10 May 2016

Battlebus: Everything you need to know

Eight police forces are investigating spending by Conservative Party MPs during the general election campaign, centering on the Party’s so-called Battlebus2015 tour. Here’s what you need to know.

What was Battlebus2015?

Battlebus2015 was a series of tours organised by Conservative Party HQ which sent volunteer activists into marginal seats across the country in the 10 days before the General Election.

Where did it visit?

Three regions:

South West – 27 April and 5 May

One large bus took activists to nine constituencies in nine days. These were Yeovil; Cheltenham; Torbay; Thornbury and Yate; Wells; Stroud; Plymouth, Sutton and Devenport; Cambourne and Redruth; and North Cornwall.

Midlands – 27 April and 6 May

Another large bus took activists to ten constituencies in ten days. These were Cannock Chase; Northampton North; Sherwood; Broxtowe; Nuneaton; Amber Valley; Wolverhampton South West; Lincoln; Erewash; and Dudley South.

North West – 2 May and 6 May

Two smaller ‘midi’ coaches visited five constituencies each in the last five days. These were: Halifax; Carlisle; Rossendale and Darwen; Morecambe and Lunesdale; Cheadle; City of Chester; Pudsey, Horsforth and Aireborough; Bury North; Weaver Vale; and Hazel Grove.

On all the trips, the activists were put up in regional ‘hub’ hotels each night – normally a Travelodge or Holiday Inn, apart from one night where they stayed in a youth hostel.

How much did it cost?

Invoices obtained by Channel 4 News show that the Battlebus2015 tours – including bus hire, branding, accommodation and known staff pay and expenses – cost the Conservative’s a total of £74,627.

However, the activists did contribute £50 per five day trip, with students paying £25. To calculate the party’s spending, we’ve deducted £10,500 — the equivalent of 210 activist contributions — from the total costs. This provides our estimate for the party’s Battlebus expenses of £64,127.

What did the activists do?

Channel 4 News has uncovered compelling evidence in documents, emails, and on social media, that activists spent time campaigning for local candidates.

The evidence includes scripts which instructed activists to introduce themselves to voters as calling “on behalf of” the local candidate and social media posts discussing doorstep campaigning for candidates.

One Battlebus activist, Maher Kahtan, told Channel 4 News that the group largely campaigned for specific candidates during its visits.

He said: “We encourage the people to vote for the candidate, our candidate. Not thinking about that we have to talk about the Conservatives, or we have to talk about the Prime Minister, or the Cabinet. No, we are talking about this person, and what he is going to do if he wins his seat.”

Should the costs have been declared as party or local expenses?

The Electoral Commission say that any costs incurred in the promotion of a candidate, should be declared as part of that candidate’s local expenses:

“If activists were being bussed in to particularly campaign for a candidate, then– according to the guidance that we provide — a candidate would have had to make a fair and honest assessment of this and consider whether they needed to split some of the costs of this activity and include that in their [candidate] spending return.”

If activists did campaign for candidates, how much should have been declared?

The costs to candidates vary between £2,000 and £2,500 depending on the region.

In the South West, accommodation costs total £15,056.30. Hiring and branding the coach cost £10,600, and known staff salaries and expenses cost £782.39. After deducting £4,300 – our estimate of the activists’ contributions – the Battlebus tour cost each of the nine seats in the region £2,459.85.

In the Midlands, accommodation cost £13,653.05. Hiring and branding the coach cost £10,600, and known staff salaries cost £353.33. After deducting £4,300 – our estimate of the activists’ contributions – the Battlebus tour cost each of the ten seats in the region £2,044.84.

In the North West, accommodation cost £9,350. The cost of hiring and branding the two midi coaches was £13,737, and known staff salaries cost £353.33. After deducting £1,900 – our estimate of the activists’ contributions – the Battlebus tour cost each of the ten seats in the region £2,154.03.

Don’t all political parties use “battle buses” during elections?

Don’t let the name confuse you. The Conservatives Battlebus2015 tour is not the same as the battle buses we are used to seeing on the campaign trail where, traditionally, buses are used to ferry party leaders such as the Prime Minister and political journalists around the country, for high-profile national visits.

Groups of highly motivated activists were found to have been transported across the country, staying in hotels, apparently to enable targeted campaigning in marginal seats. They were briefed about the area, given scripts and literature to deliver and their activities were scheduled by campaign teams each day.

What do the Conservatives say?

The Conservative Party insists that Battlebus2015 was a national campaign tool.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “CCHQ campaigned across the country for the return of a Conservative Government. Such campaigning would be part of the national return, not local return, as the Electoral Commission has said. As is apparent from our National Return, the Party declared expenditure related to our CCHQ-organised Battlebus.

“However, due to administrative error it omitted to declare the accommodation costs of those using the vehicles. This is something we have already brought to the attention of the Electoral Commission in order to amend the return.”

Appearing on BBC Radio Cornwall last month, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Battlebus spending costs were correctly declared as national expenses, but admitted the party had made an error in not declaring the hotels.

He said: “My understanding is that the Battlebus was declared as a national expense in the right way but the party made an error in not declaring accommodation costs of some of people using the bus, and we’ve alerted the Electoral Commission to that and will be providing a proper return so that it will be done in the proper way.

“I think all parties have had these battle buses over the years and they don’t just go round doing nothing. They go round and they campaign across the country and it’s a national expense and should be nationally declared, and obviously the party’s made an error in its declaration which needs to be put right.”