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May 25 2012

The Saturday interview: Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin, who opens one of the biggest shows of her career today, talks about swapping sex for stargazing, why she likes David Cameron, and wanting her art to make people feel better

Demanding artist, selfish (her words) seeks an intelligent man with good sense of humour, probably not for sex because she's going through the menopause and has lost the urge, but definitely for laughs and companionship.

"I want love," says Tracey Emin. "I want to spend my life with someone and do nice things and go on adventures, read books and have nice food and celebrate things. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in the bedroom like some people who just go to bed and never get out again."

Emin is approaching 50 and she is worried about the possibility of a lonely, gentle descent to death. "I am going through the menopause and I have been for ages," she says. "It is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. It's horrible. And I don't look like that kind of person; you don't put menopause on top of my head, it doesn't associate with me."

Emin is talking as she finishes the installation of a show that she regards as one of the most important of her career, because it is in her home town of Margate.

The works going on public display from today are almost all new or never previously exhibited. They explore themes of love and eroticism, but overwhelmingly, they mark a farewell to the old Emin – the wild child, the one that got drunk all the time, the sex, the bed, the tent. Her "animal" lust has gone. Now there is the new Emin.

"People don't talk about it, but the menopause, for me, makes you feel slightly dead, so you have to start using the other things – using your mind more, read more, you have to be more enlightened, you have to take on new things, think of new ideas, discover new things, start looking at the stars, understand astronomy … just wake yourself up, otherwise it's a gentle decline.

"For women, it is the beginning of dying. It is a sign. I've got to start using my brain more – I've got to be more ethereal and more enlightened."

Emin is 48. In 2008 she told Piers Morgan she wanted to adopt children – an idea she scoffs at now. "I have friends who have adopted, and they had to radically change their life, their homes, the way they dressed – everything, to get through the adoption agencies. I am not going to change anything."

She's not even sure she'd make a good mother. "I'd make a good friend, not mother. I'm too selfish. I think a lot of mothers are selfish and they end up having children, but I don't want to put some small tiny person through that. I don't want to be Joan Crawford.

"I would really like the idea of someone small and cute to dress up, we all do, but that's not what it's about, is it? I don't want a mini-me."

The truth is she has now made a conscious decision not to have children, and finds herself something of a role model for other similarly minded women. "I'm never going to have children, I'm never going to be a grandmother, I'm probably never going to get married. I'm nearly 50, and it is not happening. I've got too much on the other side now, and I understand that."

But being childless can be difficult. "You're treated like a witch. And I'm not a witch, it is just that I have chosen to do things in another way. It is not by accident."

There are some stunningly beautiful works in her latest show, and much to get hearts singing, especially in the first room, which features a series of blue drawings bathed in exceptional light. "This room is about not being alone, and there's a nice feeling in this room. It's uplifting."

We look at some drawings of her in bed with a friend reading Daphne du Maurier short stories to her. "It was such a nice, cosy thing. No sex, just a really good story." Emin suddenly seems downbeat. "I've thought I experienced love, and now I'm nearly 50 I'm saying, have I? Maybe I haven't. Maybe I don't know what love is. Maybe what I thought was love was a kind of greed, or desire, or something? I think there's different kinds of love – that's where I'm at at the moment. But I don't think I've experienced love."

Emin came closest in her five-year relationship with fellow YBA (the so-called Young British Artists who emerged in the late 1980s) Mat Collishaw, which ended 10 years ago (they are still good friends). In 2010 she split up with boyfriend Scott Douglas, and her closest relationship now, she says, is with her cat, Docket.

"When you have a really good friend and they're reading you a book in bed and it's all cosy and all snuggly, that can be love, too. It doesn't have to be hardcore. There's different kinds of love, and I'd never experienced that kind of totally platonic love. All the love I've experienced has always been a kind of deal, and now, as I get older, I realise that there's this other love out there."

At the other side of the room we look at some works she has never shown before, from when she was in Australia in 2007. "I was in Sydney on my own for two months, trying to work out why I felt so ill. I went on this complete health thing – I stopped drinking, I cycled every day, I walked about 10km every day, I swam every day, went on a really strict diet. My legs and arms went completely skinny, but my stomach was just getting bigger and bigger, because I was ill, and didn't understand why. What I was trying to do with these drawings was try and make myself feel sexy again, but it was difficult. It was almost there, but wasn't."

What was her illness? "I had a tapeworm."

We move on to works she did in Carrara, Tuscany, when she was looking at marble with a friend. "It was the first time I'd been really happy in a long time. You know when you wake up and you feel good? I realised then I'd been low for a long time."

One is a simple drawing of a heart, which Emin now wants to make in pink alabaster. "I'm sure the first alabaster heart will be a disaster, I'd have to keep working at it, but it's about me being driven by myself," she says. "Whether people like my work or not, I want to show people I can do things. I look at this show and I'm enthusiastic. It makes me want to do things."

Emin's path to art superstardom began when she opened The Shop in Bethnal Green with YBA Sarah Lucas in 1993, cashing in on Damien Hirst's new fame by selling ashtrays with his face on. People began to sit up and take notice with works such as her tent (Everyone I Ever Slept With, from 1963 to 1995) that was bought by Charles Saatchi and shown at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997 – the same year that she so memorably appeared on a late-night Channel 4 discussion show completely hammered. Two years later, Emin was shortlisted for the Turner prize, exhibiting her unmade bed complete with stains, condoms and dirty underwear.

Unlike some other YBAs, her success has endured. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007, staged an enormously successful mid-career retrospective at London's Hayward gallery last year, and not long after that was voted by her peers as Eranda professor of drawing at the Royal Academy, the first woman to occupy the role.

Critics generally warm to her these days. Reviewing the Hayward show, Rachel Campbell-Johnston of the Times wrote: "I would love to hate Tracey Emin," but she left "a convert". The Guardian's Adrian Searle called her art touching and surprising and said "the cumulative effect is extremely powerful".

She may shake her head at the suggestion, but Emin, once "Mad Trace from Margate", is now firmly part of the establishment. She's even a Tory. "I like David Cameron because I think he is fair compared to a lot of politicians in history," she says. "He's in the centre. Probably more centre than someone in Labour, not mentioning any names, who's actually Opus Dei – that is extreme right-wing thinking."

She is baffled by all the political fighting that goes on. One work in the show, The Vanishing Lake, is a rusting metal bath with a scrunched-up union flag in it, and is a comment on Britain – "politically, socially, morally". The flag is a scar. "I don't understand why people don't pull together. I don't understand why there's so much disunity. I don't understand why people can't just say: 'It's a mess, let's pull together.' Why is everyone so angry with each other on everything? It's so easy – if everyone relaxed and said we should work together, rather than against each other."

The Margate show is at Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery that opened in April last year and is helping to spearhead the town's desperately needed regeneration. Emin has been a staunch supporter, and she was the obvious choice for a major show in Olympic year (the exhibition is part of the London 2012 festival). It is clearly a big deal for her, and she's written an open letter to Margate, asking people to come. "I do feel really positive about this show, because even if people don't like it, I like it. And that is the most important thing. I didn't know that I would, because there's so much new work, and I thought I was setting myself up for a fall, but I've done it. I wanted to do something exceptional because it is Margate.

"I'm always anxious with a show, but more so with this one. I've been tearing myself to pieces … chronic nerves."

Reassuringly, there is a bed in the show. Or a Heal's mattress at least – quite astonishingly stained – on which Emin has placed a bronzed dead branch. The mattress saw service between 2000 and 2003, and is called Dead Sea. But how did it get into such a state? "I'm not going to go into the gory details. Believe me, it was all naturally made. It wasn't all on my own, I can assure you.

"It goes back to that thing of being over." She's talking about sex again. "It's over. This explains it very well. It was there, but it's gone."

And though she's one of the most successful and feted artists of her generation, is rich and has beautiful houses in east London and the south of France, where she spends around four months a year, it's still not easy finding a man. "I don't think it helps," Emin says. "Any woman who is successful and top of their game will tell you that it is not attractive to men."

She says she has not had many close relationships in recent years, and her friends "have seriously stopped" any attempts at matchmaking. "I say to them, 'Would you give him a blow job? No you wouldn't, so don't expect me to.'"

A flash of the old Emin – full-on, confrontational, up yours. Now she simply wants people to come to her show and enjoy it. "A lot of my shows generally make people feel worse," she says. "I'd like it if people came and left feeling better."

She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea: Tracey Emin at Turner Contemporary opens today, until 23 September. Details: turnercontemporary.org


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February 03 2011

How British culture turned Tory

British culture is going through a blue period, with actors, musicians and artists all happily admitting that they're privately educated Conservative toffs. What happened?

You may have missed it, but early last month, a very telling photograph appeared in the newspapers. Snapped on New Year's Day by a couple out for a walk on Coombe Hill in the Chilterns, it featured a party of eight – including David and Samantha Cameron, education secretary Michael Gove, film director Tim Burton, and the latter's extremely posh other half Helena Bonham Carter. According to subsequent gossip, the latter couple had been introduced to the Camerons by Bonham Carter's one-time Westminster school contemporary Nick Clegg. Others suggest that the two couples have been friends for years.

