I recently participated in an election. I lost. I expected to lose and was not troubled by it. But I was troubled by the way in which the electoral process was twisted, the lies that were told and the underground methods that were used to swing the result. It reminded me of the Brexit and Trump elections. Except this was not an election that really mattered. It was for the Branches Forum Chair for The European Movement. Yes, I hear you say. Who? Read on and learn from this cautionary tale of Defence Against The Dark Election Arts.
The European Movement (EM) is a think tank / pressure group for our relationship with Europe. Up till 2016 it was a sleepy but steady membership movement with a worthy pedigree, having been started by Winston Churchill some 70 years ago. Since the Brexit referendum EM has been under pressure to perform more pro-actively and stepped up to the challenge with marches and other activities. This was not enough and more recently they appointed a new CEO, Anna Bird and a new Chair in the form of the marmite figure Lord Andrew Adonis. All the while the membership and executive have been divided on a number of issues and this division has grown and grown. These have revolved around the extent to which the movement is an elite think tank or whether it is a co-ordination hub for grassroots activities. This prompted someone called Richard Wilson to penetrate the Executive. Richard heads a micro organisation called Grassroots for Europe and is himself a controversial figure, who has not been universally welcome amongst the Exec Team. One described the move thus: “Imagine Bill Gates being allowed to join the board of Apple and then asking them to change the operating software – that’s what they are doing with G4E and Wilson”. This has promoted internecine warfare in what another described as an episode of “The Thick of it”. It seems that Andrew Adonis has been brought in to refocus EM, although his election margin was slim and one of his early decisions prompted a senior member of the organisation to whistleblow in The Sunday Express. At the same time, Richard Wilson appears to be seeking to take EM over and the CEO seems powerless or unwilling to act. This sets the context for our election shambles. Roy Motteram sums up the glorious history of the EM and the recent decline due to entryists in this Twitter thread:
Several EM board members told me that what took place in the recent EM elections would look more at home in a rogue African state or North Korea. It began with the calling of the election itself. EM elections are normally coronations with only one candidate, but I had been encouraged to stand by a number of people, in order to address the “unfinished business” with leadership, strategy and structure. Concurrent with this, I had been representing my son, who was claiming constructive unfair dismissal in a dispute with EM CEO Anna Bird. We had made significant progress towards an agreement to end the dispute. As soon as I announced my candidacy, Ms Bird instructed lawyers to take the agreement off the table. Additionally, some new rules were added to the constitution, that prospective candidates could not have any conflicts of interest. It appeared that these events were concurrent with my candidacy and I gained the impression that they were created specifically around my personal circumstances. I had to pass back responsibility to my son for his own representation and leave him to conduct his own legal affairs whilst he should have been searching for a new job. Oh well, never mind.
To sway the election towards the preferred candidate Yvonne Wancke, it seemed that Grassroots for Europe leader Richard Wilson insisted on giving voting rights to an affiliated group called Veterans for Europe. Since they have members across the geography of other voting groups, this would give them influence on the vote and, in some cases, voting rights by proxy. Unholy alliances were formed with other EM affiliate groups with larger memberships such as Oxford for Europe and Leeds for Europe. To the casual eye, these look like European Movement Branches but they are not.
In a bizarre twist of events, once the returning officer complained about several serious lapses in good practice, he was told he was unfit to continue running the election as he had “resigned”. This was not true and eventually the statement was successfully defeated, although several other attempts to overturn the process and the people were made. This culminated in a series of moves by various people who attempted to declare the election null and void and farcical counter-attacks by people operating on the other side, who said it was not. Over the period of one week from w/e 17 August I think I counted 5-6 occasions on when the election was OFF, then ON. I almost decided to run a sweep stake on the next cancellation and resurrection! Here is the “clarification” letter I received, which also includes some befuddling information about who was able to vote. This was to lead to the entryism and other breakdowns in the electoral process. Some of the “regulars” said that they did not recognise quite a few of those voting in the election and I requested the video file of the meeting to check. So far it has not been provided.
In the event, a third electoral candidate emerged who subsequently stood down, perhaps due to the dark arts. Around this time the election process was changed to preference voting. A further confusion was introduced when John Gaskell of Grassroots For Europe insisted to the Executive that the election was not for two months but for 14 months. This was not fully resolved and there should be further elections in November 2021, although my current assumption is that this was done in order to allow another election to take place if the result was not that which was desired. One of the Executive tried to get all the candidates to stand up against bad practice but largely failed. Here are the responses:
The most disgraceful part of the election was a concerted and continuous smear campaign on the part of “Team Grassroots aka Team Yvonne”. I had maintained good communications with Yvonne Wancke, having worked with her previously on several projects and, whilst I do not believe Yvonne actively encouraged this campaign, she was made aware of it, refused to condemn it publicly and appeared to do nothing to stop it privately.
