The 2024 battle bus map: where are Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer visiting and what does it tell us? – South Asia Time

The 2024 battle bus map: where are Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer visiting and what does it tell us?

 June 30, 2024  

Alia Middleton

Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Surrey

David Cutts

Professor of Political Science, University of Birmingham

One of the most important decisions party leaders have to make in an election campaign is where they want to visit. Their strategists will put together an itinerary of trips to schools, businesses, and community centres around the country.

We can always expect to see them trundling in on their battle buses to shake hands with local voters. And a lot can be gleaned from where they choose to make their stops.

The places

In a highly competitive contest, a leader’s satnav will be pre-programmed with directions to marginal seats – those with small majorities that could go either way. The smaller the majority, the greater the chance that local voters will see a campaign battle bus descending.

But in an election where a party expects to suffer losses, strategists will send leaders to safe seats to shore up support. Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s campaign has followed this strategy. Of the 39 seats (excluding his constituency) that he has visited as the last week of the campaign dawns, 87% have been his party’s own seats.

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What’s more, Sunak has become more defensive as the election unfolds, increasing his visits to safe seats with a minimum 15% notional majority. Strikingly, this includes six visits to ultra-safe seats (30% plus majorities) in the past two weeks.

This is not the strategy of a confident party, but one of damage limitation in the face of some bruising polls – a hope to hang on to some heartland seats that look to be at risk of turning red.

So we have seen Sunak visit Torridge and Tavistock, boarding a lobster boat despite the party’s theoretically comfy 42 percentage point majority. And voters in Thirsk and Malton may have been surprised to see Sunak canvassing in their seat, considering it has only ever voted for a Conservative MP.

Conversely, Labour leader Keir Starmer has spent 82% of his visits so far in seats held by other parties. They were predominantly Conservative but also places where the Scottish National Party is the incumbent. Only five of the 27 non-Labour incumbent seats visited by Starmer have been marginal, like Bury North, where Starmer gave a speech on national security.

This might be described as a strategy of aggressive expansionism. Starmer is not spending time in what have been identified as easy wins – he is touching down in true blue territory like Nuneaton; a bellwether seat where the Conservative incumbent is defending a majority of more than 13,000. His approach fits the narrative of an opposition party on the front foot, aspiring to win a sizeable majority.

The people

Careful decisions also need to be made about the people party leaders are going to meet as they travel around. Interacting with the public can lead to awkward encounters for politicians, so leaders often look for structured scenarios to limit the threat.

Sunak has also changed tack in this respect as the campaign has developed. Question-and-answer sessions in workplaces have been largely jettisoned in favour of safer environments where conversation is minimal.

Although Starmer is still keen to be pictured chatting to workers, these, too are highly choreographed. This has been a common strategy for both of the two main parties in recent elections. Visits take place in an artificial environment that gives the impression a leader is responding to issues raised by the public, without the risk that anyone will go off script.

The shift towards these controlled meetings is in no small part down to an infamous incident involving former prime minister Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign.

Brown had travelled to Rochdale and had a short interaction with Gillian Duffy, a local woman. But when they went their separate ways, Brown was caught on a hot mic describing Duffy as a “bigoted woman”. The remark dominated the news and political discourse for the rest of the election.

Brown had been on a “walkabout” when he met Duffy – when a leader walks down a street and stops to chat to members of the public as they encounter them. These are the most fraught type of visits for party leaders.

By the final stage of the 2010 campaign, both David Cameron and Gordon Brown had completed just two walkabouts. It is perhaps unsurprising that neither Sunak nor Starmer have ventured out into the public in this non-scripted way in 2024.

The hospitals

The Duffy incident is not the only reason to consider the 2010 campaign. That was the last election in the UK where a party lost power after a long time in government. In 2024, Sunak is being even more defensive than Brown was that year, visiting even more safe seats.

There was also a notable focus on visiting hospitals, doctors and other emblems of the NHS. Both Brown and Cameron hot-footed it to hospitals on the first day of the 2010 election campaign. And with a week to go before polling day, Cameron had made three healthcare-related visits. In the final week of the campaign he made a further three such visits. Brown made another two.

Their choices are understandable. Leaders tend to visit locations that help them convey their commitment to particular policy areas. And given that healthcare is often one of the most (if not the most) important issues in elections, leaders are usually keen to illustrate their commitment to the NHS by visiting a hospital or a GP practice. Starmer has done exactly this in 2024, visiting a medical school and two hospitals.

Sunak is, however, the outlier here. Remarkably, despite the salience of the NHS to voters in 2024, Sunak has yet to visit a single healthcare setting.

Where next?

The patterns mapped out in previous elections give us a good indication of what Starmer and Sunak’s travel itineraries will look like in the final days of the campaign. Their visits will ramp up in frequency and we should expect to see a lot of them. Cameron managed to visit 22 seats in the final week of the 2010 campaign. Brown managed nine on a single day.

Leaders’ visits are more than just window dressing. They tell us a great deal about a party’s electoral strategy and what their expectations are for the big day. In 2010, Brown’s campaign visits map told the story of Labour dominance coming to an end. Today they tell us a similar story for the Conservatives. ( From : The Conversations)