The group had reportedly stayed at Chequers, the prime minister's country retreat, on New Year's Eve – where the conversation doubtless turned to Bonham Carter's role in The King's Speech, the most accomplished example to date of our new appetite for tales of troubled bluebloods and intrigue on country estates. In its own way, then, this was an image of the New Britain as telling as Tony Blair's famous Downing Street encounter with Noel Gallagher: proof of a new blurring of Tory politics and popular culture that speaks volumes about our times.

Other examples abound. There is surely a deeply zeitgeisty aptness to the fact that Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has recently become a working Tory peer. Though whispers about her own arrival in the upper house have died down, TV's aristo homebuyer and make-and-mend guru Kirstie Allsopp remains an equally fervent supporter of the Conservatives. And what about Gilbert & George, apparently enthusiastic Tories whose civil partnership and combination of tweedy tradition and metropolitan urbanity surely make them honorary Cameroons? "We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly," George said in 2009. "She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different."

Last year, Tracey Emin came good on pre-election talk about her pro-Tory leanings – sparked by her loud opposition to Labour's 50p tax rate – by claiming Britain now had "the best government we've ever had". On the campaign trail, David Cameron launched Tory plans for a new National Citizen Service with Michael Caine, and a proposed national "School stars" talent contest in the company of Take That's Gary Barlow. "There's no one more with-it than David," the latter assured an audience in Nantwich, Cheshire; by way of returning the compliment, Cameron hailed Take That as "Britain's best ever boyband".

For sure, there remain plenty of celebrity Tory endorsers who do not push quite the same A-list buttons, and instead suggest a time-honoured mixture of seaside summer seasons, golf jumpers and ITV: Cilla Black, Ronnie Corbett, William "Ken Barlow" Roache, Joan Collins, the ex-pop star and I'm A Celebrity contestant David Van Day. Pulses did not exactly quicken when they were joined by such names as Matt Willis, an erstwhile member of the teen-pop trio Busted, and Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley.

Yet the main point is inarguable: there is a whiff of stardust around the Tories that would once have been unthinkable. It's easily forgotten now, but there were very serious rumours about Mark Ronson DJing at the 2009 Tory conference, and giving Cameron a public endorsement. Now, in a twist no one would have seen coming, Courtney Love recently attended a "Port and Policy" debate organised by Oxford University's Conservative Association, and was given the post of "non-executive officer for rock'n'roll". Photos of the accompanying revellers show Love – who is dating Kirstie Allsopp's art dealer brother, Henry – dutifully posing in front of a union flag with a mostly-male array of student Tories, who look about as non-rock'n'roll as you might imagine. What Kurt Cobain would have made of it all is anyone's guess.

There is, then, something afoot: a waning of the old stigma that got in the way of "creatives" backing the Tories, and resulted in any who did facing loud ridicule. Consider the case of the synth-pop icon Gary Numan – these days a name it's perfectly OK to drop, with a dependable cult following. Back in the 1980s, his public statements of support for the Thatcher government made him a music press pariah, and played some role in his fall (as late as 2003, however, he was unrepentant: "Thatcher had a clear idea about everything and seemed to be massively pro-British against the rest of the world," he said). In 2010, by contrast, the other Gary's campaigning for the Tories caused no career damage whatsoever: it simply stood as an above-average photo opportunity, crashlanded on the evening news, and was promptly forgotten.

So what has changed? Cameron's diligent attempts to rebrand his party by affecting the role of the modern, bike-riding urban dad and paying endless tributes to his favourite rock bands have undoubtedly helped. The same applies to the feting of his supposedly switched-on wife.

Much more important, though, is the wider context. Whether austerity will bring a renewed ideological charge to the relationship between politics and culture is an interesting point: certainly, the famous names who have protested about arts cuts and library closures suggest that very familiar battle-lines are already reappearing. That said, we still largely live in the post-Blair age, in which the right-left divide is not nearly as entrenched as it once was, and people's political preferences count for much less. Whisper it, then – but after decades of ignominy, it might just be OK to be a pop-culture Conservative.

In any case, the arts are aligning themselves with the Tories in ways much more subtle and insidious than simple endorsements. Just as New Labour managed to slot itself into the wider moment known as Cool Britannia, so there are lines that can be drawn from musicians, actors, film-makers and novelists to people at the top of government. Here, the arriviste likes of Barlow are less important than a new elite who speak with the same accents as people at the top, and attest to a simple fact: the privately educated seem to be newly dominant, and a sharp change of tone and taste stretches from politics, to the arts, and beyond.

The demotic affectations – glottal stops, photo-ops in greasy spoon cafes, an affected love of football – that were obligatory 15 years ago have completely disappeared. Last year, there was a flurry of news coverage when the Word magazine discovered that during one week in October, 60% of the acts in the UK charts came from privately educated backgrounds. When this story was revived last week in an item on the Today programme it brought a furious emailed response from one Jane Blount, better known as the mother of that renowned Harrow alumnus James Blunt.

Barely a day goes past, it seems, when you cannot pick up a newspaper and find the latest sensation in music, or film, or literature, expounding on an early life of dormitories, tuck shops and "prep". Take, for example, the actor Dominic West – AKA Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, and just cast in an ITV drama as the serial killer Fred West. He went to Eton, his wife is a former countess, he has a daughter from a relationship with a member of the Astor dynasty, and he is – but of course – a friend of the Camerons. He is also said to have once had a soft spot for the prime minister's wife. When asked, he has occasionally seemed uneasy about his background, though he has tended to end up sounding much the same rather questionable notes as the Old Etonians in government. "It probably helps that we now live in a meritocracy," he mused two years ago, "so we don't need to worry where people came from."

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail roundly ignored such sentiments, and captured the new mood in a list of "Britain's 50 most powerful posh people under 30": they included Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, the rather irksome comedian Jack Whitehall, two members of the "nu-folk" sensations Mumford & Sons, and Sophie Winkleman, better known as Big Suze from Peep Show.

Accompanying the list was a piece by Dylan Jones, the long-standing editor of GQ, another supporter of the Tories, and the author of the in-his-own words book Cameron On Cameron. "Privately educated scions of the great and the good no longer feel that everyone is against them," he wrote.

"What is more, they are happy to proclaim their status and to exploit it. Look around you. So many fields of public life are now dominated by those with, at the very least, a private education, [and] in many cases wealth and in a few instances a title. In the arts, sport, television, fashion, music, nightlife and, of course, politics, it's positively Brideshead Revisited Revisited."

Or, if you prefer, Born To Rule Britannia.


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November 11 2010

Age of posterity

This government's taste in art is a massive improvement on New Labour's shallow predilection for the hip and contemporary

Battle scenes, eh? Some predict the social policies Iain Duncan Smith is pushing through may cause trouble on the streets to which this week's student protest was a mere aperitif, so it is interesting that he has chosen five battle paintings from the government art collection to hang in his offices at the Department of Work and Pensions. And judging from his talk of the sinful unemployed this morning it sounds like he is shaping up to be the George Bush of social conflict, inviting those enraged by his policies to "bring it on". But aside from this jibe – which is too cheap and easy for me not to make – I feel neither shocked, surprised, nor cynical about the government taste in art revealed by a reply to a Labour MP's freedom of information request.

A trite and meaningless claim to be allied with progressive cultural forces was one of the least attractive and least substantial qualities of New Labour. In his memoir The New Machiavelli, key New Labour insider Jonathan Powell admits the "Cool Britannia" stuff in Blair's early years in office was dumb. It backfired and so, he ruefully acknowledges, did the Millennium Dome. What survived of those clumsy manoeuvrings in the last eight years or so of New Labour government was a low-level flirtation with young British art. This meant, in large part, putting hip art in their offices and purchasing it, via the government art collection.

I was deeply troubled by a behind the scenes tour of this collection a couple of years ago. Troubled because, in its stores near Tottenham Court Road, 18th and 19th-century paintings hung in their dozens, unwanted by Labour ministers. I was told that modern and contemporary art was in favour. In other words it was not a satirist's fiction but a reality that New Labour identified with New Art and – long after radical hopes had abandoned them – ministers were asserting their credibility by having a Julian Opie or whatever in the office.

How empty. If I had a choice of works from the government art collection I would probably mix up past and present – the choice of George Osborne sounds quite astute in this regard. It is right for the government art collection to be purchasing new works by current artists during such a boom time for British art. But surely politicians should also be interested in history. That is a useful thing for them to know about, while contemporary art is arguably a quite useless thing for them to know about. I like the idea that my rulers are reading books on European and world history, that they are thinking about the issues raised in, say, Tim Blanning's book The Pursuit of Glory. And in that spirit I think it's good for them to hang paintings of battles and of historical leaders such as Wellington, Disraeli and Gladstone. History paintings impart a sense of history; portraits are studies of power and character. They are relevant and it was absurd for New Labour to shun them.

It is also right that government offices should celebrate the entire history and heritage of British art, not just what is fashionable now. As for the £20,000 cost of transporting and rehanging, well, it's chickenfeed, hardly likely to buy an aircraft carrier. To be honest, this welcome and natural change in what ministers hang on their walls exemplifies why the coalition looks to some people like government by adults, for adults.


