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Published: 22 November 2019

CBE UK Election Watch 4: Boris’ Battle Bus Bonanza

Another week of the campaign down and the pace is really starting to pick up. I’m even starting to plan my election night buffet and dust off my home-made swingometer.

Boris’ Battle Bus Bonanza

Another week of the campaign down and the pace is really starting to pick up. I’m even starting to plan my election night buffet and dust off my home-made swingometer.

We know that the leaders are traversing the country on their battle buses. But where exactly do they go? Just like nearly everything else to do with the election campaign, their campaign stops are carefully planned. With 650 constituencies in the UK and 35 days in the 2019 campaign, that means (calculators out…) that a leader would need to average almost nineteen visits a day. That doesn’t even count for places where they may want to revisit to check their message is being hammered home. It is, therefore, simply not feasible for every constituency to get a visit from a politician. Yet some will receive repeated visits from the same leader and others will have leaders piling in a few days apart. To continue on last week’s theme, this week I’m going to be taking a look at what the campaign trail so far tells us about the ambitions of Boris Johnson.

Marginality is one of the key drivers in boosting a constituency’s chance of receiving a visit from a leader. It makes sense if you think about it – when there are relatively few votes standing between a seat being won or lost, a visit from a leader might just about tip the balance in their party’s favour. Such visits might also give their local candidate a bit of a winning glow – in a hectic campaign, their leader has taken the time to visit – they and their constituency are ‘special’ and might be in receipt of some preferential treatment were the leader to attain power. Perhaps. At the very least it means they can put a nice picture of the leader on their campaign material. For Johnson, only 38% of his visits so far have been to vulnerable constituencies.

Of course that leaves 62% of Johnson’s visits being to ostensibly safe constituencies. To understand why, let’s dig into the strategy that underpins this. If you are a leader who has fears about your party’s performance in the upcoming election, you’re likely to spend most of your time visiting your own seats – just to make sure you don’t end up in a worse position by seeing them trickle away into another party’s grasp. If you are a leader who has big national ambitions, or a desire to increase an existing majority, then you’re likely to spend quite a bit of time in other parties’ constituencies. A bit like a big political cuckoo in the nest. We can think of these being defensive and expansionist strategies, respectively. Broadly speaking, Cameron and May split themselves fairly evenly between these two types – ambitious, but not too ambitious.

If we look at which party holds the seats Johnson has been visiting, exactly half of Johnson’s visits have been to seats held by other parties. Like Cameron and May before him, Johnson is hedging his bets. He’s already popped up in predictable places like Ashfield where the Labour MP Gloria de Piero is stepping down (another vulnerability) from a majority of 441. However, he’s also popping up in ultra-safe Labour constituencies such as Oldham West and Royton, where the Conservative battle bus was launched in a seat with a Labour majority of 17,198. He’s not really meeting the public in these areas though. To give you an example, on Wednesday he spent two out of his three campaign stops visiting businesses in Labour heartlands (including Tony Blair’s former constituency). There’s a healthy Brexit vote in these areas to pick up, which largely explains his attention and he spent some of his visit talking to workers. However, it is more dangerous to casually encounter members of the public on the street (people might behave themselves in a workplace, particularly if their boss is watching). So, when he went on to his final campaign stop of the day and did a public walkabout, he chose the (albeit marginal) Conservative-held seat of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.

Next week, an in-depth look at Corbyn’s campaign strategy. With even more battle buses.

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