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“No We Can”: the inside story of the No to AV campaign

No to AV scored a commanding win on 5 May, yet its early days were a muddle of partisan chaos. Dan H

My first day in defence of Britain's voting system wasn't a good one. An opinion poll had just been published showing double-digit support for changing to the Alternative Vote. Then I had been called in to a meeting where I'd been told our opponents were likely to outspend us by a margin of 3-1.

"You think you've got it bad," said one of my new colleagues. "On my first day someone walked over and said, 'Just to let you know, our Scottish organiser's just died.' "

I had joined a campaign, if not in crisis, then in a quandary. No to AV may have been one organisation but it consisted of a Tory head and a Labour heart. Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers' Alliance was its director. Joan Ryan, the former Blairite minister and whip, was Elliott's putative deputy.

Labour was split, caught between a desire to oppose anything that could entail sharing power – or even a platform – with Nick Clegg, and a less instinctive desire to support Ed Milband's commitment to electoral reform. This left the No camp reliant on the Conservatives to provide the big battalions and big money.

But come the new year, neither had materialised. David Cameron was determined to stick to the terms of the coalition agreement and would not allow his party to engage with the No camp until the Referendum Bill had been passed. "We couldn't sign off budgets, which meant we couldn't buy ad space and that meant we couldn't even formally launch," one insider recalls.

Big sticks and fires

Things came to a head in the second week of January when Dylan Sharpe, the No team's wily head of press, reported that Gordon Brown's old spin doctor Paul Sinclair had begun touring the parliamentary Press Gallery every day, reinforcing the impression that the Yes campaign was running away with the contest. Sharpe later confided in colleagues that he concocted the story in order to "light a fire" under the campaign. It worked.

Peter Botting, a veteran political consultant with extensive contacts among Conservative backbenchers, was despatched to spread the word in the bars and corridors of parliament that the high command weren't pulling their weight. "It was a dangerous time for us," says a senior Tory activist, recalling that time. "We were getting dragged into the internal politics of the party.

"The usual suspects who had it in for Cameron were going to use us a big stick to beat him with."

Within a week, a delegation led by the 1922 Committee chairman, Graham Brady, was confronting David Cameron and George Osborne. According to one report of the encounter, Cameron was told: "You do realise there is now a serious prospect you could have the distinction of being the last ever Conservative prime minister?" Later, Cameron asked Osborne, "It's not that bad, is it?" "Yes, I think it is," the Chancellor replied.

From that point, though the public message was one of studied neutrality, behind the scenes the Conservatives began to embrace the No camp. Funders were pointed towards the campaign, weekly meetings were established between leading No staffers, and the PM called Elliott in for a briefing on the state of play.

Nevertheless, tensions remained. Though ultimately successful, the relationship between the two senior No campaign managers wasn't always harmonious. Partly that had to do with their respective backgrounds. Joan Ryan is a streetfighter, used to the bare-knuckle politics of the whips' office. Elliott, though caricatured by his opponents as a ruthless Thatcherite wolf, is a quiet, reserved, even slightly shy English gentleman; a strange cross between Norman Tebbit and David Niven.

Out of this disconnect, two campaigns were now operating.The Labour team was put in charge of the "ground war", mobilising activists around the country. The Tories were supposedly running the "air war", the messaging, media and advertising. In reality, neither was in full control of either.

"It was a mess," recalls an activist. "Someone sat down to talk us through the 'media grid'. It started with Churchill's birthday. Fine. Next was Australia Day. We had a line about Australia and Fiji, so we nodded. Then the Queen's birthday. This wasn't a media grid, it was just a calendar."

Moreover, each side had its own ad agency, pollster and designer. The Tories employed Boris Johnson's former campaign manager Lynton Crosby to run focus groups. Labour staffers were sceptical when Crosby's results indicated an implausibly high turnout. Meanwhile, Tory campaigners were suspicious of Labour's marketing agency, responsible for a series of leaflets. "Tory associations were refusing to deliver them," says an activist.

Toxic shock

Drastic measures were required. Ryan grabbed a senior team member and pointed to the dividing wall that separated the two halves of the campaign. "Get a sledgehammer," she said. "That wall's got to be down by the weekend." As it fell, the "Shotgun Strategy" was born: a twin assault on the Cost and Clegg.

The former was simple. I asked the campaign's researcher Piotr Brzezinski how long it would take to finish putting a price tag on the new voting system. "Three weeks," he responded. "Sorry," I said, "it's like that film Crimson Tide. We haven't got three weeks. We have to have that figure by Friday or the world ends." We got it.

The Clegg attack was more problematic. Ryan insisted that we should push the slogan "Tell Nick No"; Elliott thought it too negative. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote at the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election on 13 January made it clear that Clegg was toxic, but the Tories remained cautious.

"Clegg was putting pressure on Cameron to stay out of the debate," says a senior Tory. "After Oldham [Cameron] was sensitive to that. He didn't want to start kicking Clegg when he was down." Conservative HQ sent word that Clegg was not to be touched. But "the key [to winning] was Labour voters. No Clegg, no way of mobilising them," says a Labour campaigner.

It took Stephen Parkinson, the main Conservative linkman in the campaign, to march into CCHQ at Millbank and explain that, without the freedom to attack Clegg, No to AV was over and he would walk. "It was an important moment," says an insider. "People at CCHQ didn't think much of the No campaign, but they respected Stephen. When he started banging the table they had to listen."

CCHQ relented. On 14 February the No campaign formally launched, using images of a baby and with the slogan "She needs a new cardiac facility not a new voting system"; "Don't vote for President Clegg" soon followed.

"The £250m figure gave the campaign a bit of focus and stopped the slide in the polls," says a senior insider. "But even in February, the media weren't that interested in the issue. We needed to find a way of getting it more exposure."

At that point fate took a hand. While preparing a series of regional ads, I failed to notice that one of the standard "baby pictures" had been changed to fit the format of the page. The replacement image was much more graphic, with tubes, wires and syringes.

"Yes pounced, the pro-AV press slaughtered us and CCHQ hit the roof. But the [£250m] figure went global," a former colleague recalls. The move had one unintended consequence: it drew fire away from the attacks on Clegg. "Yes was after the £250m figure precisely when we were moving off and starting to go for Clegg," another insider says.

Flip a light switch

With less than four weeks to go until polling day, Downing Street informed us that Cameron was planning a new, high-profile intervention. Alarm bells sounded among the Labour team. Ian McKenzie, a former spin doctor for John Prescott, warned Ryan that the lobby was being heavily briefed that No was a "Tory front". Jane Kennedy, the former Labour MP who had skilfully shepherded over half of her erstwhile colleagues into the No camp, expressed unease at the potential impact of Cameron's proposed speech.

"The key to victory was Labour voters. They were effectively the switchers. If Yes managed to turn it into a referendum on Cameron, we were in trouble," notes a Labour staffer.

Ryan demanded a meeting with Elliott and one of Cameron's close aids, Stephen Gilbert. Sensitive to growing Lib Dem criticisms of collusion between No 10 and the No campaign, they decided to hold the meeting in a private room of the Park Plaza Riverbank Hotel on the Albert Embankment. "Joan told Gilbert that Cameron had to back off," says a source. "The PM doesn't do backing off," came the response.

A compromise was reached: Cameron would speak, but together with a senior Labour, the former defence secretary John Reid. Labour voters got the message. The morning after Cameron and Reid's joint appearance, the Guardian published a poll showing that support for AV had collapsed. In effect, the 2011 referendum campaign was over.

Dan Hodges was a communications consultant for the No to AV campaign.

A version of this article appears in this week's New Statesman.

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.