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‘Brexit is wrong for us’: Andrew Adonis interviews the new CEO of The European Movement

Put It To The People march for a Peoples Vote on 23rd March 2019 in London, photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images) - Credit: In Pictures via Getty Images

Andrew Adonis interviews Patrick Henegan, the man tasked with making the Remain movement a reality.

During the 2016 EU referendum, Vote Leave had the key advantage of being led by battle-hardened campaigners who had come fresh from stopping the Alternative Vote campaign, scrapping elected mayors, and preventing the UK joining the euro.

The appointment of Patrick Heneghan as CEO of the European Movement means they no longer have that edge. He enjoys a reputation among campaign veterans as a legendary Labour organiser. The first election he worked on was in 2001, as the local organiser and parliamentary agent in Bury South, where he engineered the second biggest swing to Labour in the country on a 10% lower turnout.

In the next general election in 2005, Heneghan was drafted out of head office to try and rescue MP Lorna Fitzsimons’ campaign in Rochdale. This was a nasty and vicious battle where the BNP and Muslim Public Affairs Committee attacked Labour in a heavily Muslim area, and the fallout from the Iraq War hit hard. But despite losing by 442 votes, Heneghan says he learnt a huge amount about mobilising people on the ground, particularly by working with American organiser Karen Hicks, who had run governor Howard Dean’s revolutionary campaign for the Democratic primaries in 2004.

‘For too many years in the Labour Party it was sort of like if somebody new came through the door you’d think, great, give them 5,000 leaflets and off they go, and that’s the job done’, he says.

‘What Karen did was embed the idea that when people come through the door, especially new people, you shouldn’t think ‘great, I’ll give them the most difficult letterbox route that I haven’t been able to give anyone else before’, but that these people are the key to bringing more people in.

‘So actually using the volunteers to grow the level of supporters, getting them on the phones all day talking, holding meetings in the evening for people to come and participate, and then getting them to do some work for you at the same time.’

This produced impressive results. Heneghan says that his proudest moment of the 2005 campaign was on polling day when they had 180 people knocking on doors in Rochdale, despite starting with a group of just 10 to 15 activists.

They were so effective at recruiting volunteers that the regional director asked him to ship people to a safer neighbouring seat on polling day. Ever the hard-nosed political strategist, Heneghan pretended that his phone wasn’t working.

He deployed this approach again 12 years later when he built a network of organisers in key seats all over the country for Labour’s 2015 and 2017 campaigns.

This was a critical part of Labour’s unexpected surge last time, with reports abounding of armies of Labour volunteers appearing in target seats in the final weeks of the campaign.

He is doing the same thing with the European Movement today. ‘We’re bringing people into the movement stage by stage’, he says. ‘We’re getting more members and growing our e-mail lists, but also getting those people to come out and get involved on the ground by knocking on doors or running street stalls or making phone calls.’

The European Movement is a cross-party pressure group which campaigns in support of greater integration. It was first established in the 1940s, under the presidency of Winston Churchill, and was involved with the campaign for Britain to join the European Community in the 1970s. Since the 2016 referendum, it has enjoyed a phenomenal growth in members and has become a key organisation in the grassroots fight against Brexit. The growth of its branches I have seen during my tour of the country in the last year bears this out.

But perhaps Patrick’s greatest triumph so far was 2010, when his strategy denied David Cameron a majority. This was not a fortuitous time to run a Labour campaign. It followed a long period of government, the aftermath of the financial crisis, the fallout from the Iraq war, and a series of funding scandals that left the party in a precarious financial position. If there was a time when the Conservatives should have won a strong majority, it was in the 2010 general election.

But Heneghan had a new weapon for Labour. In 2008 and 2009, he managed the construction of the first national voter database in the UK, a centralised online system that collected all of Labour’s canvassing data.

He then put it into practice as director of targeting and used insights from it to build an electoral strategy for Labour. The result was a highly focused campaign that recognised that Labour were unlikely to be the biggest party but could still fight the Conservatives to a draw.

‘When I came up with this strategy in December 2009, everyone thought I was insane’ Heneghan says. But come polling day, it was mission accomplished.’

He has the same clear strategic vision of what needs to be done to fight a successful Remain campaign in a People’s Vote. ‘What happened last time was a sort of Project Fear/retail offer versus emotion and values, and we can’t, in the next campaign, cede emotion and values to the Leave campaign.

‘We have to find a set of language and messages that allow us to communicate our positive vision for Britain within the European Union in a way that gets to people’s core values of being British – that it is about participating, leading, and fair play.’

Heneghan helped organise the most effective and shared video of the last campaign – Gordon Brown’s ‘Lead not Leave’ speech, which ended up being viewed more than two million times despite costing almost nothing. He tells me that this intervention was too late, and that next time we need this kind of powerful messaging right from the start.

He also has a plan for engaging with the left-behind communities that Vote Leave so effectively mobilised last time and one-upping the targeted social media they used to reach them.

‘In the next campaign we need to be in these communities, not just with Facebook adverts doing X, Y, and Z, but on the ground, organising grassroots. We need to get local groups the size of ones like Islington for Europe in places like the West Midlands and South Yorkshire.’

But what drives Heneghan to spend every hour of the day leading this fight to keep us in the European Union?

He says ‘more than anything else what crystallised it was the referendum and the notion that we lost something that was so important and so defined our country’.

More recently, Heneghan says it was the contrast between the Leave Means Leave and Put it to the People marches in central London. ‘You only need to look at the people who are celebrating, and the people who are screaming ‘no-deal’ to know that Brexit is wrong for us,’ Heneghan says. ‘They were screaming that they/we had won the Second World War, and that we did it alone, so Britain is better than all these other countries. It’s so disturbing and so wrong.’

Winston Churchill wanted strong alliances with the democratic parts of Europe, and as Michael Heseltine brilliantly put it at the People’s Vote rally, being alone was his fear, not his hope. And of course, Churchill was the first president of the European Movement. With Heneghan leading it, Winston’s legacy is in safe hands.

Andrew Adonis is a vice-chairman of the European Movement

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