Back in June, the 22-year-old footballer Marcus Rashford wrote a letter to MPs. In that letter he asked them to extend free school dinner vouchers to children during the summer holidays, as the pandemic forced so many families into hardship. The result was a government U-turn. Then in October Rashford started a fresh campaign, demanding that free school meals be given to children over half-term and Christmas as well. This time, the government did not do a U-turn. Instead, they voted down a Labour opposition day motion that would have granted children free meals.

The young motivator

Since then, businesses and local councils across the country have stepped up to support Rashford’s campaign. They offered free food to children living in hardship over the half-term break. The young footballer succeeded in rallying the nation behind a cause better than any politician or political party in recent years. We must therefore ask whether campaigns led by people who are not politicians are a better way to achieve success.

Whichever side of the EU referendum you supported, it is hard to deny that, too often, we were distracted from the substance of the issue. Instead, we became obsessed with individual personalities and psychodramas. Boris Johnson, who led the Leave campaign, was popular at the time. David Cameron, and even more importantly George Osborne, not so much. The referendum therefore became, in part, a protest vote against the incumbent government — especially after Osborne, who had presided over years of spending cuts, threatened a ‘punishment budget’ in the event of a ‘Leave’ victory. The ‘blue on blue’ infighting turned the whole debate into something of a soap opera, centering on personalities. In other words, the referendum became a proxy for the ambitions of these politicians at the expense of a proper debate on the pros and cons of the European Union.

The grassroots approach

Elsewhere, there have been examples of plebiscites that do not have politicians at the forefront. For instance, in the Republic of Ireland, referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion included politicians, but they did not take centre stage. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar stated their support for gay marriage and the decriminalisation of abortion respectively, but organisations such as ‘BeLonG To’ and ‘Together for Yes’ played a much more important role by building up support, particularly in rural areas. They also drew attention to tragic stories as that of Savita Halappanavar, who died after being refused an abortion during a miscarriage. In the case of the abortion referendum, the recommendations were made by a Citizens Assembly rather than by Irish lawmakers. And during the referendum on same-sex marriage, there was a major drive by young people to persuade their grandparents to vote ‘Yes’. Resultantly, both referendums produced decisive results (in contrast to the very narrow 52/48 Brexit vote), suggesting that a grassroots approach, not overly-reliant on politicians, played a key part in building a strong consensus.

Sadly, when politicians are front and centre of important campaigns, things often become shrouded in personal ambitions — though in Cameron’s case it was anxiety about his political future. Voters often sense these cracks, and become cynical. When it comes to someone like Rashford, he is not associated with any political party and has nothing to gain or lose from campaigning. Moreover, he made it clear that he did not want the issue to become too politicised, and released a statement condemning the abuse that some Conservative MPs were receiving.

This sort of approach, from a non-political actor, is perhaps why so many Brits were motivated to support the campaign. This should tell us something about how such campaigns and referenda should be run in the future.

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