The campaign for Brexit: one year on

By - Wednesday 28th June, 2017

In a longform retrospective, Michael Swadling reflects on running the Leave campaign in Croydon

Photo public domain.

A year ago the referendum was held on our membership of the EU. In addition to the national campaigns, we had locally run campaigns here in Croydon. I ran the Vote Leave campaign for the borough and – having just been through another vote – it’s a good time to look back at that campaign. This isn’t about the politics of EU membership; but the process of how the campaign was run.

After the Conservatives won a majority in the election of 2015, it became clear we would have a referendum. Much speculation abounded on the date, but in late 2015 in Croydon a small and largely ad-hoc band of people were starting to run street stalls and build a team. Over the winter, a mix of UKIP members and independent people held street stalls in Croydon. We were also working closely with teams in Lambeth and Sutton. Material for these came from UKIP, the Freedom Association’s ‘Better Off Out’ campaign and Leave.EU (funded by Arron Banks). On the 20th February, David Cameron announced the June referendum date – and then things really got started.

It’s worth noting we were very much a local organisation at this stage, and we had no affiliation to a national group. Over the next few weeks, the national campaign groups of Grassroots Out and Vote Leave formed and in the case of Vote Leave became the eventual designated group for the national campaign. In Croydon, we managed to form a single group where I was the lead for Vote Leave, Grassroots Out and Leave.EU. With area leads in each constituency, Duncan Forsyth (North), Chris Mendes (South), and Dan Heaton (Central), and about 50 regular volunteers, we set about running a campaign to maximise the leave vote in Croydon. The areas given became less relevant as the campaign progressed, as we all pitched in across the borough.

Whilst it would be great to be in every high street – we simply didn’t have the numbers

Any campaign is run subject to the resources available. Whilst it would be great to canvas every house, hold dozens of meetings, and be in every high street, we simply didn’t have the numbers. We also lacked any historic data – usually, all parties know the best areas for them. Major parties often have lists going back many years of individual voter intentions; we only had best guesses. Our volunteers were highly committed, but like many volunteers they will stick to areas they know, do things they enjoy and are not necessarily optimal for the campaign. I saw my role as a mix of directing/encouraging people towards the best activity, whilst letting them undertake the roles they wanted to as – ultimately – it was their choice.

The purpose of the campaign was to ‘win Croydon’; in reality with a national referendum, maximising the vote was all that mattered. Within the campaign team we focused on the notion of winning Croydon to both give us a goal and underline our area of responsibility. We were a local campaign and really couldn’t influence what happened at a national level; whilst we benefited from the national activity, we had to focus on what extra we could do at a local level to get additional votes.

Locally, we wanted to humanise the national campaign, show we were local people in the local area, passionate about what we believe in and available for people to speak to. With limited numbers to do this, we needed to pick the areas we targeted and the activities we undertook with care. Early on in the campaign, we simply didn’t have the numbers for canvassing door to door, so we focused instead on leafleting and street stalls. We couldn’t cover all of the borough with either of these, so we picked out the key areas.

We had areas of strong Leave support in New Addington

We believed the underlying support in the borough would be for Remain in the north, Leave in the south and all to play for in the centre. We also had some areas of strong Leave support like New Addington. Leaving aside that some of this plan proved to be wrong, these were the assumptions we based the campaign on. Together with the constituency leads, I decided to focus most early activity in the centre of the borough, with a plan to move to south with a ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) effort in the final few weeks. This focus tied in well with the geographical spread of volunteers. This meant we gave limited focus to the north of Croydon, street stalls were held, station leafleting was done, and many leaflets delivered – but, like any campaign, we placed resources where we could get the most votes. Towards the end of the campaign the UKIP branch arranged a large paid-for leaflet drop and did ask us where to focus this. At this stage nationally we saw ‘the Commonwealth vote’ (first and second-generation Commonwealth immigrants) coming towards the Leave campaign and had anecdotal evidence of this locally, so we had a large leaflet drop with a couple of weeks to go across much of Croydon North. Some of this may sound cynical, but winning the vote is the job in hand and maximising the chance of that was our role.

Photo author’s own.

The volunteers for the Leave campaign were from a mix of backgrounds. Of the organisation I corresponded with, roughly one third were UKIP members, one third Conservative party members and one third non-aligned. We may have had some Labour party members, but none that made me aware of it. We very much put party colours aside and acted as a Leave campaign. The referendum campaign coincided with the GLA elections in London. This adversely impacted the UKIP candidate in Croydon and Sutton, Peter Staveley, as most of the branch was focused on the Leave campaign, however it greatly helped our campaign overall, as many Remain activists for the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats were focused on GLA elections and not the referendum. This gave us a larger number of feet on the ground than the Croydon Remain campaign teams up to the final few weeks of the campaign and a massive head start in setting up our organisation. The volunteers we had came from a mixture of personal contacts, signing up via the Vote Leave and Leave.EU websites or just seeing us in the high street.

During the campaign much was made of the national splits between Arron Banks’ organisation Leave.EU and the Vote Leave campaign. At a local level the ‘split’ or competition between them worked well for us. We handed out or delivered an estimated 200,000 leaflets in Croydon over 5 months. I would find when Vote Leave were running short of leaflets, Leave.EU would send another delivery, Better Off Out turned up one day with 6,000 leaflets going spare, The Bruges Group had some excellent leaflets we targeted business with, UKIP had thousands of leaflets their team delivered door to door, and Grassroots Out had a range of terribly bulky leaflets none of us were keen on, but had a habit of turning to when all other sources ran dry. Between these groups, we had a diversity of suppliers and campaign material to meet any need.

