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Playing to lose: who funded Labour’s 2019 election loss?

From straightforward second referendum groups such as Led by Donkeys to outrageously transparent Tory entities like Working 4 UK, SOLOMON HUGHES documents the range ‘non-party campaigners’ who invested in Corbynism’s failure

MAINSTREAM, the anti-Corbyn group led by former Labour MPs Ian Austin, Ivan Lewis and Mike Gapes, used Tory-led PR firm Public First to run its 2019 election activities.

Figures from the Electoral Commission on spending in the 2019 election released this month show Austin’s Mainstream spent £134,457 on campaigning and advertising in the election. That’s a lot of money for a “campaign” with no grassroots members.

They got a lot of bang for their buck, as even the most artificial public event with Austin got strong media coverage. Austin was rewarded by Boris Johnson for his turncoat campaigning with a place in the Lords.

Much of Mainstream’s election spending went on Facebook and newspaper advertising, but it also relied heavily on the Tory-oriented consultancy Public First, paying the company £23,000 for designing and running its campaign.

Receipts show Mainstream paid Public First for “strategy planning and advice,” “media relations” and “press conference support.”

Public First is run by Rachel Wolf, a former Gove adviser who co-wrote the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto, and Dominic Cummings associate James Frayne.

Public First has also been rewarded with over £1 million worth of government communications contracts since the election.

Mainstream claimed to be “led by a group of people from different political backgrounds — designed to encourage a return to respectable and responsible politics and to banish extremism from British politics once and for all,” but was transparently a pro-Tory campaign, underlined by the involvement of Public First.

The Electoral Commission’s figures show a big increase in activity by “non-party campaigners,” who spent over £4m: a lot of these “campaigns” look shadowy and unaccountable, with a strong emphasis on undermining Corbyn’s Labour from all sides.

Overall spending by these “non-party campaigners” was £4,392,266. That’s greater than any of the past five elections and up 72 per cent on the 2017 election.

For context, the Tories spent around £16.5m on the 2019 election. Labour figures for 2019’s spending haven’t been registered yet, but in the 2017 election it spent £11m. So non-party spending is significant.

Typically, each of these “non-party” group’s spending involved a lot of money paid to Facebook, Google and YouTube for targeted advertising.

Campaigners also paid PR and advertising firms to help draw up their messages and polling firms to gauge their impact.

In that “third party” spend, there are two big wodges of undoubtedly pro-Corbyn money. Momentum spent £500,000, or about 20 per cent of the total, and the Real Change Lab, a short, crowdfunded campaign by Corbyn supporters to fund pro-Labour digital content in the election, spent £120,487.

But after that, many of the “third parties” are either outright unfriendly, or very unhelpful to Labour.

Alongside Mainstream’s £134,457, there was the Campaign Against Corbynism which spent £106,081 during the election.

Founded by Daily Express journalist James Bickerton, this was another “campaign” without a grassroots.

You can’t join it, or find its members busy in some community hall or above a pub; instead it spent money churning out Facebook and Twitter ads and offering comment to friendly media.

Bickerton claimed his campaign was a “cross-party group of activists,” but it was even less successful at mobilising bitter ex-Labour people than Austin’s Mainstream.

Another anti-Corbyn group, Working 4 UK Ltd spent £189,904, largely on Facebook ads, with a few grand for advertising on a pedicab and a boat trip.

Working 4 UK was founded by Suraj Sharma, who said it was “a voice for UK businesses against the impending threat of a far-left, anti-capitalist government led by Jeremy Corbyn.”

It pumped out scaremongering anti-Corbyn ads. Sharma is not just a “high-end residential developer” and “operator of Build to Rent assets,” he is also a Tory councillor, so this was a Tory-led campaign supposedly separate from the Tory Party.

Working 4 UK also used the same advertising firm — Untrodden Path Ltd — as the Campaign Against Corbynism.

Which brings us to the Brexit-related spending in the last election.

Multimillionaire Jeremy Hosking spent £484,248 on his Brexit Express campaign.

Hosking makes his money from running investment firms and is, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, the 351st richest person in Britain, with a net worth of £375m.

He was a Tory donor — giving the party £100,000 in the 2015 election. Hosking also funded the Brexit Party with £243,000 in donations.

However, with Johnson winning the Tory leadership and committing the party in the 2019 election to Get Brexit Done, Hosking’s campaign for Brexit became a campaign for the Tories rather than Nigel Farage’s party.

There were larger sums spent by second referendum campaigners.

Best for Britain — the “people’s vote” campaign led by ex-Labour minister Mark Malloch Brown, spent £422,498 on Facebook advertising.

PV Media Hub, also known as Vote for a Final Say, the breakaway second referendum group set up by Alastair Campbell, spent £156,919.

Gina Miller’s Centrum Campaign Ltd spent £199,581 on its Remain United campaign.

Scientists for EU spent £124,340. Referendum Facts Ltd (aka Infacts) spent £74,798.

Led by Donkeys, the crowdfunded “satirical” anti-Brexit campaigners, spent a very large £458,237.

That’s huge spending on Remain campaigns. Some of it comes from spontaneous, crowdfunded “remainiac” campaigners, like Led by Donkeys.

Some came from more millionaire-funded organisations, like Best for Britain or Campbell’s Vote for a Final Say group.

While all of it was “anti-Johnson” campaigning, it was not helpful for Labour: even though, thanks to a year of pressure by these campaigns, assisted by Labour MPs, Labour was the only national party in the 2019 election backing a second referendum, these groups did not fully support Labour.

Instead they all heavily promoted “tactical voting” websites, which often promoted Lib Dem candidates, even in constituencies where Labour was ahead of the Lib Dems.

They also undermined Labour in a broader way: Labour’s strategy was to support a second referendum, but to try and change the conversation away from Brexit to economic issues — social spending, the NHS, taxing the rich.

This may have been a compromised and muddy plan, but the big spending “remainiac” campaigns pushed the election back onto the second referendum vs Get Brexit Done issue, which Johnson’s Tories realised was the key to them winning the election.

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