pay if they facilitate it.
And Europe’s leaders, who have been told so often by government and opposition, by their ambassadors and by our media, that there simply is not the demand for a final say referendum, need to see just how far from the truth that assessment actually is.
Be there. Bring your friends. Bring your family. Bring your neighbours. Be part of something that really could be the difference between winning and losing. Between MPs doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Between Britain being a country that is respected in the world again, or forever attached to the description we hear everywhere we go now, home and abroad… ‘global laughing stock’.
Saturday is the day to show we are taking this joke no longer. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – to keep us from making sure that whatever the outcome of this wretched Brexit process, that is doing so much damage to our politics, our economy and our standing in the world, it must go back to the people. See you there.