On Monday, I hopped aboard the Labour ‘battle bus’ for a day on the campaign trail with Ed Miliband. Although each party has a different campaign operation, I was a little surprised to find that journalists are given a bus of their own, travelling separately from the party leadership. But I still managed to gain some insight into Labour’s campaign and how Team Miliband are feeling about the election with in the final stretch.
The battle bus
The campaigning day began at 7:30am, with Labour’s battle bus pulling out of a garage in Westminster. I boarded with two other journalists, from the Financial Times and the Daily Mail. The large silver Mercedes coach was impressively decked out, including a fully stocked kitchen of food, beer and wine. Labour mugs were present, adorned with ‘a better plan, a better future’. Two extremely helpful aides from Labour HQ were on hand to keep us informed of the day’s logistics and provide subsistence — bacon sandwiches and yoghurts for breakfast, fish and chips for lunch.
The bus traveled the 64-miles to Brighton for Miliband’s rally, where Ed Balls introduced Delia Smith as a Labour supporter, who in turn introduced Ed Miliband. On the journey down to the coast, the Labour leader’s fiery Radio 4 interview was pumped out over the radio for the travellers to follow. When Miliband accused Humphry’s of being ‘aerated’, the whole bus burst into laughter. The signal drifted in and out, so a welcome relief came when Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ on Radio 2 temporarily interrupted the Labour leader’s musings on the NHS. The bus arrived in Brighton early — the bank holiday traffic was light — so we enjoyed the McDonalds car park before moving the bus to Brighton Beach for a lovely hour beside the sea as the venue was being prepared.
Not once during the day did Miliband or any of his team cross the threshold of the battle bus. I understand from some of the more seasoned occupants of the Labour travel entourage that Miliband generally travels by train, in a car or his own separate bus. Although it was an incredibly comfortable way to travel, with every need catered for, you might wonder what was the point of the bus. Journalists could just as easily follow the Labour leader around in their own cars or by train.
When we arrived at the Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College, the rally was already buzzing. The hall was packed with several hundred Labour activists old and young, pumped for the speeches. Although the campaign staffers were unsure whether it was classified as a speech (on saving the NHS) or a rally, it served both purposes. When Ed Balls arrived, the room went wild. The shadow chancellor enjoyed the celebrity welcome but eventually encouraged the crowd to calm down:
— Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) May 4, 2015
Celebrity cook Delia Smith took the stage next, explaining why she was backing Labour — helpfully down to its stance on the NHS. But despite the excitement about her endorsement, Delia’s left-wing leanings aren’t news though; she backed Labour in the 2005 general election. Ed Miliband took to the stage after Delia, exciting his ‘friends’ in the audience about saving the NHS. He garnered whoops and cheers for promising to repeal the coalition’s Health and Social Care Act within the first 100 days of taking office. He concluded ‘my final appeal in these final hours – go out there as if the country depends on it’. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, they agreed. Afterwards, Miliband took questions from the broadcast media and asked the audience to respect them. The BBC’s Lucy Manning asked about a deal with the SNP and was promptly heckled for her efforts. When asked which was his favourite Delia Smith recipe, Miliband deftly responded ‘I love them all’.
As the rally disbanded, a bunch of the younger supporters gathered on the steps of the Sixth Form college for a photo opportunity. They were kept waiting for 45 minutes while Miliband spoke to the local press. One Labour staffer shouted in preparation ‘can we have some girls at the front please’. A tableau of vibrant young things cheered when he eventually appeared, paused for a picture before heading into the motorcade and set off for London.
Citizens UK rally
After the photo call was over, the battle bus drove back to Westminster — with Miliband and his aides setting off in separate cars. For his second speech of the day, Miliband addressed a Citizens UK rally in the Central Methodist Hall, after Sajid Javid and Nick Clegg. The Culture Secretary faced a tough audience and handled it well, while Nick Clegg was right at home and said yes to everything asked of him.
There was some concern in Labour that Ed could not meet the high expectations set by Gordon Brown’s triumphant speech just before the 2010 election, which was considered to be his best of the campaign. But their man delivered a solid performance, telling the crowd ‘your cause is my cause’ and reiterating his line to Russell Brand that ‘change doesn’t happen from politics, change happens because people demand it.’
The state of play
Operational matters aside, Team Miliband appears to be in a buoyant mood. As everyone attempts to move on from the bewildering 8ft pledge stone, those around Miliband believe his genuine passion is coming through. He certainly fed off the energy in the Brighton rally and delivered a solid red meat address. Combined with what those with knowledge of the campaign describe as a ‘phenomenal’ ground operation, Labour still seem confident he can deliver. Aides on the campaign say they see the Tories’ as fighting an air war, while Labour is fighting a ground war, pushing for five million conversations with voters by polling day.
Then there is the Russell Brand factor — his endorsement came through during preparations for the photo shoot in Brighton. His campaign team see the interview as a success: it has topped Google searches ever since and has garnered huge viewing numbers. Labour is hoping it will appeal to the thousands of younger people who registered to vote right towards the end of the 20th April deadline.
Their central message in these final few days is to show that Miliband is championing people power over corporate power. His message about pitching the working people vs. the privileged few is being hammered home at every event today and tomorrow. Miliband is sticking to the course he has followed throughout this campaign — a campaign that has surpassed most expectations and resulted in far fewer gaffs than most predicted. But will it be enough?