“Shaming Politicians with their Own Words”: The case of the Led by Donkeys anti-Brexit Campaign

Author: Emmanuelle Avril – Sorbonne Nouvelle (CREW)

NB: Work in Progress

Introduction

Led by Donkeys (LBD) is a British political campaign group – they define themselves in interviews as a third party campaign group – created in December 2018 to target pro-Brexit politicians. The phrase “Lions led by donkeys” is commonly used to refer to the First World War to blame the generals who led the British infantry: the idea was that the brave soldiers (the lions) were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders (the donkeys). Beyond the context of Brexit, the campaign made the more general point of exposing the incompetence and hypocrisy of political leaders, in step with an elite betrayal narrative that is very strong at the moment.

Seeking to hold Brexiteers accountable for past promises, the campaign was designed to give permanence and visibility to something as fleeting as a politician’s tweet. LBD started by illegally pasting politicians’ tweets on billboards and then circulating photos of the billboards on social media. As their popularity grew, the group started crowdfunding money to pay for their own billboard ads and went on to being able to purchase hundreds of billboards across the UK. Besides static billboards the group has used other media such as ad vans, industrial projectors (e.g. to beam “SOS” on an EU flag in a 75x50m projection on the Dover cliffs), fields (40-metre high letters plowed into a field belonging to an anti-Brexit farmer in the county of Wiltshire in southwest England), as well as a 800 square meters crowd flag unfolded on Parliament Square by anti-Brexit protesters on 23 March 2019.

Described by its activists both as “guerrilla” and as “political theatre”, they combined old and new media in novel and creative ways, using billboards containing past statements by pro-Brexit politicians which appeared to undermine their changed political position, thereby using “name and shame” tactics to hold flip-flipping politicians to their own words. The Led by Donkeys campaign tactics, which made use of satire to bring some humour and passion to what they regarded as a dull Remain campaign, was based on a belief in the political power of laughing at the Brexiteers. But in exposing the hypocrisies of Brexit politics to counter what the campaigners consider the dangers of post-truth politics, did the “quote and shame” campaign really contribute to shifting opinions on Brexit? Or did the point the campaign lie elsewhere?

A tweet you can’t delete”

The billboards (see for example https://images.app.goo.gl/epfRDGXsKGGrf4bz7) bearing the tweets and other material installations were designed to be experienced both in the real world (in this respect, locations were of major importance) and online, and to be relayed in the mainstream media. At a first level, the simple transposition of tweets which had been circulating online for months into the real world completely changed their impact, if only due to the sheer size of the posters. At a second level, the billboards were then photographed or filmed and circulated online, with added strength, so that the campaign was not about simply sharing tweets online, but about sharing photographs of billboards bearing the incriminating tweets. This meant that the billboard campaign stressed the contrast between the easiness and carelessness of posting a tweet with the time and effort required to make the installation (print the tweet, paste it on a billboard etc.), as well as its cost (renting billboards, hiring a helicopter…), thereby literally adding value to the contents in addition to making them more tangible.

Indeed, when asked in interviews to account for the use of the old-fashioned billboard, LBD campaigners explained that the effectiveness of the group’s tactics derived from the relationship between offline and online speech: “We discovered that if you take a digital format, a digital message and you put it up on a six-meter-by-three-meter billboard in a town centre, in a physical space, it forces that politician to own those words”. According to one of the co-founders, the idea was to “put these tweets back into the public space” with a view to “[giving] people the opportunity to re-read them in the reality about what’s unfolding.” (see for example https://images.app.goo.gl/xepLJjAQCyMqrKhcA). The idea was also that although people spend much of their time online, most of them will also be on the roads, on the street, or in Tube stations, so that physical posters on billboards are still relevant to this type of campaign, playing to the traditional techniques and slogans of commercial and political advertising. The issue of where in the country the billboards would appear also became paramount. Although the campaign started in London, where LBD members are based, they did not limit their actions to the London area. In order to avoid simply preaching to the converted, they also chose leave-voting areas where they felt their posters would be more useful in changing people’s minds. They were also concerned not to be seen to be targeting leave voters themselves since their aim was to only ridicule the leaders of the Leave campaign.

