23 Jan 2016

Grassroots Out public meeting, aka Farage on Tour

The first Grassroots Out public meeting took place in Kettering today, so I went along to see how things panned out.

The capacity in the hall is 3,000 but there were empty seats here and there. Interestingly, the BBC news team due to cover the event didn't arrive and the hall was told that they were unable to turn up due to traffic problems.

Clearly anything outside London is a journey too difficult for the Beeb, especially if having to report on something that runs contrary to its worldview.

The BBC report of the event - most likely supplied by the nonplussed local radio hack from BBC Northampton, who spent time asking people why they were there and what it meant to them - was short on detail and also rounded down the attendance to 2,000 from the actual 2,314 who took their seats.

The Grassroots Out proposition was made clear, "We want to Leave the European Union". Each seat had an A5 response card which stated that and also invited attendees to help with the campaign:

Perhaps this was the aim of the meeting, to start building up a roster of volunteers who can execute the ground game at referendum time. With its speakers, content and ra-ra approach, it certainly wasn't a public meeting designed to engage and win over undecided voters. If that was the intention then it was the wrong tone and the objective won't have been achieved. It was less a public meeting than a gathering of the converted. 

A good number of the crowd were Ukip supporters, there only to see Nigel Farage speak. Indeed one supporter, who was annoyed by the delayed start, heckled Farage on the auditorium balcony and demanded he get on with things, clearly under the impression this was Farage's meeting.

The speakers were politely and sometimes warmly received. I doubt many will have heard of Sammy Wilson MP before today, unless they are familiar with his attacks on climate change politics. But they certainly loved the Belfast boy by the end of his speech. He made clear we need to leave the EU. But he made democracy the cornerstone of his speech and that is the most powerful argument that can be deployed. Wilson gets it.

Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone and Tom Pursglove reinforced the need to leave the EU. Kate Hoey, sandwiched between the three Tory MPs in the running order, focused on social justice in her speech, folding in the late Tony Benn's test of democratic accountability before finally remembering to mention we should leave the EU - this despite being part of Vote Leave which is doing all it can to do anything but.

Then it was Farage's turn. Some of the audience were on their feet as he walked towards the stage. He was the draw for a big minority of the audience. But with the exception of his folding in to his speech the Paris terror attacks and the Cologne sexual assaults, to justify his immigration position, it could have been any other Farage speech. He worked his fan club in the crowd as he always does, securing the obligatory chant recital of 'we want our country back', as others looked on variously embarrassed and bewildered.

As it was clear his speech was closing, a good number of people upped and left, having seen the man they came to see. This was all a little embarrassing for Dr Liam Fox, who Farage introduced as a big beast and special guest speaker. As Fox spoke, Faragista continued to sneak out of the hall.

The key theme of Fox's address was security. In response to Project Fear and Cameron's latest wheeze that we need to remain in the EU for the good of our security, Fox has clearly been rolled out to combat the FUD. The gamble is that as a former Defence Secretary, a lot of people will take Fox seriously on security. He rightly made clear NATO was our security umbrella, while the EU's actions and policies actually increase risk to us. I'm not sure he clicked with the audience as much as was intended, but he is the first heavyweight Tory to declare for Grassroots Out and say we must leave the EU and be an independent, sovereign Britain.

Naturally the media took the opportunity to promote Fox as the man launching the campaign, putting him front and centre so they can maintain their obsession with deepening Tory party 'divisions'.

As expected, no one discussed what needs to happen after a leave vote. The event had a feel of confirmation bias and mood music designed to play to an existing support that will not vote to Remain. Was it a recruiting pitch? Possibly.

There wasn't a great deal for the undecided voter to give them confidence in Brexit, or give any reassurance that a carefully planned process can take us out of the EU without risking British jobs or commercial interests. It was the same old lines rolled out to please those who like hearing it. Some of it was well delivered. Some of it was plain cringeworthy. But it was a start.

If Grassroots Out is to make an impact and win over undecideds, it will need to radically adjust its message and widen its proposition to include education, not just a litany of dissatisfaction. Farage and his supporters risk hijacking GO as a campaign vehicle to compensate for the fall in Ukip profile and support. Bone, Hollobone and Pursglove need to be on their guard that their hard work isn't wrecked for the same of one man's agenda.

There needs to be more talk of democracy as exhibited by Sammy Wilson, and explanation about how the EU subverts it. There needs to be less focus on immigration, especially when it leads to Farage rooting around in the depths to use the Cologne assaults as his own version of Project Fear.

There needs to be a positive vision articulated of Britain's place in the world, but combined with a detailed plan of how it can be done without risking jobs and trade. Instead of getting people to chant vaguely about wanting our country back, GO needs to help people understand the many issues our elected representatives cannot change because of EU control and how leaving the EU can change that and open the door to greater people power over the direction of this country. I'm convinced that while it may seem a subtle difference, that kind of vision would have far greater resonance with the middle England GO is hoping to win over.