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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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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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