Therefore perhaps paradoxically in this digital age, the physicality of the campaign was paramount and achieved much more overall visibility than an online campaign with a potentially wider reach. When LBD announced on Facebook and Twitter their move to Tik Tok on November 1st 2020, some of the commentators reacted saying how they missed the old fashioned billboards as they felt more “effective and different”. Bringing an online quote into the offline world and stopping these quotes from disappearing into the “digital graveyard” is a way to overcome the internet’s ephemerality.

Four lads and a ladder”

Very much an element of the campaign itself were the attributes of the four “lads” (or “dads”, as their status as family men – i.e. responsible citizens – was also very much part of their presentational tactics). In particular, the instruments their used: the working-class tools of the ladder and brush and bucket, helped stress a simple, no frills, hand-on approach (see https://images.app.goo.gl/a6vxNmDoeCt6Uqg89). The various elements of the campaign added up to a deceptive simplicity: the almost haiku-like quality of the tweets (which are by nature short), the bare billboards (black letters on a white background), and the simple non-technical tools. Yet, pasting panels onto billboard is not such an easy task and the unfolding the huge crowd flag (see below) required very complex logistics. The imagery also played on the notion of four ordinary friend having a pint in the pub: it was important that the idea originated by accident while drinking in their local. It later emerged that the two of the members of LBD, construed as “ordinary” lads, were in fact very experienced Greenpeace campaigners and that their coming up with the idea was not that fortuitous. Nevertheless what is put forward was the camaraderie of the “lads”, seen holding each other by the shoulders on the book cover, as if doing some kind of prank. The “lads” are therefore also very much part of the message – constructed as ordinary heroes turned white knights of democracy bent on righting wrongs.

However striking and novel it may seemed, LBD’s campaign also tapped into a classic repertoire of protest action. Indeed, the highjacking of advertising billboards, which are regarded as a major source of visual pollution and as such are often used by campaigners to challenge consumerism, is a technique which was initiated in the late 1980s by the Canadian pro-environment organisation Adbusters, which was itself part of a wider “culture jamming” movement using “détournement” tactics to “turn expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself”: thus the Billboard Liberation Front (which started in San Francisco in 1977) practiced culture jamming by changing key words on advertising billboards to alter the message, often with an anti-corporate agenda.

In the same vein, some of the installations are clearly evocative of Land Art, which takes art outside of art galleries to remote locations, an art form which was first used to express a rejection of the commercialisation of art-making as well as an enthusiasm for the emerging ecological movement. Interestingly, key dimension of Land Art was precisely that it was meant to be documented through photographs of the installations. Thus LBD used beaches, fields (see for example https://images.app.goo.gl/9gbxoUQ3945fm5gw7) and the white cliffs of Dover as sites for their messages. The use of famous buildings and monuments – with projections on Big Ben, the tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Edinburgh and Cardiff Castles etc. – was also an echo of this kind of artistic movement. And going back to the billboards, this kind of street art works – which include graffiti and murals – are among the most known and studied forms of “artivism”

This means that although LBD campaigners do not consider themselves to be “political” as such, in the sense that they did not campaign in support a specific political party (in the 2019 general election campaign they did not support the Labour Party and even ridiculed Jeremy Corbyn for his ambivalent stance on Brexit with an empty billboard on which members of the public wrote their own comments, see https://images.app.goo.gl/6yDHLwkvU7hUdNjP9), the use of billboards by LBD does point to a wider anti-capitalist agenda, more specifically here to a critique of the neo-liberal deregulated model advocated by top Brexiteers.

LBD as political street theatre

One of the main traits of the campaign was to get the public to take an active role, in a bid both to gage the popularity of the campaign and to boost its effectiveness in conveying the message. LBD’s relationship with their online followers, for example, was key, since very successful crowdfunding activities enabled the group to quickly move from the illegal pasting of posters on top of existing ads to the much more expensive rental of billboard space (£67,000 were raised in the first two hours of launching the appeal for funds, when they had been hoping to raise £10,000 in 30 days). When the group started putting their next moves to a vote on Twitter they realised that “people were hungry to see second referendum hypocrisy go up” and that they could rely on the enthusiasm of their followers, which they invited to contribute in various ways (LBD also invited the public to design new ads).

