Led by Donkeys: UK political agitators reaching millions

Three of the founders of the Led By Donkeys activist group, Oliver Knowles, Ben Stewart and James Sadri — © AFP Hector RETAMAL

Caroline TAÏX

A persistent irritant to Britain’s ruling Conservatives since its creation after Brexit, campaign group Led by Donkeys has built a big online audience with its largely humour-led attempts at political accountability.

Founded by four friends in a pub in 2018, the collective’s campaigns and stunts skewering politicians and spotlighting issues get millions of views online — and often generate mainstream media coverage.

They remain best known for their light-hearted early efforts, like plastering ex-prime minister Boris Johnson’s optimistic tweets about the joys of life after Brexit to contrast them with the reality.

More recent ploys, involving stings by fake companies and covert filming, have had a more serious undertone.

After five years and hundreds of initiatives, the group said it still has “plenty of ideas” before the next general election, expected next year.

“It’s more than just an anti-Tory campaign,” Oliver Knowles, one of its four founding fathers, told AFP.

He said there is “a bigger mission” for “accountability” across the political spectrum while pushing “more progressive ideas”.

“For me, the broader mission is: counter the populist narrative of the country,” said 44-year-old fellow co-founder James Sadri.

– ‘Cathartic’ satire –

Led By Donkeys takes its name from a World War I expression used to describe the incompetent leaders who led British soldiers to their deaths.

The four friends formed the collective while they all worked for environmental pressure group Greenpeace, in shared frustration at Britain’s dysfunctional politics in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“We were having a pint in a pub. We started looking at some of the tweets that the Brexiteers have made,” recalled another of the quartet, Ben Stewart, 49.

“We just burst out laughing, (at) how chaotic the situation was.”

Image: © AFP

Stewart was referring to a now-infamous 2015 post by then-prime minister David Cameron as he campaigned for re-election against Labour leader Ed Miliband.

“Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice — stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband,” he had posted.

Little over a year later, Cameron lost the referendum he had ordered on Britain’s European Union membership, and the country tilted into several years of political crises.

“There was a six-metre by three-metre billboard outside the window. And we said, ‘That’s the shape of a tweet, why don’t we print it out and just put it up there?’”

They soon pasted other tweets on other billboards before photographing them and posting the images online. The campaign quickly went viral.

They then launched a crowd-funding operation, which exceeded expectations and allowed them to rent more and more billboard spaces.

“For us it was deeply cathartic because we spent so long moaning,” said Knowles.

– ‘Power’ –

The group’s last stunt in September targeted the British government’s controversial deal with Rwanda to take migrants who arrive in the UK “illegally” without prior authorisation.

Interior minister Suella Braverman insists Rwanda is “a safe country” for asylum seekers, but the policy has been stalled by court challenges.

Using undercover cameras, Led By Donkeys captured Rwanda’s ambassador in London trivialising the previous killing of refugees there, allegedly by police.

“Yes, it might have happened, but so what?” the Rwandan diplomat said on camera.

He also branded Braverman as “absolutely wrong” about migration.

The video has been viewed nearly six million times on X, formerly Twitter.

Another sting in March caught MPs — including former finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng — accepting lucrative second job offers from bogus companies, and amassed nearly 30 million views on X.

Led by Donkeys has also tackled numerous other serious subjects, including the handling of Covid, typically with their signature brand of satire.

Sadri said they specialise in “making an intervention that is not just heavy, political, angry commentary”.

The old friends still laugh when reminiscing about their various campaigns.

“If you’re laughing at the donkeys, you’re taking away their power,” added Sadri.

For Knowles, their message to the ruling Conservatives is clear: “You need to be accountable for the mess you made.”

They have been accused of engaging in anti-Tory activism, but note the group has targeted the main Labour opposition too.

Labour appears poised to win the next election after leading in the polls for over a year.

Led by Donkeys recently plastered Labour’s London headquarters with a large poster to remind leader Keir Starmer of his promise to reform the electoral system.

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