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Led By Donkeys hopes for the future

Image: Led By Donkeys. Location: Trinity Way, West Bromwich. 13 October, 2021.

What started out as four friends with a ladder from B&Q and a bucket of wallpaper paste became the biggest people-funded political campaign in UK history. Driven by their strapline 'art, activism and accountability', Led By Donkeys has won awards for its campaigns, spread over hundreds of billboards across the UK, highlighting the hypocrisy of Brexiteers and using their platform to hold the government to account. The group share quotes directly from politicians in the form of tweets, as well as projecting videos onto prominent public spaces. Now no longer a guerrilla outfit but a political movement with a huge outreach, the Led By Donkeys team chatted to us about their work, their motivations and their hopes for the future.

Eli Goldstone: Led By Donkeys started in January 2019 with your first act of billboard based vigilantism. Had any of you any youthful brushes with vandalism under your belt?
Led By Donkeys:
Not vandalism, but in our own ways through quite different campaigns, we all came to a solid understanding and appreciation of the value of peaceful direct action. Used carefully and thoughtfully, direct action and intervention can really help propel campaigns by changing conversations. And it’s fun.

EG: What political art and theatre inspires you?
We take ideas from many places - art, music, film, political history, comedy - but of course it’s current affairs that really provides the backbone of our material. The common theme if there is one, is that we all enjoy bringing back to the team approaches that encourage the audience or viewer to look at an issue from an entirely new angle. We are always wrestling with how we get people to view an issue differently or to change their mind, so any insights that we can gather from the world around us always make for rich conversations.  

Image. Led By Donkeys, Conservative party Conference, Manchester. 5 October 2021.

EG: For a long time you were working anonymously. What happened to change that?
All of the sites we used in the first few weeks of Led By Donkeys were ‘borrowed’ space from large advertising companies. We had no idea how they would react so keeping our names out of the spotlight felt like the right thing to do. When Led By Donkeys really started to take off, we knew it was only a matter of time before we’d need to say who we are. We’ve never regretted the decision to go public with our names - a lot of our work is about accountability, so it’s important people know who we are.

EG: Why do you think it is so impactful to see your particular brand of activism in physical spaces when so much of communication is now online?
Your question contains a bit of the answer. When we view so much online and often so quickly because we skim through vast amounts of content, there can be something quite arresting and disarming about seeing strong political communication in the real-world. If we get the message and location right, we often see a bit of a feedback loop: we create something in the street, we put a photo or film of it on social media, in turn that starts to generate interest from local or regional media and people who live nearby who go out to capture their own images of it, which then also ends up driving the original content on social media. If we can place an intervention in a location that helps to tell the story or confront a politician with their own words that can really add to its power.

Image: National Covid Memorial Wall, Lambeth Palace Rd, London. March 2021.

EG: You helped to create the national covid memorial wall. Can you tell us about that?
It was a great privilege and a real pleasure to work alongside Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice in developing and installing the memorial wall. They are such an impressive group of people who have managed to create an impactful and hugely dignified campaign at a really hard time in their lives. We first approached the group to help deliver a projection on Parliament. That went really well and our conversation with them just kept going. Soon we were all discussing how we could find a way to mark the scale of the loss in the UK and how a memorial could be built in a location that was open to all and where anyone could come to record their loss. It took many hours of conversation but the memorial wall and the hand-painted hearts were what finally emerged.

Johnson and Cummings: A Timeline of Failure (Part One). Location: Barnard Castle. July 2nd, 2020.

EG: Recently you have used your platform to give a voice to non-politicians such as Afghan writer and educationalist Zarlasht Halaimzai, and Eastern European truck driver Tomasz. How do you decide whose stories to tell?
There is no grand plan or system that steers us, but we’re all very motivated to elevate the voices of those who are not being heard in important discussions. We hear a lot from our political leaders who often have no experience of the problems they are trying to solve and make judgements based on ideological considerations. Personal testimony, told in honest and heart-felt language delivered at the right time and place can be a powerful way to cut through the political hyperbole.

Image: Led By Donkey's, 'He should’ve listened to an expert'. Location: Leeds Road, Ilkley. Oct 12, 2021.

EG: Do you think that UK politics has become a satire of itself?
I don’t think we ever get through a day when one of us doesn’t discover some new political absurdity or democratic outrage. It’s not an original point, but Johnson plays from the Trumpian, populist playbook and it’s an infection that is spreading through UK politics. The danger is that we all roll our eyes, call it Johnson being Johnson and decide that the political system has become its own satire. It’s a dangerous moment. The government is hell-bent on restricting our democratic rights through its Elections Bill and has already demonstrated it has little regard for well-established legal checks and balances. In an increasingly populist age this is a worrying trend. The fight for strong, participative democracies that are able to hold their governments to account is now.  

A scandal that demands answers. How the Conservative party helped some of its friends get very, very wealthy off the pandemic. In collaboration with Good Law Project, location: Manchester #cpc21. Oct 5, 2021.
EG: How is Led By Donkeys evolving?
We started with no plan other than to post a few billboards highlighting the absurdity of Brexit so it’s a great thrill to all of us to still be here and cooking up new plans. 2019 was all about Brexit. 2020 and 2021 were about holding Johnson to account for his disastrous handling of the pandemic and dodgy PPE purchasing. We’re all set for a big 2022. We are in the process of getting Led By Donkeys set up as a permanent campaign - there’s no shortage of material! You can now become a supporter of our work by giving a monthly donation, which really helps us plan bigger and bolder interventions.  

EG: Finally, what is your advice for keeping optimistic in the face of depressing political events?
Take action. Have a night off Netflix and get out there and fight back. There are community action and protest groups working on really important projects in every town and city of the UK. Social media makes it easy to find them and make contact. Action breeds optimism and hope. We can’t win without hope.

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Priti Patel and other senior Conservatives helped some of their friends get very, very wealthy off the pandemic. It’s a scandal that demands answers. (with The Good Law Project). Oct 20, 2021.

Delta Farce: How Boris Johnson's incompetent handling of the new variant extended lockdown. Jun 15, 2021.

Exposed: the real scandal at our borders. A Led By Donkeys investigation with Hassan Akkad. When the UK government was faced with a genuine threat at our borders, the pandemic, one with the potential to take the lives of tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people, a threat that really required our borders to be secure, what did they do? Apr 26, 2021.

A message from the White Cliffs of Dover. Led By Donkeys projected an important message from Hassan Akkad by the ferry port entrance in Dover, United Kingdom. Hassan fled war-torn Syria and now lives in the UK cleaning COVID-19 wards for the NHS. Aug 21, 2020.

The will of the people has changed. Oct 18, 2019.

Calling out the Brexit Donkeys (by Led By Donkeys). Apr 11, 2019.


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