Alastair Campbell believes things are only just getting started.
Well it was certainly different to the last time we marched in London, a few months ago. Not simply the numbers, which had swelled by a factor of five or six, so that a friend I was going to see at the end did not get to Parliament Square until four hours after the front had set off, and by which time I was in the pub trying to catch the end of Manchester City’s 5-0 demolition of Burnley. (Irrelevant Brexit reference alert – the second goal was almost as big a cheat as the Big Fat Lie on the Big Red Bus: a foul in the build-up, a dive by Leroy Sane, an offside and the ball out of play before being crossed.) However, win some, lose some and, as my non-football-understanding partner Fiona texted, ‘at least it was People’s Vote 5 Brexit 0 on the march’.
Maybe not 5-0, but it certainly felt like a moment. The Brexit elite sought to present the whole thing as a metropolitan elite/establishment plot to thwart the will of the people. Nice spin guys. But not very effective. Because the Brexit elite and the government are the establishment. There were people on the march of all ages and backgrounds, all colours, from all regions and all four nations of the UK.
The June march was, to be frank, all a bit Waitrose. Very middle class. Very middle England. Very middle aged. This was much more broad-based. That was reflected not just in the far greater volume of coaches coming from as far afield as western Cornwall, western Wales and through the night from Inverness. But also in the far greater proportion of young people, which is why we took the decision for the march to be led not by politicians but by students and other young people. Some were not old enough to vote in 2016. Others admitted they had not voted because they never thought Remain would lose. But some – enough to realise this too was different to last time – admitted they had voted Leave and wished they hadn’t.
That was what led our compère Mariella Frostrup to ad-lib a welcome to Leavers who felt let down by what had happened since the referendum. As she ticked me off backstage for ‘occasionally coming over as a tad on the aggressive side’, she said if there was ever going to be unity in the country again, our side had to start the process.
So it felt like a movement. Whereas a few weeks ago it was hard to get the rich and the famous to dig into their pockets to help fund it, this time it was easy to get more than 30 of them to fund a coach from their areas. Whereas last time it was a bit of a struggle to put together a really good mix of speakers, famous and not-so-famous, this time we were having to turn them away. ‘Can I speak?’ was the text to lift the heart before the summer, and sink it now, as a refusal sometimes offends.
That sense of it being a movement was heightened when MPs of five parties stood together and expressed their support for a People’s Vote, and MPs of two parties – Labour’s Phil Wilson and the Conservative Sarah Wollaston – stood together to say they simply were not prepared to lie down and accept something that they know will make their constituents poorer.
With London mayor Sadiq Khan speaking, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon sending in by video a very well-judged message that put the national interest ahead of a purely nationalist stance, and with celebrities as varied as Gary Lineker and Deborah Meaden, Delia Smith and Olly Alexander all involved, Phil Wilson was never going to take the headlines outside his native Durham.
But his message was important, not least because if we do not win the support of the vast majority of Labour MPs for a People’s Vote, we are unlikely to get one, no matter how chaotic and shambolic – yes, it can get worse folks – the negotiations and the Tory infighting becomes. Wilson, a miner’s son and as lifelong Labour and working class background as they come, said he did not come into politics to make the people of Sedgefield poorer. And he urged his colleagues who might be tempted to support Theresa May in voting for whatever deal she manages to cobble together to understand that Brexit is now a moral issue. It was time for ‘leadership not followship’.
The sense of a vacuum in political leadership, and the frustration of millions feeling that the main party leaders are not speaking for them, was without doubt one of the reasons for the bigger than expected turnout. The prime minister appears to be running out of friends and admirers, and lacks the basic skills for a negotiation as difficult and complex as this (though heaven help us if the idea of David ‘no detail’ Davis as an interim stand in get off the ground). There was none of the ‘where’s Jeremy Corbyn?’ chanting of last time. But given he has probably been to more protest rallies than any other MP in the country, it does seem strange that the Labour leadership’s approach to the march on the biggest issue of our time was not merely to stay away but essentially to ignore it. May has dismissed the People’s Vote as a ‘politicians’ campaign’. If only. If only we could get more MPs of all sides to support the perfectly democratic notion that an issue as important as this should be tested against the will of the people, given the chasm between what people voted on, and both the no-deal desired by the Brextremists, and the unloved and unworkable Chequers mush, (May’s plan currently polling among British voters behind Saudi Arabia and Donald Trump).
