AstroTurfers of Britain: the Brexit Party’s Artificial Grass Roots Part One
Otto English on the PR person behind the apparently spontaneous Leavers for Britain movement and her Westminster Think Tank connections.
In Brexit Britain, torn by division and riven with political cynicism it’s refreshing to come across stories of people who have decided that it’s time to stand up and be counted. So here’s a tale of an ordinary woman, in her twenties, who set up a national grassroots political movement.
In the wake of the EU referendum and having voted Leave, Harris was upset to discover that many of her friends in London and classical music viewed her as a pariah. The music world has flourished in the EU and it’s not surprising that Lucy might have rather stood out as a lone Brexiter in her peer group.
As a ‘corporate communications executive’ Lucy Harris would have been working in public relations, managing reputations and perhaps setting up campaigns – all perfect training for her move into political activism.
Tired of the negative comments, in early 2017 Harris set up Leavers of London a movement that would enable Brexiters to meet up, have a natter and a network. It must have been hard for Harris to juggle her publishing job with the group she had created – but she somehow managed and soon she was encouraging like-minded souls to join in.
Since becoming a Brexit Party MEP candidate, much has been made of Harris’s opera singing career but much less has been made of her publishing career. As a ‘corporate communications executive’ she would have been working in public relations, managing reputations and perhaps setting up campaigns – all perfect training for her move into political activism.
Her experience no doubt informed her movement’s success. Despite only having a few hundred twitter followers, Harris swiftly caught the eye of the Daily Express who ran a long piece about her just months after Leavers of London was set up. The Sun praised her “powerful speech” defending Brexiters from accusations of racism.
Soon she was being invited on to Sky News to talk to Adam Boulton; she was filmed for a piece in the Guardian; she popped up on BBC Daily Politics alongside Nigel Farage. She was featured in an AFP piece. She turned up on Victoria Derbyshire’s show, Channel 4, Radio 5 Live and was talked about in the Telegraph.
As a political volunteer she clearly had a very accommodating boss.
One lunchtime in November 2018 she even went off to organize a demo outside Downing Street.
The Brexit Central Nexus
Soon Harris was getting other groups to copy her enterprise. Leavers of Leeds, Leavers of Manchester, Leavers of Hull, Bristol, Suffolk, Sheffield and Yorkshire followed. In 2018 Harris went national and set up Leavers of Britain.
Harris fits the mould of a certain kind of individual that has become familiar to those taking an interest in the multiplying ‘think tanks’ and grassroots organisations that dot our political landscape.
Now if you’re beginning to smell something, that could well be the lingering scent of her first job which was working on a fish counter – or it may be that all of this sounds rather too good to be true. After all, people in their mid-twenties with no political background rarely set up one person national movements on the back of a paypal account and a couple of social media accounts. Admirable though this activism is, there are grounds for suspicion this might not be completely autonomous and spontaneous.
Harris fits the mould of a certain kind of individual that has become familiar to those taking an interest in the multiplying ‘think tanks’ and grassroots organisations that dot our political landscape. She is young, articulate, media savvy and acts a lot like a standard ‘corporate communications executive’ – or PR consultant as they used to be called.
In her spare time Harris hangs out with the Taxpayers Alliance’s Chloe Westley and Jonathan Isaby – late of Lord Ashcroft’s Conservative Home and now Editor of Brexit Central. The videos created by Leavers of Britain ‘activists’ are very professional indeed and while the website has a slightly naïve, home-spun font – well that feels deliberate.
The Albert Street Connection
Leavers of Britain is a company listed on the Companies House website with registered offices at 72 Albert Street in Camden.
The Albert Street building is also one of the correspondence addresses used by businessman John Mills, founder of JML and one time Deputy Chairman of Vote Leave. Mills has been involved with a number of political and charitable campaign groups over the years, many with strong Brexit links including Labour Leave for Britain, Labour for Britain Ltd and the Politics and Economics Research Trust charitable trust (PERT) from which he resigned in May 2016.
what the papers don’t say
PERT was founded in 2004 by Matthew Elliott – later to become the Chief Executive of Vote Leave – and ran into trouble in 2015 when it was accused of funnelling 97% of its donations to pro-Brexit groups.
Charities are not allowed to exist for political purposes and yet, as the Guardian reported at the time, of the £532,000 PERT dished out in grants in 2014 £300,000 had gone to the Taxpayer’s Alliance, £10,000 to Global Britain and £205,000 to Business for Brexit which at that time was also registered at 72 Albert Street.
The Charity Commission investigated and PERT was given a slap on the wrist.
You quite likely missed that story altogether because there has been quite a lot of news since 2015 and events, names and obscure groups are frequently lost in the melee of events.
But given the history of the Albert Street address questions must surely now be raised as to who is really behind Lucy’s group.
The People Deserve to Know
Astroturfing is the process of masking the sponsors of an entity by making it appear that an organization has emerged from the grassroots. While there is little doubt that many of the “Leavers of” groups are run by genuine and dedicated Brexiters the fact that Leavers of Britain is registered to an address with links to both Vote Leave and John Mills should raise legitimate questions about the authenticity of this movement.
The people of Yorkshire, where Lucy Harris is standing as an MEP will no doubt want to know. And frankly, so do I.
Byline Times approached Lucy Harris in regard to questions raised in this article but she did not respond.
Lucy Harris’ group was just one of many ‘grassroots’ organisations which sprang up both before and after the EU referendum and I’ve spent the last week examining at them. Some of these have gone on to big things. Others are less well-known but no less interesting and I will be turning to them in the second part of this investigation.