Four activist friends wittily exposed the hypocrisies of Brexit politics. As they publish a book about their campaign, they reflect on their rollercoaster year

The campaigning group Led By Donkeys is always on the lookout for what it calls thermonuclear hypocrisy in politics, and specifically on Brexit. So when, in August, its founders belatedly came across an article that Michael Gove had written for the Daily Mail in March 2019, they felt they had hit the jackpot. In it, Gove, who is now chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster or more prosaically, the man charged with making Brexit happen, deal or no deal had noted: We didnt vote to leave without a deal. That wasnt the message of the campaign I helped lead.

It was like, Hang on a second: that should be the iceberg to the governments no-deal Titanic, exclaims 45-year-old Ben Stewart, one of the four founders of Led By Donkeys. The leader of the campaign, the person charged with no-deal planning has said there is no mandate for this. And now they are claiming a mandate for it. So I felt and we all felt: we need to make that quote famous.

Led By Donkeys, which came into existence only in January, had already had considerable success, and a lot of fun, reminding politicians of words they have said, written or tweeted, and probably wished they hadnt. The project started with blowing up tweets from the likes of David Cameron and Leave tub-thumpers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage and slapping them on billboards in the dead of night. But the group quickly became more ambitious and its work has appeared everywhere from a 40m x 20m banner at the Peoples Vote demonstration in London in March to projections on the cliffs of Dover. Their targets are overwhelmingly on the right of the political spectrum, though Jeremy Corbyn was mocked with a billboard that had his Twitter handle but was otherwise left blank, so that people could write on to it what they would like the Labour leader to say on the issue.

Its work has been, to some camps, the Remain campaign that never was: impassioned, humorous, compelling. Through more than 50 poster designs, photographs of which have had more than 200m views on social media, Led By Donkeys has taken the fight to the flip-flopping Brexiters. They have also taken potshots at Donald Trump and what they consider the dangers of post-truth politics. When the US president visited the UK in June, they projected his approval ratings (and those of Barack Obama) on to the Tower of London, and a video in which Boris Johnson called Trump out for quite stupefying ignorance was superimposed on to Big Ben. In the US, these stunts were picked up by Stephen Colbert on The Late Show and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Just last week, Led By Donkeys launched posters satirising the governments Get Ready for Brexit campaign, designed by members of the public, and, as this article went to press, were finalising plans for Saturdays Peoples Vote march.

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One of Led By Donkeys first billboards, in Leeds, January 2019. Photograph: Steve Morgan

Back in the summer, as Boris Johnson pushed more insistently for a no-deal Brexit, Led By Donkeys decided its Michael Gove quote needed a special treatment, eventually settling on a sand sculpture of his words for Redcar beach in Teeside. Redcar was chosen because, for one thing, it has a massive beach, but also because analysis suggests that the north-east will be profoundly affected by leaving the EU without a deal, especially up the coast in Sunderland, home of Nissan, the UKs biggest car plant. On 1 September, Goves face and his comment (We didnt vote to leave without a deal) were carved into the sand in ginormous letters, covering around 7,500 square metres of the beach.

Stewart smiles. So its like: Oh well, if Michael Gove thinks he can take us out without a deal he needs to own what he said on a sand sculpture visible from space. And he saw it, because Sarah Vine, his wife, replied to our tweet saying: Wow, thats really impressive! So that fucker saw it over the breakfast table and maybe hell think twice before repeating that bullshit.

It has been a wild, confounding and very busy few months for the Led By Donkeys team who, besides Stewart, are Oliver Knowles, 44, James Sadri and Will Rose, both 40. At the beginning of the year they were unknown; now they are one of the loudest voices in opposition to the governments Brexit policy. Drone footage of the Redcar sand installation has been watched 1.1m times. The Led By Donkeys coverage of the pro-Brexit march in March which took the form of regular updates to their 300,000 Twitter followers, long after the media pack had departed was perhaps primarily responsible for revealing it as a lacklustre, poorly attended shambles.

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A Led by Donkeys message ploughed in 40-metre high letters in a field at Manor Farm, Water Eaton, Wiltshire, yesterday. Photograph: Will Rose/AP

Yet, while the Led By Donkeys team are heroes to many who would like a second referendum, their work is not universally adored. The founders, anonymous initially, were unmasked in May by the rightwing Guido Fawkes website. All four had worked at Greenpeace at one point two of them still do leading them to be described as lefty environmentalists. For some, Led By Donkeys epitomises the Remoaner camp, preaching to other like-minded zealots (and hardly anyone else) mainly on social media. Certainly, it is not always clear how much damage their stinging attacks on Leave-promoting politicians are really inflicting. After skewering the March to Leave, and especially Farages half-hearted involvement, Led By Donkeys was dismayed to watch the Brexit Party perform buoyantly in the European elections in May, winning the highest share of the vote in nine of the 12 regions, and 32% overall.

