Led by Donkeys – Review of the year

Led by Donkeys
Led by Donkeys

Led by Donkeys – Review of the year

Featuring all their multi-million hit videos

Hello friends,

Start as you mean to go on. That’s what they say, isn’t it? And Boris Johnson, in his uninterrupted year-long record of chronic full-spectrum corruption and ineptitude, did exactly that in 2021. Remember January and his lethally inconsistent public messaging in the face of a new Covid variant? Scroll forward eleven months to this December as he urges the public to party on amid surging cases and a chronic shortage of testing capacity and… well, he’s nothing if not consistent.

But something has changed, hasn’t it? Forgive this leap of optimism (it’s the hope that kills you) but it seems to us that the British people have finally got wise to him. The bluster and bonhomie no longer work, the wheels of bullshit still spin but don’t gain traction and for most voters it’s just not funny anymore. Boris Johnson’s government has suffered the worst year of its inept, unscrupulous, amoral life, and here at LBD we hope we played our part – albeit a small one – in bringing about a change in the Prime Minister’s political fortunes.

Let’s start our review of the year on New Year’s Eve 2020. At 11pm the Brexit transition period ended and the UK (really, properly) left the structures of the European Union. The terms of divorce were about as harsh as they could have been, dictated as they were by ideologues on the hard right of the Tory Party for whom this moment was the culmination of a thirty year campaign. The severing of our closest international bond was the result of a fusion of dogma, incompetence and crass populist politics – the dangerous brew that has done so much harm to our country.

Simultaneously Covid was raging through the nation, but on January 3rd Johnson urged parents to send their kids back to school for the start of the new term. His Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had already threatened to sue schools that closed as cases rocketed. And so millions of parents followed the instruction of their government and the following day sent their kids in, only for Johnson to address the nation that very evening to announce that schools were, in fact, now closing. Children had been separated for two weeks over the Christmas holidays, reducing transmission, until Johnson had ordered them in for a single day – spreading the virus – before executing a bumbling U-turn. We told the story of his deadly, thermonuclear incompetence over school openings in this film that was viewed more than a million times online.

Meanwhile UK goods exports to the EU fell by 45% in January – a calamity that would supposedly be offset by the manifold new trade deals that inevitably failed to materialise, while those that were signed were in the main on the same or worse terms than the UK enjoyed as an EU member.

In late January the official UK Covid death toll hit 100k. That day Johnson said “We did everything we could” (he really didn’t) and we re-released our definitive investigation into his initial, disastrous response to the coronavirus. The film has now been watched more than 11 million times – more than any documentary about Johnson’s Covid failings.

That 100k figure was, of course, an underestimate. The Office of National Statistics put the death toll at closer to 120k. The inspirational group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice was campaigning for a public inquiry into the government’s botched approach to the pandemic. We reached out to them and asked if they’d like to collaborate, and soon an idea emerged – to handpaint a heart for every person who’s died on a wall along the Thames opposite Parliament.

Johnson was proposing a government-sanctioned memorial, while the grieving families thought he was the least appropriate person to dictate how they should mourn. It’s hard to grasp the scale of the loss this country has sustained, but our idea was that MPs on the House of Commons terrace – Johnson included – should be forced to face the reality of that loss when they looked across the river, in particular those politicians wedded to misplaced ideological notions of ‘freedom’ at the expense of basic public health measures.

The result was the National Covid Memorial Wall – a co-creation of bereaved families and Led By Donkeys. More than 150k hand-painted hearts that stretch half a kilometre down the Thames, the wall is now the nation’s unofficial memorial to those we’ve lost. Among the first to walk the wall was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who took the moment to push for an inquiry. He was followed by the leaders of all the major political parties. Soon dozens of MPs were calling for the wall to be made into a permanent memorial. Johnson went there under cover of darkness to avoid meeting the families, but when he finally announced a public inquiry in the Commons, he specifically referenced the emotional impact of the wall.