Eventually I had to issue a public statement on the matter but, by then, the damage was done.
Four separate pieces of information came to my attention over the final two weeks of the election:
A follow up letter from Colin Gordon just before purdah was announced which prevented making a reply to all those who had been contacted. I had fully explained answers to Colin’s questions, see FAQs This was sent to all 130 people eligible to vote, by which time the damage was done. Since that time Colin has made private requests by email and more public requests that the matter be airbrushed out of existence. Here is Colin’s letter sent to all eligible to vote.
A letter from Patrick Reynolds, John Gaskell, Colin Gordon (again), Chris Hammond and Robina Jacobson, all of whom are tied into Grassroots for Europe and some of whom are known as persistent agitators by the EM Executive. This was also sent to all 130 people for maximum impact. The impact was in fact to switch off many people from voting, what is commonly known as voter suppression. Paragraphs 4-5 below are directly targeted towards my candidacy and are untrue as outlined in my responses to Patrick. I tried to call Patrick on several occasions but he refused, stating that he had simply been annoyed that I’d used an abbreviation of his group’s name, commonly known as SSTIE, in our collaborative event. I would not have even known about this letter if it had not been for the fact that Patrick sent me a copy by mistake, as he did not realise I was a branch chair!!
I received information from a grassroots campaigner called Beth Linton that said I had organised a mass smearing campaign against Yvonne Wancke. When I asked for the evidence of the campaign none was forthcoming. When I asked to see the message I was told it could not be shared as it would be instantly recognisable as to who sent it. Eventually I managed to extract the syntax of what it said but it remains a mystery as to who sent it. Much of this messaging was done underground on WhatsApp etc.
“Just a heads up that Peter Cook is currently doing an online smear campaign against NE for Europe and our Chair Yvonne Wancke in particular”
In a similar vein and from a different source, this is completely untrue:
“Peter has only been a member of the EM for two months”
The EM had made a big fuss about the need for the election to be inclusive. Yet they refused to allow postal voting and only sent the invite out one day before the election at the height of the summer holidays on a Saturday afternoon. In the event, I have been contacted several times this week by people who either did not know there was an election, or, for whom the use of an online vote was too complicated for them to manage. See below:
Also I discovered I had inadvertently opted myself out from mail communication from the EM about 17 days ago. Genuinely sorry you did not win.
I briefed my successor chair up to the hilt, including your reply on the fairness points which eclipsed the other two candidates. Unfortunately he failed to attend the meeting, blaming internet difficulties in his village in France. I’d reminded him the day before, so he could have asked me to fill in if he was aware of the problem. So our vote went to waste. I think the future of our movement lies outside EM anyway but sorry at how this turned out for you. Screw them in court!
Anna Bird was also advised that the database was not fit for purpose due to branch closures, membership changes and so on but she chose to continue with the election. The advice she was given proved to be correct. I was getting phone calls right up to the day of the election asking if there was an election. I have since had calls asking me what it was all about!
Last minute dot com
At 12.30 on the 4th September, I discovered that Richard Wilson had asked for the election to be cancelled. I was not party to the reasons why but can only conclude that he lacked confidence in Yvonne Wancke to win for him. This was misplaced and she won with a decisive majority. I wished Yvonne every success at the time of the election although I fear that the election has done nothing to deal with the underlying problems at The European Movement. A boil un-lanced and ignored just gets bigger and more toxic. As testament to this, here is one response to the EM from an eminent figure:
The smearing continued after the election from members of NE4EU, Vets4EU and SODEM. I have concluded that The European Movement was not the organisation to take the lead in the fight against Brexit Chaos and to present a Pro-EU agenda at this time. I hope I am wrong. The movement contains many great members and the staff work extremely hard with limited resources, but something is afoot. I hope it can be resolved.
This weekend, Lord Adonis conducts a Special General Meeting to amend elements of the EM constitution. I have received many communications to the effect that this is to be run along similar lines to the election, with the main purpose to be a power grab from the Executive. Hope is not a strategy but let us hope I am wrong. I wish them well, as without a centre we have no powers of multiplication of our efforts to Re-Boot Britain. You may be thinking about a dark motive in my writing of this article, as Colin Gordon said to me “Try to lose gracefully”. However, I am not a sad loser, as I never really went into the election expecting to win. I am however sad about the processes that were used, in contrast to the espoused values of The European Movement. I have a serious loss of faith and now know why Remain lost three times. I wish them well into the future and hope they will learn and improve from this moment. I fully stand by the comments I made about Lord Adonis. A good board member often acts as a “critical friend” rather than a “friendly co-pilot”. Roy Motteram nails it again and just for the record, here is my statement about Lord Adonis.