Election '97: THE PARTY HQs

Christian Wolmar, Wesminster Correspondent, goes behind the scenes at Central Office, Millbank and Cowley Street - the nerve centres of the three main parties' national campaigns
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The running of election campaigns used to be a job for amateurs. It was a haphazard operation, with a few key staff running the show with a host of volunteers and temporary workers. No longer. The three party headquarters dotted around Westminster are now highly professional and slick operations which are little different from each other. There is a busy trade in pinching each others' ideas.

Labour has led the way in moving from the traditional haphazard approach to a professionalism undreamt of a decade ago and this time has based its operation in its new Millbank centre, half a mile up the Thames from Parliament. There is a huge press conference auditorium downstairs, fitted mainly in grey rather than red, the better to suit the New Labour image and, of course, the cameras. Upstairs, there is a large open plan room which is the centrepiece of its operation, housing most of the key workers - staff from the party's base in Walworth Road plus myriad researchers and MPs' assistants.

The staff are divided into task-forces such as attack, rebuttal, and key campaigners, each headed by a senior party figure. The average age of the Labour campaigners is in the late twenties and according to one insider, "the big difference from previous campaigns is the presence of large numbers of very sexy young women".

The atmosphere is busy and cautious. Everything put out is checked several times for any hidden spending commitments: "It's become second nature not to put in anything that will cost money."

In overall charge is Peter Mandelson, the campaigns manager and veteran of the last two election campaigns.

The day starts with an 8.45am meeting of the senior campaign figures, chaired by Gordon Brown. The schedule has been prepared long in advance, and is shown on a grid giving in detail each day's themes throughout the campaign, and the movements of all the key figures.

In Smith Square, the Tories have revamped their headquarters since the last election, to create a much more media-friendly environment and to show a more hi-tech approach. The ground floor has become a media centre with a large press conference room. It is predominantly blue and sitting in it gives one the impression of having been consigned to a deep freeze.

The biggest changes are on the second floor of Central Office. Rather than having teams of party workers in small rooms, a huge open plan space has been created with up to 100 workers providing the backbone of the campaign. Alan Duncan MP, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, is in charge of what he calls "the War Room".

The 100 workers consist of Central Office staff, boosted by ministerial special advisers and volunteers, some of whom have taken a month off from their work in the City or with a PR firm. They are divided into four teams, dealing with research, broadcasting, rebuttal and press. As with all the parties, there is a group of young people with headphones monitoring every statement from opponents.

Few of those involved are over 30, and many clearly see a spell at Central Office as a good career move, even if this time they are likely to end up on the losing side. Virtually all the campaign team is new, with the exception of the veteran Tony Garrett, the director of campaigns.

Mr Duncan admits that the party "had some catching up to do" as Labour was widely regarded to have had the better campaign last time, even if it lost the battle. That has led to the creation of a dozen-strong "rebuttal" team, an American idea first borrowed by Labour.

The Liberal Democrat headquarters in Cowley Street is not well suited to running an election campaign. Built as an office for a railway company, it is all stairs and smallish rooms that cannot accommodate the large teams now mandatory in elections, even for impoverished third parties.

The Lib Dems do not have access to the large numbers of party workers and aides to senior politicians available to the two main parties. So they call on huge numbers of volunteers, many of whom do a few hours on a specific task, such as media monitoring, before going off to their jobs.

Alison Holmes, planning manager, reckons the party has issued 300 passes to potential volunteers and that at any one time there may be as many as 200 in the building. The LibDem volunteers tend to be older than the teams in the other parties. Ms Holmes stresses several times that the Lib Dems are a "grass roots party" dependent on the voluntary ethic and stronger at the local level than at the centre.

The team is divided into two main sections, internal communications aimed at keeping the candidates abreast of information and policy, and external communications, consisting of the press and broadcasting teams.

The Lib Dems like to start early and they have a dozen-strong overnight team who prepare press cuttings and briefings for the next day. The day starts with a campaign meeting of the dozen key people in a place called the Junction Box.

Because Cowley Street has no suitable room, the Lib Dems are forced to hold their press conferences at nearby Church House, the administrative headquarters of the Church of England.

It means there are none of the facilities available at the other parties' centres such as banks of telephones and facilities for cameras and the operation feels relaxed compared to those of the other parties. They have not bothered to make special security arrangements for the daily press conferences, unlike the others.