Election 2010: And so the marathon begins...

The election is still 28 days away, and already the party leaders have clocked up hundreds of miles. Andy McSmith gets to grips with the mechanics of the campaigns


Conservatives

Everyone likes to be at the scene of a success, and the Conservatives believe they are on the verge of their first general election victory for 18 years. This makes for a heady atmosphere at Conservative headquarters.

The polls are encouraging, and the big money is on their side. They have a huge treasure chest – about £18m, twice the money available to Labour – so they can afford all the staff they need. There are about 200 people crammed into the third floor of an office block close to Millbank Tower. It is so crowded that there is nowhere to hold a meeting, and the party chairman Eric Pickles has been heard complaining that he cannot get into his office.

In the middle of the floor there is a large digital clock which counts the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the polls open at 7 am on 6 May. Other staff, who perform the backroom services such as accounts or IT, are on the fifth floor of Millbank Tower – which, symbolically, was the building in which Labour had its headquarters in 1997. The working day starts at 6am, and there are people there until midnight.

The Conservatives do not like to use the phrase "battle bus" to describe the coach in which Cameron will take to the road next week. It is not going to be festooned with political messages like the Liberal Democrat's vehicle, but it will cover a lot of hundreds of miles with David Cameron aboard. Where he goes, a press team headed by Gabby Bertin, and an operations team run by Liz Sugg, who used to work for Ken Clarke, will go with him.

Mr Cameron has a punishing schedule of visits which take him to an average of two regions every day during the campaign. On day one, he went from London, to Birmingham, to Leeds and back, travelling by coach, train and plane. Yesterday, he rushed from London to Bolton, and then on to Wales.

When he is away, there is a strong team running affairs at Millbank. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, is the campaign director. Lord Ashcroft, whose "non-dom" tax status caused so much controversy earlier in the year, still has his office and a team working to him

There is also a team of highly paid organisers and advisers, including the chief of staff, Andrew Feldman, the director of communications, and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, and the director of strategy, Steve Hilton. For these people, the election is not just about the satisfaction of seeing their side win. Victory also means the enticing prospect of jobs in Downing Street, which would make those 12-hour days well worthwhile.

Key figure: Andrew Feldman

Feldman has been a friend of Cameron since they first arrived at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1985. He raised the money for Cameron's leadership campaign in 2005 and was made chief executive in 2008.

Labour

The days when the Labour Party went into election campaigns with a double-figure poll lead and a bulging war chest are over. For the first time in a generation, they enter the contest as underdogs, behind in the polls and short of cash, but in no mood to give up without a fight. Their best hope is in the amount of churn in the electorate, the large number of undecided voters encountered by Labour canvassers.

About 150 campaign workers are crammed into a confined space on the first floor of Labour's Victoria Street headquarters. They include three or four dozen former special advisers to the Prime Minister or other ministers who have surrendered their Whitehall passes to join the campaign, knowing their only chance of getting their old jobs back is if they can pull off an electoral upset. The room is busy, noisy, and festooned with "Future Fair for All" posters and copies of Labour's five election pledges.

Below them on the ground floor is the centre where Labour will hold press conferences. They will be chaired by the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, who has two great advantages: he has unrivalled experience from having been centrally involved in election campaigns for the past 25 years, and as a peer, he does not have a seat to defend.

Other veterans are back. Pat McFadden, a middle-ranking minister who was a senior party organiser for years, will act as deputy to the election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, an old ally of Brown. Philip Gould will run focus groups as he has since the 1980s, and Alastair Campbell will offer strategic advice.

Two other key figures are former Downing Street advisers who have moved to Victoria Street. David Muir, director of political strategy, is a former marketing executive, and Justin Forsyth, director of strategic communications, is a former Oxfam campaigner. The man in overall charge of the building is Labour's General secretary, Ray Collins.

Gordon Brown's Leader's Tour, which will take him all over the country, begins tomorrow. Most of it will be by train or in a battle bus in Labour's colours. He will be joined by Rachel Kinnock, 35-year-old daughter of the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and now Brown's political adviser. Others on the road will be his "gatekeeper" Sue Nye, who has worked with Brown since 1992, his speechwriter Kirsty McNeill, and press spokesman, Iain Bundred. "It is a David and Goliath campaign," one said. "The Tories can fly David Cameron about the country and spend thousands on advertising, but we've got a modest head-down operation – which doesn't mean that there are not huge numbers of people here working every hour of the day."

Key figure: Ray Collins

Labour's general secretary, a former official of the Unite union, is the equivalent of a chief executive and the main link with the trade unions who are now Labour's main source of funds.

Liberal Democrats

Though they are always the little fellows caught between two big armies, the Liberal Democrats still have the money and accumulated experience to run a tight, professional campaign like the others, but on a smaller scale.

Aside from the leader, Nick Clegg, who is guaranteed more attention at this election than any third party has had before, because he will be taking part in the three televised leaders' debates, the party has three big names to call on. There is Vince Cable, whose status hovers somewhere between trusted politician and national treasure, and two ex-leaders, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. Mr Kennedy will be at Mr Clegg's side when he is out on the stomp in Scotland, Lord Ashdown when he is in the south west, and Mr Cable back in London.

At the Liberal Democrat headquarters in Cowley Street – now crowded out by an influx of volunteer workers, the day begins with a 6am staff meeting. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays there will be a 7.30am press conferencein the nearby offices of the Work Foundation, with Mr Clegg in the chair, usually backed up by Mr Cable or another member of the front bench team. Before each press conference there will be a 7am prep meeting with senior advisers.

The Liberal Democrat battle bus, an enormous vehicle with office space in the rear, was out on the road to Watford on the first day of the campaign, but yesterday it stayed parked in Cowley Street. After PMQs, Mr Clegg and his entourage rushed to RAF Northolt to set off for his first flying visit of the campaign, to the Labour seat of Liverpool Wavertree, a Labour seat where the Liberal Democrats came a strong second last time.

The plane will be back in use on Sunday, when Mr Clegg is going to drop in on three constituencies in one day, and at other times when he needs to be hundreds of miles from London. Sadly, the Liberal Democrats have no rich donor to lend them a private plane, so they will have to pay to charter the craft every time. A spokesman joked: "I think Lembit Opik offered to fly the plane, but we decided to use a professional pilot" – a reference to the Montgomeryshire MP's fondness for flying and paragliding – which almost ended prematurely when he had a near fatal crash.

Mr Clegg's press secretary, Lena Pietsch, a press officer, Mike Girling, and his diary secretary, Jayde Bradley, will be with him outside London. Jonny Oates, who recently rejoined the party from Bell Pottinger as director of communications, will travel with him sometimes.

The man in charge will be campaign chairman John Sharkey, former managing director of Saatchi and Saatchi, aided by the party's chief executive, Chris Fox, a former director of Tate and Lyle.

Key figure: John Sharkey

A former managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi, who helped shape the Conservatives' advertising campaign in 1987, Sharkey chairs the 6am staff meeting at Lib Dem headquarters and runs the daily operation.

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