Only Wales’ grassroots activists can take on Cummings and Banks’ next social media onslaught
Helen Wales, Chair of Cardiff for Europe
Everyone has a theory about why the campaign to Remain in the EU failed to convince in 2016.
Leave had better slogans. Remain only talked about the economy. People wanted to give Cameron a kicking. Project Fear. Cambridge Analytica. Boris Johnson’s ego.
One clear shortcoming was the campaign’s failure to talk meaningfully to communities outside the south-east corner of England, and its reliance on a centralised, top-down structure.
This second point served Wales particularly badly, where the campaign beyond the capital felt all but invisible and came hot on the heels of the Welsh Assembly elections.
But over the last three years, whilst many have been distracted by the painful and arcane machinations of Westminster, self-organised pro-European groups have been sprouting across the UK.
A few weeks ago, an estimated 140,000 activists gathered in London for the ‘No to Boris, Yes to Europe’ protest. The speakers did not include a single politician, with the organisers deliberately focusing on giving a voice to grassroots campaigners.
Cardiff for Europe formed in late 2016 in the time-honoured tradition of many a campaign group: strangers coming together in a pub and deciding that doing something was the only viable option.
But before you cry ‘Metropolitan elite’, take note: Cardiff for Europe is one of over twenty local groups working together under the Cymru Dros Ewrop – Wales for Europe banner. There are an estimated 200 local campaign groups now active across the UK, so Wales’s 10% of that total is disproportionately high.
Groups are active from Anglesey to Wrexham, from Pembrokeshire to Brecon, and across South Wales and the Valleys – Pontypridd, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Swansea, Neath, Bridgend.
Members comprise a refreshing mix of seasoned and first-time activists and are genuinely cross-party (though at Cardiff for Europe we are admittedly yet to welcome members from UKIP or the Brexit Party).
One deserved criticism of the 2016 Stronger In campaign was its stubborn focus on the economy.
Most of the people now active in the pro-EU campaign will tell you clearly: it’s not just about the economy, stupid.
A recent Cardiff for Europe Facebook thread asked members what drove them to campaign. Responses included opportunities to work and travel freely across Europe, minimum standards for workers, consumer protections, environmental protections, a belief in international alliances, and, again and again, peace.
This, along with recent Brexit Party polling in the European Parliament elections and ratcheting up of the No Deal game-playing from the new resident at 10 Downing Street, should worry anyone in Wales with even a flicker of feeling for Europe.
Many would say it should worry anyone in Wales full stop. But there are causes for optimism, too.
Whilst opinion admittedly remains divided, polls suggest that opinion in Wales is slowly shifting, as time passes and leaving the EU moves from a vague idea to a reality.
We’re already seeing the seeds of the cross-party cooperation that was so limited in Wales in 2016. The Lib Dem victory in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election is the most significant example.
Let’s also not forget either that in June, Welsh Assembly Members voted to give the people of Wales a say on the final Brexit deal.
The greatest cause for optimism, though, is arguably that this mess has created a mass of local activists hungry to campaign.
The model for Wales for Europe is to work together nationally and talk about what matters locally, whether that’s jobs at Ford in Bridgend or Airbus in Flintshire, the challenges faced by Welsh-speaking communities farming in Ceredigion, clean beaches along our coastline, or what it will mean for Cardiff if our universities lose students and research funding.
Few now doubt that we will soon be facing a General Election, and many predict it will be followed by a new referendum on Brexit. Both are likely to be loud. Both are likely to be riddled with deliberately divisive, superficial and simplistic slogans.
It may seem naive to think that a motley crew of grassroots campaign groups has any chance of being louder than the next Dominic Cummings ‘masterpiece’ or the social media onslaught funded by the next Aaron Banks.
But surely we have to hope that a campaign driven by local activists who have conversations about what matters in our lives and in our different communities will have a key role to play in the decisions people make.
And if we can’t hope for that, what hope can any of us on either side of the Brexit fence really have for the future of our democracy?