Few people escaped unscathed from the UK’s recent general election. Defined almost entirely by the politics of Brexit, it saw tensions over the country’s future explode into the spotlight and the debate descend into a fight that proved psychologically toxic for everyone involved.
The battle of competing visions for Britain’s future bled out from every angle, with acrimony festering in family homes and spilling out onto town and city streets. But on the other hand, the Brexit election also had the effect of politically engaging the masses and spawning many activist groups. One prominent group that planted itself firmly in the immediate public consciousness around that time was Led By Donkeys.
Deriving its name from the classic slogan “lions led by donkeys” – which was originally coined during World War I, in reference to the spinelessness of politicians sending soldiers into battle – Led By Donkeys hoped to kindle a similar popular opposition to the Brexit project and its architects. Unsurprisingly, its members are not fans of Boris Johnson.
Ben Stewart – one of the four founding members of the collective, and a former Greenpeace activist – explains to me that the story of the group’s foundation is far more mundane than the historical phrase that inspired its name. Its journey began, he says, with “four mates meeting down the pub, in December 2018, talking about how frustrated we were that the Brexiteers weren’t being held to account for previous promises and statements, that hypocrisy was rife in the debate because the print media were acting in such a partisan fashion, and that the likes of Farage and Gove etc. were getting a free run”.
Many of the usual trusted, people-powered strategies for resistance would normally, at this point, spring to the mind of the 21st-century activist: march on Westminster, disrupt local Tory party branch meetings, or toss a milkshake at a high-profile politician in order to splatter a statement of discontent onto the front pages of tabloid newspapers. But Led by Donkeys decided to approach the problem differently, and eventually settled on a novel and ambitious way of fighting back against the rhetoric of politicians arguing for Brexit.
They had a really clear message: Get Brexit Done. And they focused their resources effectively
Stewart tells me that “we just came up with this idea of putting politicians’ quotes on billboards. We went out at night, as a sort of guerilla poster protest team, and then we started tweeting pictures of the billboards and the whole thing blew up. People wanted us to set up a crowdfunder, so we used the money to start putting these billboards up all around the country, which was so important because one of the key things about campaigning on Brexit was to be geographically diverse – with this money we managed to reach Wales and the North-East”. By placing some of the more dubious comments in the public eye, Led By Donkeys succeeded in confronting the public with many of the hidden prejudices of major political figures. This, if nothing else, had the effect of reminding voters who these politicians really are.
But, as their scale of operation expanded, Led By Donkeys didn’t stop at using posters to get their message out there. Stewart tells me: “We started using a massive industrial projector on everything from the white cliffs of Dover to Buckingham Palace. We were trying to develop new ways of communicating with the public and of calling out hypocrisy. And 10 months later, we couldn’t quite believe it – we had around 330,000 Twitter followers and a million quid from contributors wanting to support us.”
But while Led by Donkeys undoubtedly captured a public mood, I can’t help wondering whether Stewart thinks his and his friend’s efforts were ultimately in vain, given the Tories’ landslide election victory. On this he is philosophical: “It’s difficult to gauge that. We had huge reach and last time I looked in December, we had several hundreds of millions of impressions on Twitter. A lot of people saw it, and that was important.” He adds that “we all, in Led By Donkeys, have this ethos of bearing witness on what you think is wrong and shining a light on it – and that, in and of itself, has a lot of power and is useful. Look, we didn’t set out to try and stop Brexit. We were trying to fill a vacuum left by a broken media ecosystem. The media weren’t holding power to account and we managed to really piss off people like David Davis and others, so we were holding power to account in their place, and that’s really what we intended to do”.
And yet, if Led by Donkeys brought evidence of political hypocrisy to a mass audience, then it doesn’t seem the public cared enough to change their vote. Do people just not care any more if their politicians are lying to them? Stewart says the issue is “a relatively new phenomenon in our politics. On both sides of the Atlantic, the concept of shame and political leaders paying a price for lying and dissembling is in retreat. It’s very stark with Trump, but some of the same dynamics now exist in the UK. It is of great concern to me that the dynamic we’re seeing in the United States appears to be migrating to the UK. And if we begin to lose shame around lying to the public, then we’re in big trouble here. And we have, in Boris Johnson, a serial bullshitter who has just won a majority of 80 seats. Many of his own voters will describe him as such, if they are asked. We’re in this kind of culture war now where people seem to value a leader for doing more to just fight the other side, not for being honest”.
The role of the UK media in politics is a subject that causes controversy every election period, and Stewart isn’t shy about voicing his frustrations. But for him, the absence of balanced coverage leaves a gap for alternative media – such as Led by Donkeys. “We were creating political street theatre”, he says, “in an effort to try and hack the conversation, because we didn’t feel the mainstream media was doing well enough in terms of asking difficult questions and holding power to account. We are a Brexit accountability project. Our analysis comes from the sense that our existing information systems are broken and our political economy is broken. Brexit is an ongoing process, and continues after January 31st, so we’re not shutting up shop just yet”.
We have, in Boris Johnson, a serial bullshitter who has just won a majority of 80 seats
I ask Stewart if he feels angry with the failings of the remain and anti-Brexit campaigns, and if there are any strategies he sees as particularly damaging. But he remains defiant, citing the failures of Britain’s electoral system as a more salient reason, and urges reform: “They [the Brexiteers] didn’t win the argument. In fact, in the election, about 47 per cent of people voted for parties that were explicitly pro-Brexit and about 53 per cent of people voted for parties that were in support of a People’s Vote. But our electoral system delivered a majority of 80 to one of the parties within that 47 per cent.”
Despite this defence, Stewart is prepared to concede that much is to be learned from the organised, disciplined and efficient approach that the Conservatives took in their election campaign. “They had a really clear message: Get Brexit Done. And they focused their resources effectively. I don’t think it’s a secret that the Labour Party was nowhere near as effective. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some of the people around the Labour Party campaign really let the country down.”
Whichever way you look at it, with Brexit now happening and Johnson wielding power, Led By Donkeys and the remain coalition have lost this battle. Nevertheless, by succeeding in bypassing the mainstream media, at least to some extent, and by planting a seed from which alternative forms of political messaging can grow wild, their war may yet be won.