My belief is that very few people are persuaded by individual contact

Most of our activity was street stalls. These developed from small stalls with some leaflets to large gazebos and banners, especially in North End in Croydon. Chris Mendes deserves much credit for the creative spark for these. In North End we had a growing band of campaigners and on a Saturday, often spoke to over 100 people, giving out many more leaflets. Dan Heaton and I often ran stalls in smaller high streets. My belief is that very few people are persuaded by individual contact, if only because the number of people whom you can speak to is so low. The purpose of the street stalls in large part was to let people see you exist at a local level and see that you are in and from their local community. Social media, especially Facebook, played a major part in backing up this message with adverts going to targeted groups to further increase people’s awareness of you being in their area.

Overwhelmingly people in the street are decent and friendly. The stalls gave a lot of opportunity for people to ask questions they had and I think most people who have done this are surprised how easy and non-frightening it is. We would get some challenges largely from what I would describe as ‘wind-up merchants’. In most cases I’m not really sure they cared what side of the campaign we were on. As the campaign developed we started to run public meetings. We ran seven in total, whilst focused on the central areas of the borough, availability of halls became the driving factor. I was surprised at how hard it can be to hire a hall for a public meetings, few venues had any online details and often required you to speak to someone who wasn’t in that day! I have to thank Gavin Barwell for arranging a series of public meetings for Remain and publishing them. This gave me a list of venues I could contact and as most were politically independent, they were either happy to or felt obliged to provide a date I could hold a meeting on. The logistics of holding a meeting basically involved delivering thousands of leaflets in the expectation that roughly 1% of people attend. This can be supplemented with contact lists, adverts and social media. The act of holding the meeting is often as important as the meeting itself. For us it gave a reason for people to read a leaflet (an invite to a meeting), and again reinforced we were active in an area.

I was often asked to hold a debate with the local Remain campaign. Personally I was reluctant to do this for two reasons. Until the final few weeks, we had more people delivering leaflets than the local Remain campaign. A debate leaflet would – by its nature – be neutral. I didn’t want to use the ‘Leave effort’ to deliver what would be, in part, Remain campaign material. In Croydon we didn’t have any professional politicians actively campaigning on our side. Any debate would likely have been between someone like myself (I work in IT) and someone who undertakes political debates for a living. As I suspected and had reinforced by my own experience at hustings in the general election, debating professionals is very difficult and simply knowing your subject isn’t enough. As such I really couldn’t see an upside for a local debate. We did make some contact with the Remain team in Croydon (we could often all be found dotted around The George at the end of a long Saturday on the North End), but this didn’t come to anything. A debate was held in Coulsdon but not organised by the main Croydon teams.

Over two months, we knocked on 8,000 doors

We had limited resources for canvassing but knowing New Addington was a strong Leave area, we canvassed most of the town. Duncan Forsyth led this effort and did a great job arranging lots of people and information. Over two months, we knocked on 8,000 doors. Small compared to the numbers in the last election campaign – but huge given the lack of people and experience we had. On the day this gave us a long list of people to get out to vote and helped ensure the New Addington and Fieldway wards had such a high Leave vote.

One surprising aspect of the campaign was the significant foreign TV, radio and press coverage we received, which was largely due to Croydon being outside central London, but easy to get to by train. We made appearances on Danish, Japanese, German, French and South Korean TV, and on French and German radio. One of my personal highlights of the campaign was in a fairly long interview trying to explain the EU to South Korean TV by saying that we no more want to be run from Brussels than they would from Jakarta. This was in stark contrast to local media who, with the exception of the Croydon Citizen, gave little coverage to the local campaigns.

Results partly confirmed what we suspected – and partly not

The results for Croydon confirmed partly what we expected and partly not. The results breakdown isn’t 100% accurate, as the postal votes were distributed across multiple wards. They do however reflect the sampling we saw and are the official results. A 41% Leave vote in Croydon North was probably higher than we expected, and a 46% Leave vote in Croydon South was lower than we expected. Our effort in New Addington and the centre of the borough generally paid off, with a slight Leave win in Croydon Central. Of course this was part of a national referendum, so the breakdowns don’t impact the overall result. Within Croydon lots of people outside of our campaign also simply got hold of leaflets from the national campaigns and delivered them; this all worked for our cause.

There are many great people I have not been able to mention, and I have deliberately avoided the ‘politics’ of the campaign. The process of running a campaign is, I suspect, similar whatever its topic. Of course the national campaigns had the greatest influence – but when something you believe in is being debated, Croydon has volunteers ready to help out.

Michael Swadling

Michael Swadling

Michael works in the IT Industry for and has lived in Croydon all of his life. He has been a governor in local schools for over ten years. During the referendum he was the Croydon Area Manager for Grassroots Out, Leave.EU and Vote Leave. He is a member of UKIP campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union and he was the UKIP candidate for Croydon North in 2017. The Croydon Leave campaign can be followed on Facebook.

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  • Jonny Rose

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for this hugely interesting ‘behind the scenes’ look at your campaign.

    I, myself, was a ballot-spoiler on the day but it’s really impressive and commendable how you were able to mobilise and carry through an operation like this (whatever the merits/mistakes of the cause itself!) :)

    • Michael Swadling

      Thanks and I do hope for anyone interested in politics the process can be of interest.