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May 19 2010

Hunt: arts cuts to be offset by lottery boost

Tory minister's inaugural speech woos arts community with promise of increased lottery cash – but admits the numbers don't add up

Maev Kennedy

The new culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has promised the arts unqualified love, more lottery money and a major drive to increase philanthropic giving – but spending cuts are almost inevitable, he admitted.

In his first public speech since taking up the post, delivered to invited representatives of quangos, museums, theatres and arts organisations at London's Roundhouse, the only solid promise of new money came from a commitment that arts, heritage and grassroots sport would receive an increased share of lottery profits, back to the levels they received when the lottery was founded in 1994. In return, all grant-givers, including the Arts Council, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, would be expected to spend no more than 5% of their budget on administration costs.

Although he stressed repeatedly the limitations of what could be achieved in the current financial environment, Hunt reassured those in the arts community who feared disproportionate cuts. "What I can promise you is this," he said. "Culture will not be singled out as a soft target."

Another strand of Hunt's thinking emerged yesterday, when many arts organisations were surprised to get phonecalls from the department asking for the names of their top donors. Today Hunt revealed he would be writing personally to the biggest 200 philanthropists, in and outside Britain, thanking them for their support, urging them to continue, and asking for their ideas.

He also promised reform of the Gift Aid scheme, to make it simpler and less restrictive. But tax breaks for philanthropic giving, recommended years ago in the Goodison report, will almost certainly have to wait. There would be tough negotiations with the Treasury, Hunt said, but he admitted: "There isn't the money there for tax breaks now."

He also conceded that the likelihood of cuts in DCMS spending – and with it to the grant in aid to the Arts Council, English Heritage and the directly funded museums and galleries – would result in a gap in funding. "It is entirely possible that we won't be able to bridge the gap this year," he said.

Hunt's personal relish for his new brief was beyond question. "It is the most incredible privilege to do what I am doing," he said, adding: "I want you to know that this government's commitment to the arts goes right to the top." In his first five minutes he name-checked Picasso, quoted a poem by the Russian dissident Osip Mandelstam – not, he hoped, any relation of Lord Mandelson – and raved about both the play Jerusalem, and the anarchic cabaret La Clique, a show he saw at the Roundhouse.

"I wasn't thinking about creative exports or leveraged investment," he said. "I was enjoying artistic excellence. Art for art's sake. That is my starting point as secretary of state for culture."

He cited Jerusalem, which began at the small, subsidised Royal Court, went on to become a big money-earner in the West End and is to transfer to Broadway, as "a perfect example of how subsidising our cultural life is one of the best investments we can make".

He ended with words from the artist Grayson Perry, and also quoted the Guardian's chief arts writer, Charlotte Higgins, who threatened to break his legs if he hurt the arts – only hurt wasn't precisely the word she used. He promised he wouldn't.

Hunt also reassured many with a personal commitment to free museum admission – singling out the Labour secretary who introduced it, Chris Smith, for praise – and to the free public library network.

Hunt's ambition, he said, was to build more stable long-term funding for the arts.

Alistair Spalding, director of Sadlers Wells theatre, no doubt spoke for many in the room when he said to Hunt: "I am in a bit of a state of shock, because I more or less agree with everything you said."


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May 05 2010

Southampton Itchen: Can New Labour cling on?

Video: As the campaign hits warp factor 10, John Harris heads south to test the government's record on three key issues: jobs, housing and equality



General election 2010: your questions answered

It's the most exciting and perplexing race in ages. From dead heats to Afghanistan to Nick Clegg's hair, our experts tackle your posers

Election night

Is it worth staying up on election night to see Hazel Blears lose her seat?

davidabsalom

No – if that's your only hope, there's no point turning on the TV. First, she'll probably win: she has a 10,000 majority. Second, the result isn't due until 3am – any joy you feel will be crushed by other results by then. Third, she doesn't deserve to lose. There are many worse MPs (see question "why is this election so male?").

Does anyone take any notice of the number of spoilt ballot papers in an election?

davidabsalom

Yes – and they get counted. 188,000 people cast them in 2005. A quarter were disqualified because people voted for more than one candidate, and two-thirds because they were blank. Britain's top seat for wasted votes was Gloucester, where more than 1,000 were cast. And no – if you write a rude limerick about Gordon Brown, they won't read it out at the count.

What happens if Labour and the Tories get exactly the same number of seats? Does it go to a coin-toss?

lairoflard

Individual candidates draw lots if they win identical votes, but there is no provision for a coin-toss between the leaders where the number of seats is tied. The cabinet secretary's draft rule book for forming governments makes plain that whenever the parliamentary arithmetic is uncertain, the serving prime minister is entitled to make the first attempt to get a Queen's speech through. And if, when the crunch votes come, the votes are exactly tied, then the Speaker by convention casts a deciding vote in support of the government of the day.

The politicos

What, Labour and Lib Dems, if any, is the ideological difference between your parties?

wengerball

All the difference in the world. Labour is a collectivist party; the Liberal Democrats are liberals. Both believe in social justice, but see different routes to get there. If you like the state, you'll love another five years of Labour rule. If not, better go Lib Dem.

What qualifies George Osborne, a man who had two jobs before moving to Conservative central office, to be chancellor of the exchequer?

pov1

The cheap answer is that he is a friend of David Cameron. The fair one is that he's very bright. Don't rule him out just because he looks annoying on TV. Rule him out, if you like, because you fear his economic policy. And on a wider point: what qualified Gordon Brown to be chancellor, apart from years as a student political hack and about 25 minutes as a TV researcher. Oh – now I see your point …

Is Nick Clegg's hair actually ginger?

Viscountbiscuit

Look, it's not just about brown hair and darker brown hair. That's the old system and, I don't know about you, but I'm tired of that system. It doesn't work. Last week, I met Jackie in Stockport and she said: "I work, my husband works, and at the end of the day we want to relax by making jokes about the PM's hair. Is that too much to ask?" No, Jackie, it isn't. People are looking for a third way. It's time for the auburn way.

Why is this election so MALE?!

Helenoftroy

Because the party leaders are, and because most journalists are, and because local parties – full of women activists – keep choosing male candidates. Plus Gordon Brown alienated his women ministers. Plus some Tories are sexist, and the Lib Dems haven't changed their selection system. It's everyone's fault.

The economy

Is it fair that public sector workers should face cuts to pay for the devastation wrought on the economy by the private sector?

Kovgos

Of course it's not. But when it comes to taking an axe to the public sector, all the main parties sound pretty bloodthirsty. The Conservatives want to make the biggest cuts, while Labour would spread the pain slightly more fairly between that and raising taxes on the better-off. The Lib Dems are – surprise! – somewhere between the two. Yet none go as far as John Major in the 90s who split the bill between spending cuts and tax rises fifty-fifty.

The gap between rich and poor is widening. A significant proportion of our population live below the poverty level. How can you not support the unilateral introduction of the Robin Hood tax?

playnicely

There are two questions here. One, would a tax on bank transactions reduce the wealth gap? To which the answer is: probably not. Two, would more taxes on the banks be a good idea – and it sounds like we agree that it would. The Lib Dems and the Tories have plans to go ahead and impose such taxes. Brown says he needs other countries to join in to make a tax worth it. He may be making the perfect enemy of the good.

Was there ever ANY credible alternative to pouring in billions to recapitalise, and thereby save, the banking system

partlucid

Ah, hindsight. Gordon Brown could have guaranteed all savings in the banks, then let the weakest collapse. But that would have been a trillion-pound gamble. What he should certainly have done is take full ownership and control of the banks and forced them to direct lending to sound businesses and strategic industries. What we have instead is a massive stake in high-street banking, but very little say. Hardly a bargain.

Foreign policy

Which party is committed to military withdrawal from Afghanistan and has drawn up a detailed, costed plan? Does this plan include a commitment to: a) work with any local partners necessary in order to leave a stable political settlement, and b) pressure the US to do the same?

Stiller 1980

None of the three main parties is committed to a military withdrawal from Afghanistan, though all say they will leave once the "job is done", whatever that means. None has gone as far as President Barack Obama in setting a de facto timetable for a withdrawal in mid-2011. Presumably, though, Britain will follow. If any of the main parties has a detailed, costed exit plan, they have not published it (just as they did not have a detailed, costed plan for Britain's increased involvement when it began under the then defence secretary John Reid). The BNP supports immediate withdrawal.

What are the parties' policies likely to be towards Zimbabwe and other developing countries who need aid, but who this government is currently at loggerheads with?

subversivefreak

The three main parties have condemned what they see as the misrule of President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. The current policy of channelling British aid through non-government organisations, charities and UN agencies, rather than through the Mugabe regime's ministries, is likely to continue, whoever wins the election, and as long as power sharing with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change remains largely a fiction. There is broad agreement that any British assistance to other "countries of concern", such as Sudan, should normally be channelled via NGOs.

Have any of the potential leaders a clue what they would do about Israel/Palestine?

