Politics Focus: Behind the battle lines

Next Thursday, the nation decides on a new voting system. David Singleton looks at the comms teams and celebrities backing the Yes and No to AV campaigns.

Yes and no campaign: new voting system
Yes and no campaign: new voting system

While much of the country enjoyed the Easter break, David Cameron and Nick Clegg had their gazes firmly fixed on a crucial political date next week.

The referendum on the alternative vote takes place on Thursday 5 May, with plenty at stake for both sides. Supporters of AV say the current system is obsolete, unfair and broken. AV, they claim, is more responsive to voters' choices. Supporters of the current system say it delivers clear outcomes, while AV is complicated, expensive and leads to hung parliaments.

A number of celebrities have also spoken out, with the Yes campaign widely believed to have won the battle for celebrity endorsement, bagging trendy actor and comedian types such as Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter and Steve Coogan. Big names on the No side include Tony Hadley and Peter Stringfellow. But persuading the public to take sides is another matter. To this end, both campaigns have turned to comms experts.

The Yes To Fairer Votes campaign is led by Matthew Elliott, widely seen as one of the most effective lobbyists in Westminster. Also on board are former Tory spin doctor Nick Wood and Labour-supporting digital comms guru Jag Singh. The No To AV campaign's leading media strategists include ex-Saatchi & Saatchi MD John Sharkey, ex-Downing Street adviser Paul Sinclair and Peter Mandelson's ex-special adviser Patrick Loughran. PRWeek examines their credentials overleaf.

Both campaigns have been fighting for months, but with the royal wedding finally set to vanish off the news agenda and 5 May just around the corner, the real media battle begins now.

AV - THE KEY POINTS

Under the first-past-the-post system currently used, voters select one candidate only.

Under AV, voters would rank candidates in their constituency in order of preference.

The full referendum question is: 'Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the "alternative vote" system instead of the current "first past the post" system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?'

NO

MATTHEW ELLIOTT, CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR

Widely seen as one of the most effective lobbyists in Westminster, Elliott founded the TaxPayers' Alliance to campaign for lower taxes and more efficient public spending. He also founded Big Brother Watch in 2009 to campaign for civil and personal liberties.

JOAN RYAN, DEPUTY CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR

The former Labour MP for Enfield North is the director of Labour No to AV. Ryan, who lost her seat in the 2010 general election, also served as vice-chair of the Labour Party until she was removed from the post for plotting against the then prime minister Gordon Brown.

DYLAN SHARPE, HEAD OF PRESS

Sharpe is a former campaign director at Big Brother Watch. He also worked for the Policy Exchange think-tank and served as a press officer on Boris Johnson's successful campaign for London mayor in 2008, while working for InHouse PR.

ANDY HEWITT, LOCAL MEDIA MANAGER

Hewitt is a former media officer for the England and Wales Cricket Board, a member of Lambeth Labour Party, and head of Australian Labor Party Abroad.

NICK WOOD, MEDIA CONSULTANT

Chief executive of PR and public affairs agency Media Intelligence Partners, Wood is well known in Conservative circles, having served as press secretary for Tory leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Wood is also a former chief political correspondent at The Times.

IAN MCKENZIE, MEDIA CONSULTANT

The former special adviser to John Prescott during his time as deputy prime minister, McKenzie also worked at Westminster lobbying firm Jefferson Communications.

JAG SINGH, HEAD OF DIGITAL

A co-founder of the LabourHome blog, Singh is chief information officer at online campaigning agency MessageSpace. He worked on web strategy for US presidential candidates John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

LARA SMALLMAN, DIGITAL COMMS ASSISTANT

Smallman is an independent film-maker, who works alongside Singh, managing online comms, social media and video editing.

BACKING THE NO VOTE
Margaret Beckett
Tony Hadley
David Gower
Peter Stringfellow
Julian Fellowes

YES

KATIE GHOSE, CHAIR

A public affairs specialist and barrister with a background in human rights law and immigration, Ghose was last year appointed chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. She has also worked on campaigns for several third sector organisations including Age UK.

JOHN SHARKEY, CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR

The Ex-Saatchi & Saatchi managing director is one of Nick Clegg's closest advisers and served as chair of the Lib Dem 2010 general election campaign.

PAUL SINCLAIR, COMMS DIRECTOR

Sinclair stepped down from his role as head of public affairs at Hill & Knowlton to head comms for the Yes campaign. Before entering the agency world in 2008, he served as a special adviser to Gordon Brown during his time in Downing Street, and as an aide to then international development secretary Douglas Alexander. Sinclair is a former political editor of the Daily Record.

PATRICK LOUGHRAN, STRATEGY ADVISER

Until recently Peter Mandelson's top special adviser, Loughran is an influential figure in Labour circles. He was previously a senior adviser to Gordon Brown, primarily responsible for drafting the then prime minister's answers to parliamentary questions. Before becoming a special adviser, Loughran was a key figure in Labour's once fabled attack unit, which provided the media with a constant stream of anti-Tory stories.

ASHLEY DE, DEPUTY COMMS DIRECTOR

De handles media and political strategy for the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, working closely with the campaigning organisation's Scottish director Willie Sullivan.

WILLIE SULLIVAN, HEAD OF FIELD OPERATIONS

Director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Sullivan is a Labour councillor for Dunfermline Central and a board member of Compass, the left-leaning pressure group that is frequently critical of New Labour.

JESSICA ASATO, DIGITAL COMMS ADVISER

Asato is director of the Labour Yes to AV Campaign, as well as being a social media consultant and an Islington councillor. She is well known in Labour circles, having served as new media adviser on David Miliband's Labour leadership campaign and as deputy director of the Blairite pressure group Progress.

BACKING THE YES VOTE
Colin Firth
Billy Bragg
Benjamin Zephaniah
Steve Coogan
Joanna Lumley

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