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Gary Younge
Nothing solid from the battle buses

If you want to meet the key players in the next general election here's what you have to do. First of all, forget striving to become a lobby correspondent at Westminster. Not because the hours are long and the atmosphere somewhat stifling (those who went there via public school and Oxbridge remain under the delusion that all architecture is gothic, all deserts are served with custard and police only exist to give you directions), but because, despite the fact that Westminster holds some of the most coveted jobs on Fleet Street, once every four years you are no longer the principal interest of the main parties.

Instead study the election results and find either the most marginal cluster of constituencies or try to predict where you think the bellwether regions will be come 2005. Finally, go there - whether it be Torbay, Monmouth, Norfolk or Stafford - and apply for a job on a local newspaper and wait. The nation's leaders will come to you, forsaking those with higher salaries, larger egos and greater status who hail from the nationals.

Courting the local press was one of the key media strategies of the election. Travelling on both Hague's and Blair's battle buses, often was the time when around 50 journalists from the national and international media would be left cooped up on a bus with little, or in most cases, no access, while party leaders gave generous chunks of time to local reporters. At times it appeared that an entire day's travelling was designed to hit as many local and regional television and print markets as possible, rather than actually meeting voters or making speeches.

As far as the promotion of local media outlets is concerned this is no bad thing. Moreover, through them there is a greater chance that politicians might be forced to say something that might actually mean something. That said, their determination to bring national journalists in tow only to ignore them does beg two questions: Why do parties have battle buses, and why do national newspapers pay so much money (£9,000) to go on them?

Contrary to what their name suggests they are not designed to "do" electoral battle, but avoid it. Party leaders arrive in a town, shake hands with the faithful, occasionally make a speech and then move on. No attempt is made to actually meet floating voters and capture their votes. When the Tories said the polls were wrong because they were picking up something very different on the doorstep, you knew they had to be lying since none of them had been near a doorstep in years. It says something that one of the most memorable moments of an unmemorable campaign was when Blair did meet someone with a serious question to ask. This is politics, Scotty, but not as we know it.

But if their determination to have battle buses is perplexing, journalists' determination to use them is even more so. For the most part, life on these buses is a very humdrum, incestuous thing. You turn up at a party headquarters, stuff yourself with sandwiches, fill up on coffee and then spend the rest of the day with other journalists talking about what a waste of time it all is.

Labour's buses were by far the worst in this respect since they not only refused to tell you where you were going until the bus was on the move but most of the windows were blacked out too, so you couldn't even describe the area through which you were driving. Every so often - when Hague was in Wetherby while the journalists supposed to be covering him were stranded at Leeds/Bradford airport, or when the Labour aide announced the "no solids" in the battle bus toilet rule - one caught a glimpse of some deeper, metaphoric malaise.

But, for the most part, you were left with an uneasy sense that you were colluding in their attempts at press management. Since there was little access granting more detailed questioning there was no sense in which you could balance this against your proximity to power. This is what prompted the photographers to lay down their cameras and refuse to cover one event towards the end of the campaign. Worse still, the parties often refused to give notice of "open meetings" unless you were on the bus. Either you paid around £600 a day or you could not report on their activities.

But the most interesting responses came from the foreign journalists. One Australian was surprised at the peevish acceptance of the British press because in Australia they wouldn't have stood for it; one continental journalist said he would refuse to pay given what poor access he got.

During a visit to a fire station in Dartford, I remarked on Blair's inability to make small talk.

"What would Silvio Berlusconi say if he was visiting a fire station?" I asked an Italian reporter.

"He would say: 'I too was a fireman,'" he replied.

"Was Berlusconi a fireman?" I asked, with some incredulity.

"No, but if he met a fireman that is what he would say. If he met a teacher he would say he was a teacher. That is what he does."

And I returned to the bus, thankful for the smallest of mercies.

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