Tagalong

They all agree on the preferred outcome, an Israeli and Palestinian state living side by side, but they are vague on how to get there. Arguably, the onus on them is not all that great as Britain on its own has limited influence in the region. The Lib Dem manifesto points out that Britain has a stronger voice on the issue when it works within the EU. Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems have been the most outspoken in their outrage over Gaza.

I would like to know the interest each [party has] in clearing up the mess of the last 13 years re: foreign policy, civil liberties, human rights violations, etc, starting with Guantánamo.

MorallyUnambiguous

All the parties say they will clear up the mess, including Labour, whose mess it has been. All are in favour of staying in Afghanistan, though again all three say they would do it better. Guantánamo is declining as an issue, as the US internment camp steadily empties and no one now admits to thinking it was a good idea in the first place. The Lib Dems have been the most outspoken about the damage done to the UK's reputation, and point out they were the only one of the three main parties to oppose the Iraq invasion, declaring it illegal.

Home affairs

What plans, if any, have each of the three parties about dealing with worrying numbers of police officers acting outside the law and being immune to the law?

Mutspeak

None of the parties addresses the question directly. Lib Dems say they will restore the right to protest by reforming the Public Order Act and curb aggressive police tactics. Labour set up the IPCC, but their manifesto contains no further plans. Conservatives say only that it is vital that policing tactics have the support of the public.

Are there any pro-immigration parties?

NotUnreasonable

All main parties say they are pro-immigration, but the Conservative policy is to reduce the numbers to "tens of thousands" a year through an annual quota. Labour policy is to limit non-EU immigration to only those with the skills needed in Britain. The Lib Dems say they will introduce a regional points-based system to ensure migrants go to areas of greatest need.

What does each party promise to do about making sure that getting a conviction for rape is easier? What are they going to do to ensure rape victims are safe and protected?

brusketta

The Lib Dems have promised 15 more rape crisis centres and more money for centres that provide medical care and counselling for sexual assault victims. Labour has promised to set up these sexual assault referral centres in every area by 2011. The Conservatives say they match the Lib Dem pledge to deliver 15 more rape crisis centres, but will also ensure existing rape crisis centres have stable, long-term funding.

Other policy

Do any of the parties have credible policies to improve access to social housing for those in housing need?

jforbes

Labour are ahead on this one. Yes, they have had a mostly terrible record in government of relying far too much on private developers to provide housing; but in the last year or so they have ramped up investment in affordable homes and now plan to reform the system by which councils fund the building of houses. The Lib Dems talk a similar language. The Tories are hopeless.

Which parties are actually opposing the Digital Economy Act as their party line?

Topperfalkon

None of the three main parties opposes the act in its entirety. Labour pushed the legislation through as it stands in the final days before parliament was dissolved for the election in early April. The Tories are backing it, but have said they may overhaul internet piracy measures if the legislation turns out in practise to be "flawed" or have major "unintended consequences". The Lib Dems voted against the act becoming law, while backing most of the contents, because the party believes that parts of the anti-piracy legislation have not been given time to be worked through in a "fair and proportionate way". If elected, the Lib Dems would undertake a year of further research and consultation on this issue before taking action.

Will the British public have to fork out for a Sky subscription to watch England in the World Cup if the Conservatives win?

DisobeyMurdoch

No. The BBC and ITV have the rights to the 2010 and 2014 football World Cup finals. The World Cup finals are on the list of sporting events reserved for free-to-air TV. A Conservative spokeswoman told the Guardian yesterday there was "not a chance" that the party would take the World Cup finals off this list and allow other broadcasters – including Sky – to bid for them.

Will teachers ever be allowed to just teach?

webbysteve

All three main parties have promised to give teachers more freedom, but the profession doubts that any will really allow them to do what they do best – teach. The Lib Dems have pledged only one education act in five years of parliament and talk of reducing central control on schools. The Conservatives talk of extra freedoms for some schools and a slimmed down curriculum. Labour has a record of highly prescriptive controls over teachers, which some say has turned those in the profession into bureaucrats. Teachers say abolishing Sats tests for 10 and 11-year-olds would be a good start in allowing them to "just teach", but none of the three parties will agree to this.

Do any of the parties have any policies that deal specifically with the challenges facing single occupancy households?

SE26lad

Bad news: none of them mention it in their manifestos. In fact Nick Clegg even suggested in the last leaders' debate that single bedroom yuppie flats should be turned into ones for families. And the Tories want everyone to get married. Time to join that famous political standby, I'm afraid: the "hardworking family".

The voting system

If I vote for, say, the Lib Dems and it becomes a hung parliament, what happens? Do I really end up with a Labour or Conservative government and either Gordon Brown or David Cameron running the country?

wmissenden

Yup. Sorry. But that's the way things are. Vote Lib Dem and you might – if you live in one of about 80 places in Britain – get a Lib Dem MP. But if more people vote for Labour or the Conservatives, you won't get a Lib Dem government.

Why is the established media, including the Guardian, not explaining to people how the first-past-the-post system works massively in favour of the Liberal Democrats once they get past 38% of the popular vote? At 41-42%, they have a majority and are on their way to a landslide.

beauchampkid

The Lib Dems suffer as their vote is relatively evenly spread, so they do respectably in many places but rarely well enough to win. With enough extra votes, however, there would indeed come a point when they would creep over winning lines in all sorts of seats. The magic number is close to 40%, and if they hit the 43% Blair achieved in 1997 they would win a majority even more crushing than his. In terms of why we've not covered it much, I guess the only answer is that few of us expect it to happen.

Why did we end up with first-past-the-post in the first place?

justinpickard

The House of Commons was designed to represent distinct communities, not individual commoners. With no formal parties, individual candidates fought it out in individual constituencies and it seemed fair enough for the man with the most votes to win. Rotten boroughs and two-member constituencies have since been abolished, but the basic rules remain in force for no better reason than that they have never been changed. In 1917 and 1931 the Commons twice voted for variants of electoral reform, but the House of Lords and events intervened, and the proposals fell.

The current electoral system is clearly outdated and bordering on undemocratic. Those arguing for reform seem to be proposing proportional representation, which in effect means a permanently hung parliament. Is there another way to reform the system?

Evsie

We could form a society of Greek city states and try participatory democracy. But Greece is currently out of fashion. Or we could elect a president, except then everyone who didn't back the winner gets to lose. Or we could go some half-way to reform and use the alternative vote: Australia does that and governments get a majority.

Are any of the main three planning to address the issue of a second elected house to replace the House of Lords? And are any of the main three planning to have a referendum on the monarchy?

Cusacker

Sorry, the Queen seems safe. The Tories and Lib Dems don't mention her in their manifestos. Labour just says: "Our constitutional monarchy is the source of deep pride and strength for our country." Labour promises a majority elected Lords after two more general elections; the Lib Dems want one sooner; the Tories don't say when.

Media and polling

Why do so many of the media outlets, the Guardian included, persist in the mistaken reference to the opinion polls having a margin of error, typically plus or minus 3%? These polls are carried out using quota sampling. As such, they do not have a margin of error.

BigEd

You are right. To statisticians, margin of error can only apply to pure probability theory. And polls don't work on pure probability. The term has become shorthand in the British and US polling industry as a way of explaining that there is a chance the results are slightly wrong. This matters when all parties are close and the order and share affects how they are seen at an election. The Guardian has only used the phrase five times in the last two years. We'll stop, I promise.

Why do you consistently, on the daily liveblog and elsewhere, include without caveats predictions of 'seats won' based on a uniform national swing, a crude system which is untested in conditions such as those predicted by current polls?

jamesch

Because so far there isn't a better and tested theory for translating vote shares into seats. We always do put caveats in reports of our ICM polls – and most of the time give a range of outcomes, not an exact figure on uniform swing. But you're right: the model is broken. Got a better one?

In an election where voters choose a member of parliament for their constituency rather than a leader for the country, isn't it nonsensical to have televised debates between three candidates who are standing in three different constituencies and whose names, even collectively, will be printed on less than 1% of all ballot papers?

Cymrodor

Ah, a parliamentary romantic. Burke would have loved you. It's not nonsensical at all: the party leaders are competing for the job of prime minister, not local MP. And most people vote for the party they like, not the candidate. But you are perfectly free to do otherwise.


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Greens spot window of opportunity in Brighton | Marek Kohn

Brighton's windows are plastered with Green posters, but it's still an open race as voters wrestle with tactical choices

If windows were votes, Caroline Lucas would be borne to Westminster this Friday on the kind of majority rarely seen these days outside North Korea. On a 10-minute walk through the south of Brighton this morning, my tally of households displaying election posters was Conservative, 0; Lib Dem, 2; Labour, 3; Greens, 26. All over downtown Brighton, the splashes of fluorescent green are making houses look as though they're wearing high-visibility vests.

But windows aren't votes, and southern Brighton is only half of the Pavilion constituency. Whether Lucas succeeds in becoming Britain's first Green MP depends on several different questions. One is how big the core Green vote now is – how many people will vote Green out of conviction. Another is how successfully the Conservative candidate, Charlotte Vere, has campaigned in the northern suburbs. A third is whether the Liberal Democrat, Berni Millam, will take more votes from the Tories or the centre-left parties. The last, and possibly the decisive one, is how centre-left voters will make their tactical choices between Lucas and the Labour candidate, Nancy Platts.

