LONDON (AFP) – Despite the growing use of social media to reach voters, British election campaigns still revolve around leaders trundling across the country on “battle buses” to drive their message home.
A garish, oblong campaign slogan on wheels — stuffed with party leaders, spin doctors, activists and journalists — the battle bus is a curious British electioneering staple that emerged in the late 1970s and has somehow kept on the road in the digital age.
While US President Donald Trump flew into glitzy campaign rallies on his private, gold-plated Boeing 757 jet, British prime ministerial hopefuls plough through the traffic on buses to reach provincial towns, where they try to avoid being harangued in front of the cameras outside a sausage roll shop.
“They are a slightly odd feature of British elections. This is the British version of Air Force One: we turn up on a third-hand bus,” politics professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics university, told AFP.
With Britain being 600 miles (1,000 kilometres) long, politicians can conceivably cover a dozen constituencies in a day using campaign buses.
– Democratic but comic –
The executive coaches typically have a VIP sofa and table area at the back where travelling reporters can have a cosy chat with the politicians between the frequent and often extremely brief campaign stops.
These typically involve a walkabout with a line of party backers in the background holding placards — often trying to obscure those of rival party interlopers — and a bundle of photographers walking backwards in front of them.
Many of the images from the campaign will be taken in front of a bus, or within a stone’s throw of one.
Actually meeting voters is a perilous risk: if a confrontation spirals out of control, it eclipses everything else on the news agenda.
The chief example is from 2001 when Labour’s deputy prime minister John Prescott punched a man in the face, seconds after stepping off the “Prescott Express”.
Travers said battle buses offered a perfect compromise of security, space and flexibility — able to go to towns off the train network — without looking flashy.
“They are the most democratic form of transport, and don’t have status issues like cars. They send out the right message,” he said.
“And you can get out quick when the going gets tough.”
But even staying on the bus is not a safe strategy.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was comically seen on live television stumbling down into the stairwell of the tiny onboard toilet as he attempted to walk up the aisle.
And nobody would want to fall in there.
The central seats in his bus had to be abandoned at one point due to the unbearable stench emanating from what subsequently became dubbed the “pissy coffin”.
A month trapped on a bus, with only motorway service station food for comfort, often leaves battle bus long-haulers looking pallid, with a vacant stare.
– Slogans and pricey tickets –
The slogans plastered on battle buses tend to be drawn from a narrow pool of words.
The Conservatives’ bus says “Theresa May: For Britain”, and the Labour party’s bus has “For The Many Not The Few”.
The Lib Dems have gone for “Change Britain’s Future”, while UKIP have highlighted “UKIP’s five pledges for you”.
Travers noted the Conservative party bus has Prime Minister May’s name all over it and mentions the party in small print on the door, while the Labour bus only mentions the party and not its leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“They tell us more than they mean to,” he said.
May’s battle bus tour has typically stopped at factories where she takes questions from workers.
Fares are not cheap on the May Express with prices for journalists reaching as much as several hundred pounds a day.
Her battle bus was formerly the failed “Remain” campaign’s battle bus from the 2016 EU membership referendum.
Farron’s was previously used by the English Premier League football team Crystal Palace.
Corbyn launched Labour’s election campaign on May 9 in front of their vivid red battle bus.
Journalists are unusually not allowed on his bus.
A lifelong protest politician, Corbyn seems in his element getting off the bus to rail against the Conservatives in front of enthusiastic young crowds that can often number into the thousands.
But it has not been such easy motoring for UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, who had to scrap a day of campaigning after his purple battle bus was clipped by a truck, knocking off a wing mirror.