These criticisms, for the most part, miss the target, the Led By Donkeys founders think. They dont believe they can single-handedly bring down the government; in fact, they started the project for catharsis: they could either laugh or cry and they would rather laugh. And thats still true today.

You just have to laugh with this massive shitshow going on, says Stewart. We have this unifying thing where we do laugh at Gove and Cummings and Fox and Johnson and I hope that comes out through the project. And there is a political power in laughing at these people.

Thats not to say, though, that there isnt serious intent behind the project. At the moment, were thinking, Can we stop Brexit happening on 31 October? says Stewart. Look, we alone are not going to do it, but what is our tiny, tiny role in that effort?

Blue or red, Leave or Remain, the rise of Led By Donkeys is an entertaining caper that often slides into farce, and its told with vim in a new book by the founders, Led By Donkeys: How Four Friends With a Ladder Took on Brexit. The broad aims of the project were conceived in a pub, the Birdcage in Stoke Newington, north London, last December. Much has been made of the founders connection to Greenpeace, but the make-up of the group was as random as nights out often are. It just happened to be us four in the pub that night. It could have been five of us, or us two with two others, says Stewart.

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A Jacob Rees Mogg billboard in London, September. Photograph: David Mirzoeff/PA

The camaraderie between the four is clear when we meet this month at a cafe in north London. Stewart, Greenpeaces deputy programme director, speaks the most, and the most bluntly, while Knowles comes across as clear and concise, a moral anchor for the group. Sadri, whose background is in human rights and the Middle East, cuts through any pomposity that might creep in and runs the digital side of the operation, while Rose who today has just arrived, on next to no sleep, from Sweden, where he lives is a photographer and often designs the Led By Donkeys posters.

No one remembers who first thought of doing quotes on billboards, but there was unanimous agreement that the initial target should be David Cameron and his evergreen 2015 line: Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice stability and strong government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband. They ordered the posters and Sadri came up with a name for the group, a riff on lions led by the donkeys, the phrase used in the first world war to describe the tragedy of the British footsoldiers led to slaughter by incompetent or stupid generals. When it came to putting up the first billboard in January, by the A10 in Stamford Hill, close to the Birdcage, the job fell to Knowles and Stewart, who both live in the area.

The team didnt have the money to pay for the billboard, so they decided to requisition one. This, of course, is illegal: criminal damage at the very least. All four men had, in their activist pasts, had skirmishes with police, specifically campaigning on the climate crisis and against the Iraq war, and they knew their actions could result in them being arrested. As Stewart explains: We come from a political culture that is comfortable with civil disobedience and thinks that civil disobedience has got us a lot of the freedoms weve got, and, speaking personally, isnt that bothered by getting a conviction.

It felt important to do something that was more than just writing a letter of concern or protest, adds Sadri. It feels like this is such a momentous political moment that there should be more people out there prepared to do a little bit more to stop this calamitous thing from happening. So this was a very modest and small way of personally doing something.

Putting up a billboard poster, it turns out, is a skilled task. It very nearly didnt continue as a project, says Knowles, the man up the 90 B&Q ladder that night. We were covered in paste, couldnt get the poster up and people were stopping in their cars and looking at us and laughing. So for a moment, it didnt feel like it was going anywhere.

A little too amateurish perhaps?

Stewart bristles a little. I would describe it as guerrilla-style, he smiles, then relents. No, it was amateurish. Sheet one of poster one was nearly the sum total of this project. But we got that fucker up! And it just developed from there.

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Were increasingly passionate about is finding people outside the remain camp. Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

The plan was always to combine the analogue billboards with the digital: taking photographs and videos of people interacting with the work and posting them on their social media channels. So after the Cameron poster went up, Stewart contacted the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde through Twitter. She retweeted the image, and within minutes Led By Donkeys had hundreds of followers and interview requests had begun to come in; there was a special frisson among the four when Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet started following them.

I didnt know anything about it at all, remembers Hyde, but as soon as I saw their first billboard I thought it was so striking and funny. Its so rare to see a sense of pisstake in any political campaigning. I just thought it was a great, simple, modern idea one of the few things on what I suppose youd call the Remain side to try and elicit an emotional response. It definitely shits on another letter to the Times from 100 businessmen.

Led By Donkeys describes what it does as political theatre and its most effective when, whether its a physical billboard or the Angel of the North, you cant just thumb past it on your smartphone. People talk about how the problems in todays world are because we live in these little echo chambers, all talking to ourselves, and Twitter is one of the worst culprits of that culture, says Sadri. So theres something about taking a politicians tweet something that flies past you at a million miles per hour and slapping it on this massive, wooden, 100-year-old structure in the middle of somebodys neighbourhood that breaks that, and says: We have to look at that if its a sunny day, if its pissing with rain. And it gives you time to digest it if youre sitting at a bus stop or talking to your neighbours.