Moreover, my strong hunch is that it's "will make", not "have made". If my neighbours and friends are anything to go by, much of the town is still wrestling with which way to call it. And behind not a few of those green-splashed windows, I suspect, there are houses divided, with one partner leaning towards the Greens and the other sticking with Labour.

The underlying issue – apart from us being fretful liberals who can't make our minds up – is there simply isn't adequate information to make a sound tactical choice. There are no recent, reliable opinion polls. The most up-to-date figures come from the bookies. The balance of the circumstantial evidence, including the Greens' own ICM poll from last December putting them ahead, and their steady advance on the city council to the point where they have as many councillors as Labour, points to Lucas as the safer bet for an anti-Tory tactical vote. But in an election where Sky News has national opinion polls rotating continuously on its screen, the lack of local data is like finding oneself without a mobile signal. We're at a loss for what to do.

This is why the window posters really matter. The Greens have realised that in the absence of sound figures, impressions are vital. On the bank holiday afternoon, the bustling North Laine area was thick with Greens handing out even more fliers. Their success in owning downtown Brighton, the city's centre of gravity, is a huge propaganda victory over Labour. In residential streets, their election workers have been homing in on isolated Labour posters, monstering them by persuading neighbouring householders to sport Green ones.

Perhaps the air of unreality whipped up by this fluorescent carnival will encourage voters to look at what the candidates are actually offering. The key difference between Lucas and Platts could be seen most clearly in their comments on education during Sunday's BBC Politics Show South East.

Lucas said what so many parents want to hear: that what people want is for their local school to be a good school. She didn't talk about local schools here in Brighton, though. All through her campaign, she has seemed to me only minimally concerned to make connections with this constituency. Sure, it could be the Greens' platform for national politics, but it's also where we live.

By contrast, Platts confirmed that she is a hard-working local politician who has made it her business to get to know the constituency she hopes to represent. She name-checked a couple of local schools, and noted the problem that they are not evenly spread around the city. But she also suggested that it could be hard to find space for a new secondary school – without admitting that there used to be another one, which was closed down (after an expensive refurbishment) on the then Labour council's watch.

And she also said that she was "really proud of the achievement of schools in Brighton and Hove". Proud that Brighton and Hove's secondary schools perform not only worse than the national average at GCSE level, but worse than schools in deprived inner-city London boroughs like Lewisham and Lambeth? Proud that, according to the local Argus newspaper, the city is 127th out of 152 local authorities on GCSE results? While she has signalled a certain degree of independence from the Labour elite nationally, her view of the city's schools suggests that she is lined up four-square with the Labour establishment locally.

Despite Charlotte Vere's enthusiasm for getting parents to run schools instead of councils, she's not really at one with her own party's leadership either. A recent arrival on the Brighton political scene, after the previous Tory candidate's resignation, Vere isn't one of these Cameronian "look, we're sorry, we've changed" Tories. If politicians were cars, Vere is pretty much what the Thatcher model would look like after 30 years of development. She may not be the best candidate to win over centrist voters who might be drifting towards the Liberal Democrats.

Yet, if the centre-left vote splits down the middle, she may end up representing this mainly left-of-centre constituency. A win for Caroline Lucas, on the other hand, would be one step towards an electoral system that would allow people to vote for the candidates they prefer, instead of forcing them to expend their political energies trying to guess what everyone else is going to do.


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Conservatives play the Iraq card by releasing video of 2003 Blair broadcast

Tories gloss over their own support for the invasion in an attempt to win over supporters of anti-war Liberal Democrats

The Conservatives last night played the Iraq war card for the first time in the general election campaign, in an attempt to win over voters tempted to support the Liberal Democrats who led the opposition to the invasion in 2003.

As cabinet ministers appeared to be at odds over whether Labour should encourage tactical voting to keep the Tories out of power, the Conservatives last night released a video which reminds voters that Tony Blair went to war in 2003.

At the same time, a fresh round of opinion polls indicated that Britain may be heading for a hung parliament, potentially handing the Lib Dems the balance of power. A YouGov poll in today's Sun shows some recovery in Labour's position and a fall in Lib Dem support. The Tories were unchanged on 35%, Labour was up two points on 30% while the Lib Dems were down four points on 24%.

A ComRes poll for ITV News and the Independent showed no change. The Tories were on 37%, Labour on 29% and the Lib Dems on 26%.

In the tightest election since 1992, the Tories made a brazen bid for Lib Dem voters by glossing over the Conservatives' enthusiastic support for the Iraq war to remind voters of Labour's record. A nine-minute video, sent out to 500,000 voters, features a grainy black and white film of Blair's statement to the nation in March 2003 when he announced that British forces would join George Bush in overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

The video then shows press cuttings from the anti-war Daily Mirror of the Downing Street Iraqi arms dossier and the controversial claim that Saddam could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order.

Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, who launched the video, said: "We think there were two big mistakes with Iraq. The first was the way the whole Iraq project was instigated and executed — the post-invasion planning which led to a much much greater loss of life than was necessary.

"But, most importantly, the thing we disagree with was the way spin was used as a tool to persuade the British people of the case for war."

The Tories launched their bid for Lib Dem votes amid conflicting signs from the cabinet whether to recommend anti-Tory tactical voting. Ed Balls, the schools secretary, and Peter Hain, the former Liberal who is now Welsh secretary, both indicated that voters should support Lib Dems if that is the best way of defeating their Tory candidate. The two ministers were careful not to call explicitly for a Lib Dem vote because that would breach Labour party rules.

But Gordon Brown, who yesterday used a Guardian article to urge Lib Dems to vote Labour in 100 seats where the contest is between Labour and the Tories, resisted endorsing calls for tactical voting. "I want every Labour vote because I think people will look at the votes as a whole and they will look at what Labour has achieved," he said.

However, Brown's aides were happy to allow his close ally Balls, who was travelling with the prime minister, to brief journalists on how he understood Labour supporters could vote tactically.

"I'm not going to start second guessing their judgments," Balls said. "Of course I want the Labour candidate to win, but I understand people's concerns about letting the Conservatives in."

However, Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary who is Labour's election co-ordinator, called for a strong Labour vote. "If you vote for the Liberal Democrats you could wake up on Friday morning and see a Conservative-led government, including Liberal Democrats. We are campaigning for every vote."

Nick Clegg yesterday refused to respond to overtures from Labour cabinet ministers as he stubbornly refused to advise his voters to vote Labour in seats where only Labour and not the Lib Dems have the chance to deny the Tories their seat.

"I am fed-up with the old politics, where two cliques in the Labour and the Conservative parties think it's their birthright to play pass the parcel with your government, as if you've got nothing to do with it, as if you've got no say. Peter Hain and Ed Balls are telling people what they should vote against, not what they should vote for. I want you to vote with your heart, with your best instincts, for the future you want."


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Video: Gordon Brown in Manchester

Labour leader delivers powerful testimony to party's achievements and appeals for undecided voters to 'come home to Labour'



Digested election: Ganging up on Gordon

John Crace finds David Cameron grateful to Tony Blair and Manish Sood and Ed Balls and ...

Tony Blair Have you seen the papers? They say Gordon has found his voice.

Cherie Well you'd better stop that.

Blair Gosh. (Picks up phone.) Hello there, Manish ...

Manish Sood, Labour candidate for Norfolk North-West Gordon Brown is a total disaster. The worst prime minister this country ever had.

Peter Mandelson Who the hell chose him to be a Labour candidate?

Brown It was you, you fool.

Ed Balls I'd better tell everyone to vote Lib Dem.

David Cameron I'd just like to say thank you for that little intervention, Tony.

Blair I've always given Gordon my full backing.

Cameron The peerage will be in the post anyway.

George Osborne So what do we do now, sir?

Cameron I'm going to roll up my sleeves again, because they keep falling down. And then I'll stay up all night on Wednesday.

Osborne and Boris Johnson Top hole! It will be just like that night at the Bullingdon when we were off our faces with the topless Polish waitress and set off the fire alarm!

Clegg Alarm bells are going off all over the place right now.


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'This town has been sold to Tesco'

Are towns built by the UK's leading supermarket the future of urban development?

Imagine living in a Tesco house, sending your child to a Tesco school, swimming in a Tesco pool and, of course, shopping at the local Tesco superstore. According to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), the government's adviser on architecture and design, this collective monopoly is not an imaginary dystopia. "Tesco Towns" on this model are already being planned across the UK, from Inverness in Scotland to Seaton in Devon.

While the economic downturn has hit many parts of the development industry hard, Tesco recorded profits of nearly £3.4bn last year. Its plans for expansion are reflected by a growing tide of what are described as "supermarket-led mixed-use development proposals" – entire districts of homes, schools and public places built by the company.

Cabe is aware of plans for 3,656 new Tesco homes, an increase of 1,300% on the 283 homes built by the supermarket giant between 1996 and 2009. This huge rise – which represents only nine new schemes – is a fraction of the total planned, as Cabe does not see every scheme. Indeed, Tesco recently announced it aims to ramp up its superstore expansion by 40%, largely as a result of the mixed-use development.