That is why the rally ended with a call to action – for the public to write to their MPs, and visit their MPs, so they know that the people will not be sidelined, silenced, or excluded from this process. MPs do respond to pressure. As Michel Barnier somewhat unkindly said of the prime minister, she says no – until she says yes.
Both before and after the rally, I was struck by how many people, again a sign of frustration, were stopping me and asking ‘what more can I do?’ The answer is you do whatever you can. What I did for the last few weeks was to drop pretty much everything else to help the People’s Vote team make the event a success.
OK, easier for me as I know them all already, like working with them, have access to the media, have good numbers in my phone and a lot of experience of campaigning. I’m thinking of setting up ‘what can I do?’ surgeries so that we can use better the many offers of help and support we get. Some people have money – and many thanks to Julian Dunkerton and Peter Coates for helping fund a media ad campaign which definitely drove up numbers. Others have time, ideas, networks. We need to use them.
But my favourite ‘what can I do?’ outcomes concerned the films made for the event. I have been working with a film-maker called Mark Lucas for almost 30 years, mainly on election broadcasts and charity promotional videos. His ‘what can I do?’ action was to put together some terrific films for the event, including the one which kicked it off and the one which closed it – ‘everything is impossible until we make it happen’. If you haven’t seen them yet you should. And if you don’t get a shiver down your spine when the music stops and narrator Brian Cox says the words ‘until we make it happen…’ you either don’t have a spine down which a tingle can travel. Or you are Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Cox also had his own beyond-the-call ‘what can I do?’ moment. When we asked the Scottish actor to narrate the closing film, he did not hesitate. But he was in New York working so we had to get him to a studio in Brooklyn the next day. We sent over the words. He recorded the voice-over. Then rather sheepishly he said ‘listen, I don’t know if this is any good but I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote something. Can I read it to you?’ So he did. And we were blown away. That wonderful voice helps of course and you can see it online for the full effect.
But the words are superb too. Here they are.
‘Lies were told, promises made that cannot and will not be honoured. The lack of consideration of our industrial and business enterprises, of relationships that have blossomed and flourished for over 40 years under our European alliance. The damage is incalculable.
‘The devastating effect on our academic life, our universities, the waste incurred by abandoned joint European projects, projects for example in the arena of life sciences, dedicated to the betterment of the health of all nations.
‘In 1940 with the threat of fascism knocking on the door of our island, Winston Churchill proposed that the people of France and the people of the United Kingdom be united by joint citizenship. Then in 1963, two years before he died he wrote: ‘the future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded is black indeed’. Never have those words been as prescient as today.
‘The rise of neo-conservatism, mirrored both in the east and west, fostered by the narcissistic thoughtless idiocy of the American POTUS combined by the sheer vicious thuggery of the poisoner of Moscow.
‘Now more than ever has there been a time where a united not divided Europe should hold and keep a balance of political sanity in our world.
‘The opportunistic clowns of Brexit – Gove, Johnson, the little Englander Farage and the feudalist Rees-Mogg – have shown not an iota of Churchill’s vision and wisdom. The global political climate of 2018 is now so radically different to that of 2016. A People’s Vote is vital in order that they be given the opportunity to reflect and review how the referendum of 2016 has been altered by the social political and economic nature of our lives today in 2018.’
And here, finally, is the script of the film that had several hundred thousand tingles going down several hundred spines.
‘So many of the things we value… So many of the great steps forward we have taken… seemed impossible, until they happened. The NHS was called a pipedream. The establishment voted against it 21 times. The fight went on. Until a final vote made it happen.
‘Peace in Northern Ireland was a moonshot. It could never be. Until some brave leaders took a chance on peace. And people north and south voted for progress.
‘Votes for women, civil partnerships, devolution for Scotland and Wales, the movements against fascism and apartheid – often opposed by the powerful… but made real by the people.
‘We came, and stood in the rain together. Marched together. Sang together.
‘And now we fight again. For our families. For our communities. For our children.
‘It is time for a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal. Because everything is impossible… until we make it happen.’
If that doesn’t inspire you, nothing will. So ask the question ‘what can I do?’ Then do it.