Monday, November 15, 2004

The unsung heroes

I suppose it was inevitable that we would see a self-congratulatory piece sooner or later about the wonderful success of the official North East campaign in securing a "no" vote in the NE elected assembly referendum.

And so it has come to pass that James Frayne, "campaign director" for NESNO, has written just such a piece, published in the somewhat unlikely "personal view" slot in the business section of The Daily Telegraph today.

Dressed up as an analysis of the implications of the campaign for the EU constitutional referendum, I will leave it to Neil Herron’s team to write the definitive rebuttal of Frayne’s claims to glory (which will be appearing on his Blog, later today) but have to add my views on the offence cause by this self-regarding article.

According to the Frayne myth, as late as August, an ICM poll was predicting a 2:1 advantage to the "yes" campaign but, in mid-September, "as the campaign began properly", people focused on it "and the polls moved quickly in our favour".

To those who know anything of the detail of the campaign, they will be aware that the ICM poll was commissioned by the "yes" campaign with a rigged question that could only have elicited the response that it did. It never did represent the popular sentiment, and the tide was already turning in favour of a "no" vote, and had been doing so long before Frayne and his bunch of johnny-come-latelys arrived on the scene.

That the opposition was already solid owes much to the work of Neil Herron and many others, the "unsung heroes" who had been slogging away on the issue for the last two years and more, building solid local coalitions, rehearsing the issues and pushing the issue up the agenda. Our considered view of the campaign, therefore, was that it was won despite the late appearance of NESNO, not because of it.

Turning to the substantive issue, of the implications of this referendum for the EU constitutional referendum, Frayne nevertheless makes some good points, although they are the most obvious ones, which were brought to his attention from diverse sources, not least by Herron’s team. But Frayne, in a manner typical of his ilk, claims the glory for himself.

What he did not address, therefore, was the downside of his own activity – and that of his colleagues – was the downside of his intervention, the fact that it had a divisive impact, splitting the "no" campaign and allowing the "yes" campaign its only serious opportunity of making an impact.

And it is precisely that same mechanism that could do irrevocable damage to the EU referendum campaign, as the self-appointed "Vote No" campaign takes to the field, claiming proprietary rights over a campaign that is much bigger than them and is far too important to allow a bunch of chancers and money-men to grab as their personal play-thing.

Already, we have seen the lack-lustre performance of this team but what is not obvious – and cannot be - is the lack of intelligent behind-the-scenes preparation and strategy development.
In what must be a campaign fought by the widest possible coalition of activists - against what will be the full weight of the government, with all its resources – we should be seeing a process of consultation, alliance-building and planning, with resources devoted to training and motivating the activists, assisting them to develop the tactics that will bring out the "no" vote on the day. And on top of that, we should also be seeing the establishment of a well-founded think-tank which will give intellectual weight to the "no" arguments.

Instead, we see a premature and divisive programme of cinema advertisements, a second-rate web site and some seriously flawed pamphlets, developed by a team which has no street-fighting credentials and which has never had to fight a real campaign in which public participation will be critical. We see no sign of intellectual depth, or even any indication that the players have any real grasp of the issues, yet we are supposed to bow down in awe and await our instructions on the day, from these masterminds.

Perhaps Mr Frayne, now ensconced in the safety and security of his London office, believes he has scored a notable victory, and is no doubt preening himself on his clever self-promotion in the Telegraph. But, for those of us who are less concerned with self-advancement and are more focused on winning the forthcoming campaign, we feel nothing but sadness at the thought that he and people like him are let loose to posture and prance. As always, however, it will be the unsung heroes who will do the work.

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