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28 October 2019

Why has the People’s Vote Campaign collapsed into infighting?

A row over data, governance and money has spilled out into the open.

By Stephen Bush

Struggles for control at the top of the People’s Vote Campaign have burst out into the open after Roland Rudd, the campaign’s chair, removed James McGrory and Tom Baldwin from their posts as campaign director and head of communications respectively.

It is the culmination of months of simmering resentments about personnel, strategy and trust within the campaign. The People’s Vote Campaign has always been a somewhat unwieldy chimera of an organisation, comprising as it does five major pro-European organisations – the United Kingdom’s oldest pro-EU grouping, the European Movement; the two youth wings Our Future Our Choice and For Our Future’s Sake; Wales for Europe; and Open Britain, the successor organisation to the defeated 2016 Remain campaign – with at times sharply differing visions about how best to campaign for a second referendum. 

McGrory and Baldwin, who worked for Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband respectively until the 2015 election, were involved in the hiring of most campaign staff. But the majority of the People’s Vote’s Campaign’s funding comes via Open Britain, and most staffer are paid by and contracted to “OB”, the organisation which Rudd chairs. 

More importantly, OB holds the legal rights to the data collected during the 2016 referendum campaign and everything after, making it an essential player in any referendum campaign – and, in the words of one anti-Rudd figure, “the one group we cannot afford to lose”.

The People’s Vote Campaign is split by a number of issues: questions about how it should be run and managed; arguments about the (lack of) diversity at the top of the organisation; and debates over whether or not it should be an explicitly pro-Remain group or one that campaigns for a second referendum but is agnostic on whether it should be pro-European, in order to secure the support of pro-Brexit MPs.

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But those splits took a more acrimonious turn in July of this year, when Rudd, the founder of the PR firm Finsbury, unilaterally announced that he would be working with a new organisation, the March for Change, which had an explicitly pro-Remain position. For several staffers within the People’s Vote Campaign this was a “breach of trust” that hamstrung the People’s Vote’s ability to unify and reach collective decisions.

Allies of Rudd claim that McGrory and Baldwin attempted to change the composition of OB’s board to force Rudd out and failed – and paid with their jobs as a result. (Patrick Heneghan, who was Labour’s head of campaigning in the 2015 and 2017 elections, has been given the role of chief executive on an interim basis, though many expect that he will be given the post permanently.) Supporters of McGrory and Baldwin deny this, and say that the confrontation was determined by Rudd, not by Baldwin and McGrory.

Regardless of who initiated the move, many staffers, including those who have been sharply critical of Baldwin and McGrory – the former of whom is regarded by many within the campaign as an excessively combative and combustible figure – believe that the decision to move ahead with removing the two men in the manner that Rudd did has permanently shattered relations between the People’s Vote’s various composite campaigns.

Campaign officials were further disgruntled by Rudd’s decision not to turn up for a promised all-staff meeting at 9am this morning, instead preferring to appear on television to discuss the row. I’m told that staff members were filming proceedings in the office, and that Rudd feared that the contents of any meeting would leak, further deepening the sense of crisis around the organisation.

Regardless of who started the move to oust who, most people who work for the People’s Vote Campaign believe that Rudd is well within his legal rights given his role in OB; and that much as they dislike it, they will have to accept his ouster of Baldwin and McGrory. But some fear that today is the day that the People’s Vote Campaign died, as it will never again be able to unify such a broad group of campaigns and interests.