Yet when house building is at its lowest level since 1923, more than 4.5 million people are on waiting lists for social housing and the number of families in temporary accommodation are up by a third in the last decade, shouldn't we welcome anyone building new homes, especially when a percentage will be earmarked as affordable housing?

Sir John Sorrell, the outgoing chair of Cabe, however, questions the quality of the proposed developments. "Retailers don't just want to build a new supermarket nowadays. They want to redevelop town centres, with housing and shopping streets," he warned in his valedictory speech at the end of last year. "Our concern is not only the quality of this kind of development – which is generally very poor – but the way in which architecture and places are created in the image of the retailer."

In Bromley-by-Bow, east London, a Tesco superstore, shops, primary school and hundreds of homes are planned. In Trafford, Manchester, a 168,000 sq ft Tesco will dominate a 50-acre site. Love Lane, Woolwich, and the Streatham Hub development, both in south London, and Queen's Square in West Bromwich are all home to similar proposed Tesco developments that are in partnership with the local authority. And in Seaton, a small seaside town in east Devon, a superstore, hundreds of homes and a hotel recently received planning permission.

Sandra Semple, the mayor of Seaton, is one of eight independent councillors elected on a platform opposing the proposals. Seaton, she says, is a traditional seaside town of 7,500 people on a World Heritage coast. "It's an old-fashioned town on a gorgeous bay, with nothing but individual shops, and no chainstores. Every other store is an individual trader," she says.

She points out that there are already 15 Tescos within 25 miles of Seaton, and says: "The town has always been against this, but the Tory-run district council completely refused to hear our arguments and says Tesco is the only company capable of regenerating our town. This will be an entire place. It's about 20 hectares – an enormous piece of land.

"This town has been sold to Tesco. We are not at the moment a 'Tesco Town', but this will make us one. We've lost our individuality, our identity – the very things that make this place special."

The irony is that there is little evidence that the superstores themselves want to create entire communities. Instead, policy is pushing them in that direction, with local authorities prepared to grant permission for superstores they may have previously refused, as long as they are accompanied by the sweetener of housing, schools and sports facilities, which the councils don't have the funds to provide.

This is what happened in Trafford in March, when a 168,000 sq ft store and accompanying development was granted planning permission, although an application for an 89,000 sq ft store on the same site was refused in 2006. The difference is that this time the redevelopment of Lancashire county cricket club is part of the scheme.

Friends of the Earth says the council's desire to develop the cricket ground "has been used as an excuse to back a superstore development which would otherwise be ruled out for its unacceptable negative impact".

It's a similar story in St Helens, Greater Merseyside, where Tesco is building a stadium for St Helens rugby league club, but the new superstore and massive car park will dominate, relegating the stadium to round the back of the site.

Cabe has attacked Tesco's plans, in partnership with the Thames Gateway Development Corporation, for a new district centre, including hundreds of homes and a school, in Bromley-by-Bow, pointing out that the housing overlooks either the motorway or the superstore, and that Tesco lorries heading for the servicing entrance would cut across the children's route to the primary school.

In this instance, Tesco has gone back to the drawing board, but Cabe is critical that a new district centre should be created on the site at all. Hans van der Heijden, a Dutch architect who also works in Britain, explains why: "It is slightly absurd to make private enterprises responsible for things that are, in the end, public. The interesting comparison is with other private enterprises that created places such as the garden cities, but in those instances there was an element of charity at work related to some form of emancipation and public interest. That seems to be absent here. It's a money machine."

How has this absurd approach to development – an anathema in mainland Europe – been allowed to take root? One reason is the bartering culture that developed between councils and developers as a result of the introduction of "planning gain" – or section 106, as it is known – by the Conservatives in the early 1990s. Since then, it has been customary for local authorities to negotiate with developers over the amount of community infrastructure they are willing to provide to accompany a development, including affordable housing, new roads and sports facilities.

For supermarkets wishing to build very large stores in towns and cities, offering such infrastructure, including schools, has seemed like a natural extension of this policy.

Another key factor is changes to planning policy made in 2004, when the benchmark test that a new development should be in line with "public benefit" was quietly dropped in favour of "economic benefit".

The Conservatives have voiced unease about Tesco Towns. Bob Neill, shadow minister for local government and planning, says: "I am concerned that the rise of so-called supermarket towns will lead to developments where small retailers have no place or face uncompetitive rents. Planning rules must be amended to allow councils to take into account the benefits of greater competition and the need to protect small business."

The party has pledged to introduce greater local participation in planning through its "open source" proposals if it wins tomorrow's general election.

But Neil Sinden, director of policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says the aspiration to return planning decisions to the local level is in contrast to the opening section of the Conservative manifesto, which emphasises that the planning system is a barrier to economic development. With the Tory planning proposals also including financial incentives for councils to provide more housing and development, Sinden believes they are unlikely to halt the onward march of Tesco Towns.

It is possible that Liberal Democrat plans for a third-party right of appeal for local interest groups would support struggles in places such as Seaton, but the detail is unavailable, while Labour is wholly behind the current approach, confirming that it allows councils to generate growth.

Sinden fears that, whatever the outcome of the election, Tesco Towns are the face of future urban development: "I don't see this going away. It's not featuring in any of the parties' thinking when it comes to reform of the planning system."

What strikes him is that although there is "huge public engagement", in policy terms "it's an issue which at the moment is being swept under the carpet".

Semple, who challenged the local authority head on, felt that every effort was made to muzzle her. "A regeneration board was set up, and I was one of the members, but I was told that my presence was no longer desired because I had the wrong attitude. I was asked to resign."

Tesco denies that its developments are poor quality and that the scale of development is new. A spokesman for the company says Tesco has been providing much-needed mixed use development since 1997 in deprived areas. "These are urban areas which have not received investment for a number of years. We are willing to invest, and that kind of investment has to be applauded and welcomed. We're looking at providing more than 2,000 jobs in these areas that can benefit the community for years to come. He adds: "Councils are very welcoming because we are bringing in jobs and investment."

• Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first-century City, published by Penguin, £9.99. To order a copy for £8.99, including UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.


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Tories discover poverty at last, but is it all in the family?

In the latest in our series in which Guardian writers address an issue they feel passionately about, Amelia Gentleman finds a mixed response to the Tory focus on family breakdown in their 'aspiration' to tackle child poverty

The Conservatives argue that the best way to tackle child poverty is not redistribution, but to look at the roots of poverty and address matters such as family breakdown, addiction and worklessness. Nikki Hewson, a divorced mother of five, is not sure she agrees.

She did not plan to find herself a single parent looking after so many children, but two sets of twins and an unhappy relationship with the children's father has left her unexpectedly alone and struggling financially.

Neither the Conservatives' proposed changes to the tax system in favour of married couples nor their desire to increase provision of relationship counselling would have prevented the marriage from collapsing, she says, drinking tea in her kitchen, raising her voice to make herself heard as the four-year-old twins rollerskate around the room and their 13-year-old siblings storm in and out to collect their breakfast.

"I believed in marriage. We had a big white wedding when I was 22, but we were too young. By the end, the relationship was broken – there was nothing anyone outside could have done to mend it," she says. She had enjoyed working, first as a teaching assistant and later as a lunchtime supervisor, until a stroke made it difficult for her to continue. Money shortages were part of the problem, she adds, rather than the consequence of the marital breakdown.

Benefits she receives from the state put food on the table and clothes on her children's backs, but money is tight so she no longer goes out with friends or buys new things to wear. In the winter, all six of them sleep in one room to cut heating bills. Still, with careful budgeting she is able to give the children what they need. Today they are planning an outing, and will take a train into London to visit HMS Belfast. "I've bought less food this week, to put money aside for it," she says. "Instead of meat and potatoes, they've had beans or egg on toast."

The issue of child poverty in the UK has not been much discussed during the campaign, but it has a newly prominent place in Conservative party literature.

A word search of the parties' manifestos shows how far the theme has edged up the Conservative agenda. It is a crude way to measure commitment, but it is revealing to see that there are seven mentions of the word "inequality" in the Conservative manifesto, and not one in the Labour document; and while the word poverty is used 18 times by Labour and five times by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative manifesto has 20 references.

Despite Labour's drive to eradicate the problem, there are 4 million children living in poverty in the UK, about 30% of all children, according to a definition that classifies children growing up in a household with less than 60% of the median income for the UK as beneath the poverty line. These children tend to do less well at school and are more likely to have health problems, five times less likely to go to university and less likely to find well-paid jobs.

For the first time all three major parties express a desire in their campaign literature to end child poverty by 2020. David Cameron has repeatedly spoken of his determination to address poverty, accusing Labour of letting inequality grow and poverty worsen.

He got a standing ovation during his conference speech last autumn when he demanded: "Excuse me? Who made the poorest poorer? Who left youth unemployment higher? Who made inequality greater? … No, not the wicked Tories. You, Labour: you're the ones that did this to our society. So don't you dare lecture us about poverty."