The anarchic, guerrilla phase of Led By Donkeys actually lasted for little more than a week, but took in cover-of-darkness assignments to Romford, which voted 70% Leave, and Dover where, their pasting skills improving, they covered four sites in a night. But life was becoming increasingly complicated at work and home all four have two young children each and when the idea of crowdfunding to rent billboard space came up, they decided to dip a toe in. Not only would it make them legit, but it would allow Led By Donkeys posters to cover the entire country, not just towns that could be reached at night and get them home for the morning school run. They set a target of 10,000, which they hit in three hours; by the end of the day they had raised 30,000. The total now is over 600,000.

Going straight hasnt always been easy for Led By Donkeys: there was clearly a thrill to dodging police and furious Leavers, which was heightened by being anonymous and sometimes overhearing friends or colleagues talking about their latest stunt, without having a clue that they were involved.

I did a lot of activism when I was younger and then I settled down, mortgage, kids, says Stewart. So suddenly finding myself with Olly out on a ladder, doing something that was actually illegal but you really believed in it, was something I hadnt done for eight or nine years. And there was something beautiful for us about doing it with friends, not doing it as part of a big group or organisation.

Still, even if they are mired in Excel spreadsheets now, there are clear upsides. From the beginning, Led By Donkeys had been conscious it could be accused of only existing in a bubble, but now it has the resources to reach a much wider audience. There is satisfaction in getting 10,000 retweets from a post, but these days the founders insist they are more excited when their work is picked up by regional papers, sparking local debate. They also want their message to be heard beyond British borders: to that end, they have bought billboard space in Brussels and beamed SOS on an EU flag in a 75x50m projection on the Dover cliffs. Quite something to see the white cliffs of Dover turn blue, noted Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and now the EU parliaments representative in the Brexit negotiations.

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Michael Goves quote on Redcar beach in North Yorkshire. Photograph: PA

We have a project that definitely reaches Remainers, but what were increasingly passionate about is finding people outside that camp, says Knowles. And our premise is that theres a lot of people who have changed their mind who arent being heard at the moment. Can we find a way to talk to them and bring them into the discussion?

The concepts can also become more outsized. Being in Redcar, says Rose, watching them draw it out on the sand and then seeing the drone go up and looking at the screen and seeing the message revealed that was a different level of excitement.

Alastair Campbell suggested that, if Brexit were to be averted, Led By Donkeys would deserve a special award as secret heroes of the campaign. But its hard to tell what impact, if any, they have had on the political discourse. I have absolutely no idea! says Hyde. I mean it all gets worse, doesnt it We know politicians lie or make promises they cant keep, but that perception seems to have achieved full spectrum dominance on all sides of our political divides. I think the implications of that are still playing out and will do for a long time, but are generally very bad.

Posting the politicians quotes without any additional comment or analysis of their own (the idea is to get people talking) has not always worked seamlessly for Led By Donkeys. After putting a pronouncement from Anne Widdecombe Homosexual acts are wrongful on a billboard in Christchurch, Dorset, they had to apologise and quickly backtrack, noting that some might take her words at face value. But mostly the group has shown a sophisticated and intuitive understanding of conveying a political message in 2019. You cant rely on people seeing a billboard or reading an article in the local paper or not scrolling past a tweet but if you hit all of those spots then you increase the chance of them seeing one of them.

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Leeds, January 2019. Photograph: Steve Morgan

Its a radical, even pioneering, mashing of old and new media albeit one that sometimes spirals in ways the four never remotely considered when they started out. Weve taken a quote, turned it into a tweet, put it on a billboard, tweeted a photo of that billboard, the tweets gone viral, the local newspapers written about the viral tweet of a billboard of a tweet, that article itself has gone viral, then our tweet about the article has exploded, they write in their book. Its a kind of meta-virality that we struggle to get our heads round.

For their part, the Led By Donkeys founders will keep hoping, angling for a second referendum. If it does happen, theyre clear that the Remain campaign has to learn lessons from 2016. It shouldnt base itself in central London, for a start. It has to concentrate on issues that people really care about and not let Dominic Cummings and that crew spread bullshit about the NHS. But mainly it has to show an energy and vigour it didnt have last time. Knowles says: People have told me, I didnt feel the Remain campaign offered anything positive. And there was passion and emotion behind the Leave campaign. Any new campaign has got to get to the things people love and thats the NHS, values, education and much more positively framed.

If it comes down to passion well, here, Led By Donkeys think they will be in their element. And even though they are doing things legally these days, the subversive spirit remains. We are always on the look out for something that would take us back out there, says Sadri mischievously. We were slightly disappointed when the government decided to put its Get Ready for Brexit posters on digital screens and not on actual physical billboards, because wed been honing our cut-out giant letters and re-word giant billboards technique.

The ladder is safely stored, says Knowles, and is ready to come out again.

Led By Donkeys: How Four Friends With a Ladder Took on Brexit is published by Atlantic (10). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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