You can read about how we, together with the families, conceived and installed the memorial in this Observer cover story. And you can walk the wall in virtual form.

One of our biggest interventions of 2020 was a film in which we projected a message from Hassan Akkad onto the White Cliffs of Dover. In April Hassan returned with us to Dover to make this film about Priti Patel’s duplicitous approach to borders. To stoke fear and cement its power, her government was scaremongering about refugees crossing the channel, while at the same time leaving Covid free to enter the UK through our ports and airports. Our collaboration with Hassan has now been viewed 2 million times and exposes the hypocrisy of one of Johnson’s most objectionable lieutenants.

By this time even Dominic Cummings was saying the UK is a nation of “lions led by donkeys” (told you Dom). Meanwhile Johnson’s irrepressible talent for incompetence was now manifesting itself in his government’s reaction to the new Delta variant. We teamed up with ex-Newsnight anchor Gavin Esler to tell the story of how Johnson allowed the novel strain (which originated in India) to flood the UK, because he prioritised a post-Brexit trade deal with Delhi over securing the UK’s borders. The film has been watched millions of times.

LBD started out as a guerilla poster campaign – four friends going out at night to paste up the lies, lunacy and hypocrisy of our Brexit overlords. When Health Secretary Matt Hancock was caught transgressing his own Covid restrictions with a friend he employed in his department (her salary paid for by the public) we dug out the ladder and poster paste and headed to the constituency of the PM (who was refusing to sack Hancock). One eagle-eyed TikToker shared a film of a later Hancock poster going up which garnered over three million views. Our Hancock campaign went to a core mission at LBD – resisting and exposing government corruption.

Summer arrived, and with it the European football championships. Priti Patel took to GB News (more on them in a minute) to back the England supporters who were booing the team for taking a knee. But as the players progressed through the tournament and the country embraced them, Patel suddenly realised she’d committed political self-immolation and attempted to execute a U-turn of breathtaking cynicism – donning the England strip and asking us all to forget she’d stood with the thugs who booed them. At LBD we’re always keen to drag politicians’ historic statements from the memory hole and give them a second life, so we took a giant TV screen to the Home Office to remind everyone exactly who this particular ‘supporter’ had supported.

And so to GB News – the vehicle by which Brexiter hedge fund managers were seeking to shift the national conversation rightwards. We didn’t immediately open a new front against the channel – why bother when they were doing such a good job at self-sabotaging the project (as Napoleon said, never interrupt your enemy when they’re making a mistake.) Indeed, GBN Chairman Andrew Neil asked potential critics to give the channel a chance, to judge it only when it had established itself, and so we held our tongue. But when they gave our old adversary Nigel Farage his own show, on which he attacked the RNLI for saving the lives of refugees (his comments causing lifeboat crews themselves to be verbally assaulted) we resolved to get involved.

Among the advertisers on the Farage show was Sainsbury’s. They were, in effect, paying Farage’s salary while he targeted rescue crews. Our campaign to force Sainsbury’s to pull its funding saw posters go up, a big online push and the deployment of the giant TV screen outside the supermarket’s HQ. Sainsbury’s soon saw sense and pulled its ads.

The Sainsbury’s win was delivered in concert with the group Stop Funding Hate, and for our next push we entered another collaboration – this time with the irrepressible Good Law Project. They’ve done incredible work exposing the scandal of the government’s PPE procurement programme, in which barely believable sums of money (our money) have found their way into the pockets of friends of the Tory party.

In this GLP/LBD collaboration, projected onto Parliament and voiced by Gavin Esler, we told the shocking truth of the PPE story. In part two we focused on one particular deal that saw a friend of Priti Patel get very rich indeed while thousands died. Our PPE films have been viewed millions of times. If you haven’t watched them yet, prepare to be outraged.

Talking of Priti Patel and outrage, this intervention in August outside the Home Office (in collaboration with an Afghan refugee group) shone a light on the government’s failed response to the humanitarian crisis as Western forces pulled out of Kabul.