In the final leaders' debate, he said: "I believe the test of a good and strong society is how we look after the most vulnerable, the most frail and the poorest." This is a wounding line of attack on a party whose campaign to reduce levels of child poverty it inherited from the Conservatives has been overshadowed by failure to meet a self-imposed timetable to show progress. Gordon Brown, pointing to Labour's commitment to seeing the minimum wage rise with earnings, responded in the Guardian this week: "I know in my bones that Labour is the only party with a passion to eradicate poverty."

Campaign groups working on the eradication of child poverty should be feeling thrilled at the way this issue has moved towards the mainstream. Instead there is uncertainty about the Conservatives' approach and strength of their commitment while the Labour administration's achievements over the past 13 years elicits only guarded approval.

The main cause for unease is the fundamentally different vision for tackling child poverty proposed by the Conservatives. Cameron has dismissed Labour's solution as "more and more redistribution, means-tested benefits and tax credits", and says: "They haven't addressed what is keeping people poor – the family breakdown, the failing schools, the fact that people are stuck on welfare. It's those things that are keeping people trapped in poverty and making them poorer."

On education and employment, the two main parties are broadly in harmony, but the identification of family breakdown as a trigger sets them apart. The Conservative leader has been in touch with counselling organisation Relate to discuss how relationship and parenting education might be made more widely available, and some charities, such as Family Action, that work with struggling families are supportive of this shift in approach.

"I think he is absolutely right," says Helen Dent, chief executive of Family Action, a charity that offers support to women like Nikki Hewson. "There are some families who need a whole lot more practical and emotional support if they are to avoid family breakdown. Money is not the only factor."

Elsewhere there is more ambivalence. Fergus Drake, director of UK programmes with Save the Children, welcomes the Conservatives' focus on poverty: "We feel we are hearing the Conservatives speak about poverty in a way they haven't done for decades."

But he adds that the charity would "be concerned" to see "a shift away from the financial aspects of child poverty to areas around family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse".

"We would say poverty causes family breakdown," he says, rather than vice versa. "If you are worried about putting food on the table, or being able to turn on the heater so you can have a hot bath, the stress that causes to a relationship can make things really difficult."

Tim Nichols, of the Child Poverty Action Group, agrees that the party should be careful not to confuse causes and consequences. "We don't think that this is robust strategy," he says. "Tackling child poverty can't be done without more redistribution."

Stephen Timms, the minister responsible for developing the government's child poverty strategy, says he has a sense that Cameron is avoiding the issue when he talks about addressing poverty.

"The root cause of child poverty is a lack of income. I get the feeling that they are trying to change the subject to more nebulous things, things like family disadvantage, not income. But this is poverty we are talking about; it is about income."

Some charities are also wondering if there is a subtle change in language from the Conservatives in its attitude towards the goal, first set out by Tony Blair in 1999, and enacted in legislation earlier this year, of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020. Labour speaks of this as a "commitment", they point out, while Conservative politicians refer to it only as an "aspiration". Others note that the Conservatives' record on inequality and poverty in the 1980 and 1990s (when the number of children living in poverty rose from one in seven to one in three), does not inspire confidence.

Theresa May, shadow work and pensions secretary, dismisses these concerns. "We supported the Child Poverty Act when it was going through – I don't think there is any difference in how important we believe it to be. There is a difference in how we want to achieve it," she says. "Labour has a one-dimensional approach: it is about income and the tax credit system. We believe we won't be able to deal with it unless we tackle the root causes – family breakdown, debt, addiction, worklessness. Income has a role to play but we have a more holistic approach."

Child poverty is a peculiar proxy issue – a more palatable shorthand for addressing inequality and poverty more generally. Clearly, long-term success is linked to a mesh of social, education and employment policies and with how well the economy is performing.

In terms of Labour's record, this has been a hard area to squeeze campaigning points from because its successes have been mixed. While activists credit the Labour administration for putting the issue on the political agenda, there is also disappointment that early successes have stalled and ministers failed to meet their own interim target of halving child poverty by the end of this year.

According to the End Child Poverty campaign, between 1997 and 2007-8 half a million children had been lifted out of poverty – the result, among other things, of child tax credits, the minimum wage, and focus on helping lone parents back into work. The government predicts that by the end of the year that figure will have risen to 1.1 million, missing the 2010 target by 600,000.

Research from a US academic last month interpreted the figures more favourably, arguing that by one measure child poverty was cut in two by the Blair-Brown administration, outstripping attempts by the US and many European neighbours to address it.

But any celebration of this achievement is complicated by the parallel rise in inequality. The National Equality Panel report published this year concluded that Labour had failed to reverse the large gulf that opened between the rich and the poor in the 1980s, and found that the richest 10% of the population is now more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10% of society.

On the doorsteps of council flats in the Regent's Park and Kensington North constituency there is no talk of poverty. The John Aird estate stands in the shadow of the white stucco mansions of St John's Wood, a juxtaposition that symbolizes the stark inequalities of modern Britain, but inequality is not a subject that comes up much either.

Labour's Karen Buck is fighting to retain her seat in one of the most socially polarised areas of Britain, a constituency that has some of the most expensive houses in the country alongside one of the highest levels of entitlement to free school meals, one of the highest numbers of households claiming incapacity benefit and one of the highest numbers of children being brought up by unemployed parents. "If they are talking about their own experiences, people will not use the word poverty. They might express it in terms of a struggle or in terms of injustice but they won't describe themselves as living in poverty," she says as she makes her way through the estate, snatching conversations on the staircases, accosting residents by the lift entrances.

"Instead they will talk about the situations that can lead them into poverty. People feel very strongly about the costs of childcare and housing being so high that they are unable to make work pay. Or they might talk about the non-financial aspects of poverty – overcrowded housing and poor housing conditions."

Buck, who was this month named MP of the year by the Child Poverty Action Group for the work she has done for low-income families, is despondent at her party's failure to do more. "I deeply regret that we have missed the 2010 targets, and that the very, very good progress we made until four years ago has tended to falter," she says.

But she has little faith in the Conservatives' approach. "It makes me so angry that smoke comes out of my ears," she says. "Only a minority of families are below the poverty line because of complex factors like family breakdown. The majority have dropped below the poverty line because work does not pay or is not available. People are poor because they don't have enough money."


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General election 2010 live blog

Andrew Sparrow covers the latest general election news and events, including Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg on the campaign trail.

10.52am: Caroline Lucas, the Green party leader, has also been sounding off about the leaders' debates. She told BBC News:

What they have done is turn a two-party stitch-up into a three-party stitch-up and they have still silenced lots of voices that I believe the British public would have wanted to hear. When you had the debates talking about foreign policy, not one of those three parties was talking about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is Green party policy, not one of them was talking about international development, poverty eradication, getting rid of our nuclear weapons. A whole range of different options aren't on the table for as long as you exclude the smaller parties.

10.46am: This is excellent. We asked readers to submit some election questions - not the standard Q&A ones, but quirky, clever ones, like why is the election so male, and how did Britain end up with first-past-the-post in the first place - and Guardian writers have been answering them. I'm going to quote one, just to give you a flavour of what the answers are like, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Why do so many of the media outlets, the Guardian included, persist in the mistaken reference to the opinion polls having a margin of error, typically plus or minus 3%? These polls are carried out using quota sampling. As such, they do not have a margin of error. BigEd

You are right. To statisticians, margin of error can only apply to pure probability theory. And polls don't work on pure probability. The term has become shorthand in the British and US polling industry as a way of explaining that there is a chance the results are slightly wrong. This matters when all parties are close and the order and share affects how they are seen at an election. The Guardian has only used the phrase five times in the last two years. We'll stop, I promise.

10.35am: The phone-in is now over. Nicky Campbell concluded by asking Gordon Brown what he would do if he lost on Thursday. Brown would not speculate about that and said that he was fighting for the values he believed in.

I've got very strong views. I'm impatient to do things. I want to have a chance to build a better Britain for the future.

10.29am: A man called Alan rang in to say that he was dying of lung cancer and that the Department for Work and Pensions was forcing him to look for work. Gordon Brown said that that should not be happening. He said that he would take Alan's details and get the situation changed.

10.26am: Nicky Campbell asked Gordon Brown about Cowell's article in the Sun (see 9.35). Campbell said that Cowell likes Brown but thinks he's tired. Brown said he's not tired: "I'm energised."

He went on:

This is not an election to be decided by celebrities or by insiders or by journalists or by media people. It's the people's election. That's why I respect the fact that at the last minute there are many people ... who say quite rightly that they are undecided. And the reason they are undecided is that this is a big decision.

So why was Brown using Ross Kemp on the campaign trail yesterday, Campbell asked.

Brown said that Kemp had been helping the Labour party for years. But Kemp would accept that celebrities should not decide the election, Brown said.

10.13am: While the Brown phone-in carries on, here's a statement from the Green party leader, Caroline Lucas. She is attacking Nick Clegg for a comment he made in the Financial Times yesterday about electoral reform not being a precondition for coalition talks with the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats have made a huge noise about being the party of change but when it comes down to it all they really are is the party of changing their minds. It's common knowledge that the Tories don't want electoral reform. Any coalition negotitations that don't set out electoral reform as a deal breaker will lead to five more years of the same old system and it's the voters who will suffer.

