'Vote no to AV' group accused of being 'a Tory front organisation'

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Leading labour politicians were accused last night of inadvertently providing political cover for a "Tory front organisation" campaigning against electoral reform.

NO to AV, which last night launched a television advertising drive, describes itself as non-partisan and cross-party and has won the backing of more than 200 Labour MPs and peers, including members of the shadow Cabinet.

However, many key staff members and wealthy donors to the campaign for a "No" vote on 5 May are active Conservatives, The Independent can disclose. They include its chairman, its head of press, its finance director, its co-treasurer and a national organiser.

The early driving-force behind the campaign to reject the alternative vote for Westminster elections was the Tory peer Lord Leach of Fairford, who is its chairman and also heads Open Europe, a eurosceptic think-tank. He has donated £25,000 to NO to AV.

The campaign's head of press, Dylan Sharpe, worked for Boris Johnson during his campaign for the London Mayoralty in 2008 and went on to the centre-right think Policy Exchange.

Matthew Elliott, the campaign's director, previously worked for the Tory MP Bill Cash and headed the Taxpayers' Alliance which was set up in 2004 to spotlight government waste and campaign for lower taxes.

The campaign's co-treasurer, Andrew Sells, is a Tory donor and on the board of Policy Exchange. He has given £25,000 to NO to AV. Peter Botting, who was its director of communications and is now a community outreach co-ordinator, is a political consultant who has regularly worked for the Conservatives. Other key figures in the campaign are its finance director, Charlotte Vere, a Tory candidate in Brighton at the last election, and Stephen Parkinson, who stood for the party in Newcastle, one of its national organisers. George Eustice, the Conservative MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, plays a key role in briefing the press

Major financial supporters include the Tory peers Baron Sainsbury of Preston Candover, a member of the supermarket family, who gave £100,000, and Lord Harris of Peckham, a donor to David Cameron's leadership campaign and who gave £75,000. Michael Farmer, the city financier who has given £2.3m to the Tories, donated £100,000, while Lord Fink, the treasurer of the Tory party, handed £27,000 to the campaign.

The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay said: "It's clear the 'No' campaign is just a Tory front organisation. They provide the money, the staff, the muscle and the backbone of the campaign."

A Labour source on the campaign insisted that figures from the party wielded considerable influence behind the scenes. But he acknowledged: "Significant Tory resources have been put into the campaign."