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Catching up with the second referendum mob

SOLOMON HUGHES looks up the abortive movement for a ‘people’s vote’ run by corporate creatures, New Labour hacks, Lib Dems and other transient centrists, whose main campaign groups still exist, despite losing both the referendum and the 2019 election

THE main “people’s vote” organisation is over three months late filing its accounts at Companies House, further underlining the way the second referendum campaign, which dominated the “liberal” press and became a huge conflict within the Labour Party, has now disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Top corporate PR executive Roland Rudd has controlled Open Britain, the main second referendum campaign organisation, since a “boardroom coup” last November.

Rudd is founder and chairman of PR firm Finsbury, which specialises in “corporate governance guidance” and “financial communications” — yet his own organisation is breaking company rules.

Open Britain’s accounts should have been filed on May 31. They are likely to record millions of pounds of political spending.

Companies House suspended disciplinary measures for late accounts because of Covid-19 , but will start imposing penalties again in October.

Open Britain was the official Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum. After losing the referendum it became the leading second referendum campaign group.

Open Britain’s demand for a second referendum was heavily supported by many of the MPs who were against or sceptical about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Their demand for a second referendum was heavily supported by the current Labour leader Keir Starmer. Even some on the left thought trying to overturn the referendum to leave the EU was a crucial fight for Labour.

However, the make-up of Open Britain showed that the campaign was close to corporate and right-wing politicians. Rudd, brother of then Tory home secretary Amber Rudd, led the organisation. His day job is running Finsbury, the PR firm he founded .

Rudd is very much a City figure, with Finsbury running PR for the top corporations. He shared the leadership of Open Britain with New Labour types like Peter Mandelson. Their hope was that a coalition of Labour, Lib Dem and centrist Tory MPs could force a second referendum.

While these City and New Labour types were no doubt committed to trying to stay in the EU, they were also very hostile to Corbyn’s Labour Party. They did not really want Corbyn’s Labour to win and didn’t mind if their second referendum campaign made it less likely that he would.

Then, last November, Open Britain virtually self-destructed: Rudd led a boardroom coup, driving Mandelson off the board and sacking top staff like ex-Gordon Brown aide Tom Baldwin.

Open Britain staff went on strike against Rudd’s coup as the campaign’s businessmen and politicians formed rival sides: Rudd was and is supported by investor Richard Reed, the Innocent Drinks multimillionaire.

Some New Labour figures did try to stick with Rudd: Patrick Heneghan, one of the staff who left Labour HQ after doing their best to resist Corbyn, tried to act as Rudd’s chief executive, but the striking staff rejected him: most of the New Labour operators jumped the other way instead and striking staff were supported by politicos like Alastair Campbell.

However, many grassroots organisations behind the biggest Remain demonstrations were already alienated by infighting in the “people’s vote” HQ and did not take sides.

The committed pro-EU grassroots groups that wanted to demonstrate on the streets to stay in the EU found the game-playing and Westminster manoeuvring by the New Labour figures like Campbell even more offputting than Rudd.

So the organisation fell apart, and the November collapse meant that Open Britain played no role in the December 2019 election, even though this was the only time its second referendum plan went to voters.

This did relieve Open Britain of having to back Corbyn, who it otherwise deeply disliked, despite the fact that Labour was the only national party backing a second referendum.

The other main “people’s vote” organisation, Best For Britain, did remain active in the 2019 election — indeed, it published a tactical-voting guide recommending votes for non-Labour candidates in many constituencies where Labour were the main challenger — for example, recommending a vote for Sam Gyimah, the ex-Tory MP standing for the Lib Dems in Kensington.

The sitting Labour MP, Emma Dent Coad, who supported a second referendum, lost Kensington to the Tories by just 150 votes, so the “people’s vote” campaign actually helped the party wanting a “hard” Brexit.

Rudd’s rump Open Britain stumbled on into other conflicts.

Lib Dem activist Geeta Sidhu-Robb backed Rudd, staying on the Open Britain board. Sidhu-Robb is a riches-to-rags-to-riches businesswoman who claims to have “made a fortune from London’s property boom” with “two Ferraris and two Bentleys, an eight-seater private jet, and an eight-bedroom Chelsea home” before losing it all in a business crash, then hauling herself out of misery into a new fortune from her organic food business, Nosh Detox.

Sidhu-Robb was also a possible Lib Dem candidate for London mayor. In 1997 Sidhu-Robb stood as a Tory candidate against Labour’s Jack Straw in Blackburn. Footage emerged this month of her touring the constituency telling constituents: “Don’t vote for a Jew, Jack Straw is a Jew.”

Sidhu-Robb was swiftly removed from the Lib Dem list and Rudd’s Open Britain board.

“Reputation is our business” is Finsbury’s slogan but Rudd’s reputation in the pro-EU movement — splitting the campaign at the crucial moment and relying on someone with crude anti-semitic attacks in their past — doesn’t seem a great advertisement.

The overall reputation of the “people’s vote” doesn’t look much better. Only one national party backed a second referendum in the 2019 election — Labour.

However, the main organisation, Open Britain, tore itself apart rather than back Labour in 2019 and the other main organisation, Best for Britain, backed non-Labour candidates even where this let the Conservatives win.

The movement directed all its energy to persuading Labour to back a second referendum and ditch its earlier policy of accepting the referendum result while favouring a “softer” Brexit, but when the campaign won Labour’s support this helped the Tories win the election.

Thanks to the “people’s vote” we get both the hardest Brexit — and Boris Johnson.

Meanwhile, the main supporters of the “people’s vote” in Labour have now completely dropped the issue, suggesting they always saw the campaign as a stick with which to beat the left-wing Labour leadership as much as an important principle.

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