The campaign events sometimes involved their supporters directly, as in the display on Parliament Square on 23 March 2019, the day of the giant People’s Vote March (see https://images.app.goo.gl/CJpQef2QpJWP3jFK8), when hundreds of protesters had to prop up a spectacular crowd flag for the whole country (and beyond) to see (the scene was photographed and filmed from above from a hire helicopter and was given extensive media coverage). The interactive Corbyn blank billboard cited above, co-created by the campaigners and the public who added their own comments, was another example.

The campaign also sought to appeal to emotions – a key feature in the context of the Brexit debate where the Remain camp was criticised as too technocratic and ineffective in trying to persuade voters through rational argumentation. The absence of commentary on the billboards about the aims of the campaign supposed a set of shared values and norms between the campaigners and the public who were meant to be able to decode the message themselves: “putting these words up without commentary gives people an opportunity to appraise them on their own terms”, on LBD member explained. The use of humour is also analysed in the literature as a way to appeal to emotions and a shared set of norms.

But one incident may be taken to indicate that the assumed shared vision of the word might not have reflected the public’s attitudes, as clearly not everyone understood the satirical dimension of the billboards: one billboard, featuring Ann Widdecombe’s quote that “homosexual acts are wrongful” was meant to be ironic (see https://images.app.goo.gl/7BeiXh5EGX6xD72o9), warning people of her homophobic beliefs. Yet the LBD team was warned that they had overlooked the fact that the irony of the message would be lost on most people, who would see it instead as an anti-gay campaign, and they therefore had to quickly pull the billboard and apologise for any unintentional pain caused.

Conclusion: the “inarguable truth”

Despite the lack of success on Brexit, the group did not consider their efforts to have been in vain, since they regarded their main role as more generally filling the gap left by a “broken media ecosystem” in which the media not playing their role of holding power to account. Despite the failure to reverse Brexit, Led By Donkeys’ anti-Brexit campaign was hailed as a success and rewarded with gold in National Social Impact at the 2020 Media Awards 2020. In October 2020 they were advertising for a part-time Finance and Production manager, a sign that they are not winding down. Indeed, since the 2019 general election which sealed Brexit, they have turned to other topics, such as the handling of the Covid pandemic by the government and they conducted an anti-Trump campaign during the 2020 US election campaign. The main achievement of the campaign has been to expose political lies and politician’s dubious relationship with the truth (see https://images.app.goo.gl/ZCJuGig7BdUeHDcRA).

One of the LBD members considered that they had succeeded in bringing evidence of political hypocrisy to a mass audience, as a reaction to a worrying trend: “On both sides of the Atlantic, the concept of shame and political leaders paying a price for lying and dissembling is in retreat” he said. In this post-truth world, arguably the main strength of the campaign was to be driven by truth, the one thing that is currently missing the most in politics, where elites posing as outsiders on both sides of the Atlantic have elevated shamelessness into a political creed. While shameful behaviour defined as a transgression of accepted social conduct, and the rejection of shame, can have very positive effects, as seen through many of the examples presented at the conference, the shamelessness of elites, which also involves a refusal to abide by agreed-upon social rules, can also be a threat to social order and lead to abuse of power.

Bibliography:

Primary source material:

LBD photos of campaign posters and installations available online and collected in Led By Donkeys. How Four Friends with a Ladder Took on Brexit, London: Atlantic Books, 2019. Interviews of LBD members in national newspapers and TV channels.

Secondary sources:

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(November 2020)

Bio:

Emmanuelle Avril is Professor of Contemporary British Politics and Society at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University. Her main line of research is intra-party democracy, organisational change and mobilisation within the Labour Party leading more generally to studies of political participation, campaigning, and democratisation, as well as the use of new technologies to mobilise support. Her latest publications include Labour United and Divided from the 1830s to the Present (Manchester University Press, 2018, co-ed.) and Democracy, Participation and Contestation. Civil Society, Governance and the Future of Liberal Democracy (Routledge, 2016, co-ed.).


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