After the European Elections in May, Nigel Farage was riding high. Suffering a lower profile following the Brexit referendum, Farage was back where he always wanted to be: on the front pages.
In May 2019 the Brexit Party had received the highest share of the vote in nine of the UK’s 12 nations and regions, securing 32% of the vote overall across the country. It was the party with the most MEPs – 29 out of the UK’s 73 MEPs.
“The real question is, of those that vote for us in a European election, how many would repeat that in a general election,” said Farage at the time. “And the indications I’m getting is: an awful lot of them. And that would mean we’d be at the level where the Brexit Party could start to win serious numbers of seats.”
The question today is how did the Brexit Party go from predicting “serious numbers of seats” to holding no seats now. Part of the answer lies in the work done by HOPE not hate and its supporters, and part also lies in the changing nature of politics in the UK.
Our approach was set out well before the election kicked off. In an internal document, which set out our approach to the election, we agreed:
We decided to take on Nigel Farage’s party because it posed a threat. By winning seats, it would give voice to some really poisonous politics, pull the other parties to the right and create a bridgehead for populism in Parliament.
Based on years of experience, and what we analysed about the seats the Brexit Party would be targeting, we decided to run a multi-layered campaign. We targeted key areas of the country with key messages, with the goal of turning out voters to vote against the party.
We started our campaign by working to expose the candidates Nigel Farage was selecting. Our research team has an incredible reputation – and it is well-earned. Day after day, the media reported on the backgrounds of Brexit Party candidates. Articles appeared in the media about the racism of the Brexit Party’s candidate in Stoke, the Islamophobia of candidates in Moray and Warwick, even the bizarre alien beliefs of the candidate in Batley & Spen.
By the end of the campaign, almost three dozen candidates had faced serious accusations in local and national media, and on social media, as a result of our team’s diligence.
As we used the media to undermine Farage’s claims to be a new kind of party, we also worked to communicate directly with voters in key parts of the country. We produced hard-hitting social media advertising that directly carried messages about Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party to voters.
During the election campaign, 3,178,499 different people in our target constituencies saw one of our ads, but we didn’t show the same content to everyone.
Over the course of the campaign, we produced 5,847 different variants of our content so that slightly different messages reached people based on their interests and where in the country they were.
This culminated in a big surge in the final 72 hours of the campaign, when in our priority areas 869,505 unique users saw our ads 2,064,106 times.
As well as this sophisticated use of social media, we ran a massive direct mail operation. We sent out tens of thousands of personally targeted letters to people in key areas, written by local people explaining why they wouldn’t be backing the Brexit Party.
From a local army vet, to a GP, to a Rugby League figure, we put personal appeals in front of voters as they made their decision about whether to vote for or against the Brexit Party. This was supplemented by two weekends of action in which we ran almost 100 different campaign events, involving hundreds of activists.
In total, over 700,000 leaflets were distributed across 33 constituencies.
We didn’t just target the Brexit Party, though. As we planned at the start of the contest, we monitored the activities of the main parties too.
We campaigned in Derby North to defeat former Labour MP Chris Williamson, who had been suspended by Labour over antisemitism claims and was standing as an independent candidate (he lost his deposit).
We campaigned in West Bromwich East against George Galloway. We opposed the election of Conservative candidates Karl McCarthy, Anthony Browne and Bob Blackman over their vile views. And we called for parties to suspend or remove candidates in several instances over racist comments.
This was a huge operation, undertaken to stop the Brexit Party gaining a foothold in Parliament. We’re proud of the campaign we ran, but ultimately the wider political context also played a big part. The Tories took on the mantle of the hardline pro-Brexit party, coalescing a lot of the Brexit Party’s vote behind them, which removed the threat from Farage’s group in many areas of the country where they had posed a challenge.
While the Brexit Party flopped in December’s election, local elections this year pose a new threat. Nigel Farage is setting out his stall for a new party, and towns where the Brexit Party fared well face elections in May, including in Rotherham and Hartlepool. Farage and his populist mob haven’t gone away, and wherever they decide to run, HOPE not hate will be there to oppose them.
Matthew McGregor is campaigns director for HOPE not hate.