The Leaver – Emily Knight
Emily Knight is Vote Leave’s Volunteer Co-ordinator for Newham, the London Borough where she has lived for eight years. She is also an executive officer of West Ham Conservative Association and runs the Westminster office of Anne-Marie Trevelyan, MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and Vote Leave board member.
As a Conservative in the London Borough of Newham in East London, my experience of ground campaigns over the past eight years has been mixed. We are a battle-hardened few who trudge the streets and knock on doors in the knowledge of certain defeat, for little or no reward or encouragement from either voters or the central party. We continue on regardless as we believe the electorate deserves a proper choice. Demographics are changing, bringing in young professionals in droves to Docklands and the Olympic Park, but otherwise the electorate is a mix of white working class and residents from ethnic minority backgrounds, mostly Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria.
I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up to volunteer for Vote Leave back in December. I knew I would be working alongside people who have been political opponents for years, primarily Labour and UKIP activists. What I hadn’t anticipated was the vast number of people who would volunteer who have never before been involved in any form of political campaigning. Young and old, from various professions and none and representing all the ethnic backgrounds of the borough.
As the volunteer co-ordinator for Newham I oversee the activity of over 400 people, all of whom have independently signed up with Vote Leave. The public image of the ground campaign is of people manning street stalls handing leaflets to passers-by. That is still going on, but the real ground campaign is extensive and more sophisticated than anything I have witnessed from the Conservative party. The custom-made IT systems alone make VoteSource look well and truly 20th Century.
The enthusiasm of the volunteers is incredible. Out canvassing in Little Ilford ward in East Ham last week, one of the team asked if he could set up his own delivery network in the ward, as he had a group of friends who were keen to help but couldn’t make weekend sessions. Another woman with us piped up that she would want to help too. Between them they have now covered the entire ward several times over and have their own system in place.
Little Ilford is one of the worst wards for the Conservative party and hasn’t been canvassed by our neighbours in East Ham for several years. The first resident I speak to that day has turned her porch into a shrine to Sadiq Kahn. Photos of him are stuck to every window. Not Labour posters, but photos of him from the newspapers. This is not a door I would normally knock on. It was two days after the Mayoral election and this lady was jubilant. Originally from Jamaica, she had been living in East London for 30 years, and her accent was an incredible reflection of that. She supported Sadiq because he was from a council estate and had ‘done good’. I mention the EU and she glowers. I brace myself for a rant. The one I got was not the one I’d expected. She is voting leave. “The EU is racist,” she spits. Her mother recently passed away in Jamaica. She had tried to bring her to the UK to live out her final days with her daughter but had not been able to get her a visa. It wasn’t clear why, but she had an idea: “They need to keep the numbers down, so they say no to my mother because they’ve said yes to everyone in Europe.”
Anger from non-white residents over unlimited EU immigration is a theme we have encountered throughout the borough. On the next street I spoke to a nurse, originally from India. She whispers that her family and all her friends will be voting to leave. She came to the UK with a skill, and a job lined up. I hadn’t expected immigration to be such a big issue in East Ham, but time and again people are raising it. The nurse asks if she can take some extra leaflets to give out to her friends. She takes the last 100 from my bag, all my calling cards and a poster for her window, leaving me no option but to call it a day and head to the pub.
Andrew Marshall has been a Conservative councillor in Camden since 1990, and served as Deputy Leader of the Council and group leader 2006-2010. He is London regional organiser of the Conservative Group for Europe and Deputy CEO of international communications consultancy Cognito.
“I’m already In”. That’s the common response when handing out StrongerIn or ConservativesIn leaflets in Camden. I’ve never been involved in such a popular campaign, with four or five people confirming they’re voting Remain for every one undecided or for Leave. About one in five is a citizen of a fellow EU state without a vote – we’re giving them a lot of stickers and posters.
It feels like more people have their mind up on this than in a general election, possibly because it’s binary. I do get it, I know that London isn’t the country, any more than the UKIP sub-culture is. But it’s not a different planet either. What is sad that it’s often so easy to identify Remain and Leave supporters by their appearance.
I’ve worried that our street stall and tube station work wasn’t reaching two groups: council tenants on estates and and affluent 50+ voters. As StrongerIn we’ve not yet done much on estates locally, but after some sessions in older home-owner streets it feels pretty good there. We’re also learning new canvassing lingo: D-R, P-r, D-l, P-L etc. Our new StrongerIn volunteers call it “door knocking”. It’s amazing that StrongerIn, largely through a digital-led national effort, has stimulated perhaps 100 or more volunteers in our patch, most not previously politically active.
It was very different in Bedfordshire whenI debated Brexit with 50 Conservatives recently – a typical friendly Tory audience from Bedford and North East Bedfordshire. I was struck by how hard it was to influence opinion and how settled views – myths – have become. The vote at the end (“just a bit of fun”) was 29 for Leave, 19 for Remain. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken to a Tory audience outside London and that probably showed.
My genial councillor opponent stuck to “we want our country back”, we’re paying in too much, and “the real negotiations will only start when we vote to leave”. A detailed refutation of the Leave case on trade didn’t cut much ice. What are, to me, second order issues mattered to many: rekindling Commonwealth links, the nonsense around the EU accounts, the cost of the Strasbourg Parliament (a national veto in action).
Concerns about losing Single Market access didn’t impress most. One lady said “a trader is a trader is a trader, they’ll always find a way.” That’s a world away from Airbus’s supply chain, or whether US banks can sell derivatives EU-wide from London. If you are not in the world of work any more, then arguments about jobs and investment don’t play so well.
Two issues resonated somewhat: the “massive upheaval” of Brexit, and the fact that the young are pro-Remain and we should “take our children’s views into account”. But demography rules, and we need to concentrate on the millions of Tory voters, not so much on the members.
The ConservativesIn London launch in Wimbledon went well last Saturday. Ministers and MPs, and familiar faces from the Tory Reform Group and the Conservative Group for Europe (the provisional wing of Remain), but more importantly people from the guts of the London party, with the ebullient – and Conservative Way Forward member – Stephen Greenhalgh as London chief. My Camden colleagues there were accused of “stealing” a large banner afterwards, but peace has broken out, it’s been badged as a North West London asset, and we’re putting it to good use.
Labour seems to be mobilising: each branch in Camden has been told to run at least four canvassing sessions, in addition to using the data on the referendum question they asked during GLA canvassing. One Labour councillor has a husband who is undecided. “It’s a divorce issue” she says.
The party’s neutrality is a huge practical pain, if inevitable given the long retreat of the last two decades. Six of my colleagues voted with me when the issue came up at council, with none for Brexit. Post the GLA elections, more local Tories are getting involved with ConservativesIn, even if one or two officers locally appear to be auditioning for UN peacekeeping missions in their policing of neutrality (we hear some Leave MPs have been brazen in breaching this elsewhere).
ConservativesIn have an online guide like the Campaign Guides of old, with a line on everything. Our protected food products as a result of EU membership apparently include “Newmarket sausage”, “Fenland celery” and “Armagh Bramley Apples” . All news to me. “Attack Point: The Leave campaign need to guarantee that these protections wouldn’t be put at risk if left the EU, threatening jobs, businesses….”.