And still Brexit ground on with inexhaustibly negative consequences. Empty shelves and queues for petrol were the focus of our late summer billboard campaign, including this appropriately placed poster at the Tory Party conference in Manchester (hello Nadine Dorries). We also gave a platform to Polish HGV driver Tomasz to tell Conservative members some hard truths about the role their beloved Brexit was playing in the supply chain crisis, while this intervention in Manchester highlighted the broken promise to give the NHS an extra £350m a week (instead Johnson announced tax rises to fund the health service). Then we rolled out a poster campaign in red wall seats exposing how Brexit was causing real economic harm.

When Johnson tried to scrap the parliamentary standards system (ostensibly to save his friend Owen Paterson but in reality to save himself from scrutiny) we took the giant TV screen to Downing Street. And as COP26 focused minds on climate change we projected a message from David Attenborough onto a skyscraper in Canary Wharf, exposing the amount of support UK banks are giving to fossil fuel projects.

On the subject of opaque financial arrangements, we’ve always been interested in where the Conservative Party gets its money from, and a few weeks ago we took a closer look at a controversial underwater cable project off Portsmouth that’s supported by the government but vehemently opposed by locals. It turns out the ex-boss of a Russian arms company who’s behind the proposal has donated to nearly one-in-ten Conservative MPs. Our film exposing the links between him and the party was projected in Portsmouth Harbour, where we asked the question: Who does Boris Johnson and his government really work for? In our opinion, not you. The film includes the remarkable roll-call of Tory MPs taking money from the man behind the cable project. It has been viewed more than 2 million times so far.

Then we get to the Downing Street lockdown parties. We were as shocked as most people when the Met Police declared they wouldn’t be investigating the unlawful No10 gatherings, claiming there was an ‘absence of evidence’, so we resolved to do what we could to expose the absurdity of the Met’s position and pressure the police to do the right thing. We quickly decided to take the ample evidence that existed directly to Scotland Yard and present it in the style of a dossier from the anti-corruption unit in the TV show Line of Duty.

Speculation has since raged over whether the voiceover in our film really is that of Adrian Dunbar (aka Superintendent Ted Hastings). Now, for operational reasons we can neither confirm nor deny that Mr Dunbar is on our team. But what we can say is that the film has now been viewed 9 million times online, has been shared 170k times, was splashed on the front page of the Daily Star, was shown on Good Morning Britain and – we think – significantly added to the pressure on Scotland Yard to investigate Downing Street.

Civil servant Sue Gray will soon publish her report into the parties. Let’s see what the Met does then…

All in all our posters, projections, investigations, films and other interventions appeared more than 160 million times on people’s Twitter timelines in 2021, and reached many millions more on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and in traditional media outlets like newspapers and television. But for us, what we do is about much more than just viewer numbers. By consistently getting content in front of millions of people that is designed to forensically hold our political leaders to account and offer progressive and compassionate counterpoints to right-wing narratives, we’re trying to empower the silent majority in the UK who believe in a fairer and kinder society. We reach a lot more people than GB News, while our content crosses political divides and gets our message out of the so-called bubble. But unlike GB News, which is backed with £60m of hedge fund cash and trades in scaremongering and conspiracy, Led By Donkeys is funded entirely by the public and has an unwavering commitment to the truth.

We’re lucky that we have the resources to conceive and deliver high impact interventions before the news cycle turns. That’s because of the generous support of the public, including many of you, who’ve allowed us to recently turn Led By Donkeys into a permanent campaign with full-time staff. We feel there’s a big role for our style of story-telling and activism and we’re determined to keep going until the post-truth populist politics practised by Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the rest of them is finally and comprehensively rejected by the British people. A huge thank you to all of you who make it happenif you’re not already a regular supporter, you can sign up here.

A very happy new year to you, and thank you so much for your support in 2021. Let’s make 2022 the year the tide finally turns.

Ben, James, Olly and Will

(Winchester Labour recommends this message to stimulate thought, discussion and the formulation of policy, it does not necessarily endorse it.)

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