On Wednesday 13 April, the British Electoral Commission designated ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’, known as ‘Stronger In’, and ‘Vote Leave’ as the official campaigns for the upcoming UK referendum on EU membership. The designation lifts the curtain on the official referendum campaign period, which begins today until 23 June, when polling stations open. In this Just the Facts, which is part of a series European Movement Ireland is producing on the forthcoming referendum, we examine the two campaigns and analyse the impact the designations are likely to have on the referendum.
The UK’s Electoral Commission chooses a group as the ‘lead campaign’ for each side of referendum debates. Designated lead campaigns receive a number of benefits and are allowed a higher spending limit than other registered campaigns. For the purposes of the UK referendum on EU membership, ‘Stronger In’ and ‘Vote Leave’ will each receive:
- A spending limit of £7,000,000;
- One free distribution of literature to the electorate;
- Referendum campaign broadcasts;
- A grant of up to £600,000 to cover certain administration costs.
By contrast, non-designated campaign groups are restricted to keep their spending to £700,000 each.
In addition to the statutory benefits, lead campaign groups can also avail of:
- A dedicated page in the Electoral Commission’s public information booklet which will be distributed to all households in the UK;
- The inclusion in the booklet of a link to a page on the campaigner’s website, which should include their opinion on what will happen in the event of either referendum result.
The Lead Campaigns
‘Stronger In’ was the only group to apply for the ‘Remain’ designation. It has strong cross-party political support from the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party, as well as significant backing from business leaders. ‘Stronger In’ also has a presence in Northern Ireland. Its campaign mainly focuses on the economic benefits of EU membership and the negative impact that a Brexit would have.
Chairman: Lord Stuart Rose, a businessman and Conservative peer.
Executive Director: Will Straw, who worked for the UK Treasury under former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Key figures in campaign: Prime Minister David Cameron; Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne; Jeremy Corbyn MP, leader of the Labour Party; Tim Farron MP, leader of the Liberal Democrats.
There were three applications to the Electoral Commission for the ‘Leave’ side’s lead campaign designation: ‘Vote Leave’, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and ‘Grassroots Out’, known as ‘GO’. In making its decision, the Electoral Commission said that ‘Vote Leave’ “better demonstrated that it has the structures in place to ensure the views of other campaigners are represented in the delivery of its campaign”. ‘Vote Leave’ has support from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove MP and ‘Business for Britain’. It also has cross-party support from ‘Conservatives for Britain’, ‘Labour Leave’ and UKIP, although they are free to continue campaigning independently. Vote Leave’s campaign focuses mainly on increased sovereignty for Britain, control over global trade deals the UK could make outside of the EU, and diverting the UK’s EU budget contribution to fund national services like the NHS and schools.
Chairperson: Gisela Stuart, Labour MP
Chief Executive: Matthew Elliott, former director of the campaign to keep the UK voting system.
Key figures in the ‘Leave’ campaign: Boris Johnson, MP and Mayor of London; Justice Secretary Michael Gove; Employment Minister Priti Patel.
Implications of designation
The designation has implications for the scope of the referendum debate:
- The main points of the debate now boil down to UK sovereignty, the impact of Brexit on the UK economy, and the UK’s budget contribution to the EU, although UKIP MEP Nigel Farage has said that he will continue focusing on the immigration issue.
- ‘Vote Leave’ is dominated by Conservative Eurosceptics, making it likely that the main debate will be between prominent Conservative politicians – with Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chancellor George Osborne on the ‘Remain’ side, and Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove on the ‘Leave’ side.
- The designation of ‘Vote Leave’ was not well received by ‘Grassroots Out’, who initially said it would seek a judicial review of the decision. Although this seems to have been withdrawn, one of the challenges facing ‘Vote Leave’ will be uniting the groups on the ‘Leave’ side.
- Both sides will now intensify their campaigns and reach out to voters who have not been fully engaged in the referendum until now.