The FT suggested that Clegg had changed his tack because last week he said the electoral reform was "an absolute precondition for renewal in this country". But yesterday, in response to the FT story, Clegg insisted that he was not being inconsistent. He said that he still believed electoral reform was a precondition for renewal, but that he had never spelt out any conditions for the talks that might take place between the Tories and the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament.

The Green party press release also says that two polling firms, YouGov and ICM, are predicting that Lucas will win in Brighton Pavilion.

10.05am: Nicky Campbell challenged Brown to defend his handling of the banks. How many Canadian banks needed to be bailed out, he asked. Campbell answered the question himself: none. Brown said Canadian banks were not international.

10.00am: A caller has just tried to get Gordon Brown to endorse tactical voting. He said that he was a Labour supporter, but that he lived in Cheltenham, where Labour does not have a chance. The Lib Dems hold the seat with 39.4% of the vote (in 2005), the Tories are just behind with 38.7% of the vote and Labour is trailing on 11.8%. The caller asked if Brown wanted him to vote Labour or Lib Dem tomorrow.

Brown would not take the bait.

I would like everybody who's Labour to vote Labour.

But Brown also said there was "an anti-Conservative majority in this country". He said the Tories went into the election expecting a coronation but found they had less support than they expected. Nicky Campbell told Brown that he had a coronation when he replaced Tony Blair in 2007.

9.46am: Nicky Campbell reminds Gordon Brown that he is being filmed. And he tells listeners that David Cameron did not accept an invitation to appear on the programme.

Brown says an emergency budget from the Conservatives would put the recovery at risk. He says he thinks there should have been more policy debate during the campaign.

Campbell asks about Gillian Duffy. He says that Brown said he would take responsibility in his Citizens UK speech. But when the Duffy incident happened, Brown's instinct was to blame "Sue". Which is the real Brown, Campbell asks.

Brown says he took responsibility after the Duffy incident.

I have said I take responsibility. I have always said when I make a mistake that I have made a mistake.

9.37am: Gordon Brown is about to start a phone-in on Radio 5 Live.

9.35am: I've mentioned the main stories in the papers already (see 6.59am, 8.33am 8.51am). Here are some of the others worth noting.

In the Sun, Simon Cowell says that he believes David Cameron is "the prime minister Britain needs at this time".

And the Sun says Labour's Harriet Harman and the Lib Dems' Lynne Featherstone would ban Page 3 girls.

David Miliband tells the Daily Telegraph says that Labour is about to get "the most New Labour parliamentary party ever".

The Daily Mail joins the tactical voting craze. It's urging people to vote tactically against Labour and it lists 65 seats where Mail readers could keep Labour out by voting Tory, Lib Dem or Plaid Cymru.

The Times says Vincent Cable has donated £14,000 to the Liberal Democrats.

Sue Cameron in the Financial Times says training for new MPs will start on Monday.

9.15am: Is there anyone in British politics with a better turn of phrase than Alan Johnson? This is what he was saying about the Lib Dems earlier on the Today programme.

The Liberal Democrats are on a slow puncture and the air is coming of the tyre. Whether enough of it will come out by Thursday, I don't know.

Johnson said that people liked what they saw of Clegg three weeks ago but that since then he had become "a bit grating". Johnson went on: "He's been trying the same tricks in every television debate and it gets a bit wearing."

The home secretary also said that David Cameron was "arrogant" because he thought he was going to win and that Clegg was "arrogant" because he thought he would be able to pick the prime minister.

8.51am: If George Osborne becomes chancellor, he may have to have some difficult conversations with Treasury officials. The Treasury spends a huge amount of time preparing the budget "red book", the vast document that contains all the figures about tax, spending and the state of the economy. But Osborne has just described it as rubbish. "The red book is largely a work of fiction," he told the Financial Times in an interview today. He said it included over-optimistic growth forecasts and hidden pension and public finance initiative liabilities.

8.47am: I've just been a Press Association account of one of David Cameron's overnight stops. Cameron was asked if the visit was a stunt. He replied:

I'm here with the emergency services. They work all night, I'm perfectly happy to work all night. Call it what you want.

Cameron was also asked if staying up all night was the equivalent of last-minute exam revision. "Well it worked for my finals," he said. (He got a first.)

8.33am: The Times publishes an interview with Brown today. The prime minister seems to have been in a curious mood. In the interview, he accused the Times (which has endorsed the Conservatives) of being biased.

We have figures that stand up to scrutiny and I'm afraid that's just the way life is. Once The Times has made up its mind to go in a particular way, then I don't think the evidence is necessarily the substantiating factor.

It also sounds as if he pretended not to know who the children's secretary was.

Some of his colleagues at the top of the Labour party have been making noises about tactical voting: Lord Adonis and Peter Hain, for example, have made overtures to Liberal Democrat voters. Ed Balls, in particular, has voiced his sympathy for Labour supporters who might be tempted to vote Lib Dem where such a vote could keep a Tory out.

When this is put to Mr Brown, he says: "Ed who?"

8.24am: Is Michael Gove a banana? You must decide for yourself. The shadow children's secretary posed the question earlier today on the Today programme.

We know with proportional representation you cannot be certain that the party that gets the most votes, the party that is the most popular, forms a clear and decisive government. If people vote for the third party, for Nick Clegg, in this election, what they are doing is succumbing to a sort of blind date politics .... The voice is seductive, but when the curtain slips back, after having voted for Nick Clegg, you don't know who you are going to end up in bed with. You could have Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, or David Miliband as your prime minister. If that's democracy, I'm a banana.

Gove also claimed that the Tories would change the voting system to make "every vote count" and to make it "fairer". He was referring to the Tory plans to cut the size of the House of Commons. Gove said this would produce a fairer system because it would ensure every constituency was the same size. Under the current system, there is considerable variation.

8.07am: Alan Johnson, the home secretary, has just been on the Today programme. He said he thinks Labour can win.

I am absolutely convinced we can come through tomorrow with a majority.

He also paid lavish tribute to Gordon Brown. He described Brown as "the single biggest reason why this country did not go into the euro" and he said Brown "has done more to tackle poverty, both in this country and internationally, than any other leader I can think of".

David Cameron was on GMTV earlier. He explained why he had been campaigning through the night.

I never believed this election was going to be easy. I mean, elections are meant to be a challenge. The British people don't hand you the government of the country on a plate. Quite rightly, they are making us work for it.

Cameron hasn't gone without sleep entirely. According to the Press Assocation, he has been "grabbing some sleep in the back of the bus" between visits.

6.59am: David Cameron has been campaigning through the night. But has it impressed the voters? Like Cameron, my colleague Steven Morris never sleeps. He's been on the road early today and he heard a couple of truckers discussing Cameron's all-nighter at the Taunton Deane services on the M5. He's just sent me this:

"That Cameron was up all night, good effort," says the one.
"We do that every night," says trucker two.
"When is the general election anyway?"
Informed that it is tomorrow trucker two says he might vote if he gets up and will probably vote BNP.

In the papers today, tactical voting still dominates. In the Guardian Patrick Wintour says that Tony Blair has rejected the suggestion that Labour supporters should vote tactically against the Conservatives.

Speaking on a day when several cabinet ministers suggested that Labour voters should cast their ballot for the Liberal Democrats in some seats, the former prime minister set himself against the tactic, and was contemptuous of Nick Clegg's party and its claim to represent real change. He described the Lib Dems as "the old politics masquerading as the new", and said their entire history as a party showed them incapable of facing up to hard choices.

Voters, he said, should follow their instincts. "It is simple," he told the Guardian. "Vote for what you believe in. If you think their polices are good, vote for them, but if you don't, don't. The Lib Dems are not going out to people and saying 'vote Labour' – they are trying to take seats off us."

The Times carries an interview with Gordon Brown in which Brown says much the same thing.

The prime minister has rebuffed cabinet colleagues who suggested that Labour supporters could back Liberal Democrat candidates where such a vote would keep out a Conservative.

Instead, he told The Times that he wants people to vote Labour regardless of the state of play in their constituency. "I am asking people to vote Labour because I want to get the maximum Labour vote."

And the lead story in the Daily Telegraph says the Democratic Unionists are willing to enter a coalition with the Conservatives if Cameron does not win an outright majority.

Mr Cameron became the first of the main party leaders to visit Northern Ireland during the election campaign on Tuesday.

He indicated he wished to give Northern Ireland politicians ministerial positions — and see the province play a key role in the "mainstream politics" of the entire country.

There were two polls overnight. ComRes gave the Tories an eight-point lead over Labour, and YouGov gave the Tories a five-point lead. They both showed the Lib Dems clearly in third place. I'll post more details later, but you can read more now at UK Polling Report.

I'm leaving for Westminster now and I'll be posting again at some point after 7.30.


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Remember 1983? I warn you that a Cameron victory will be just as bad | Jonathan Freedland

I would like to make a positive case for Labour, but the hour is late, and now it is Neil Kinnock's famous words that stir me

On the eve of the 1983 election – which, until this year, seemed destined to represent for ever the low watermark of Labour performances – a young member of the party's shadow cabinet delivered what was to be one of his most compelling speeches. Neil Kinnock knew a landslide defeat was imminent so, speaking in Bridgend, he sketched the world to come. "I warn you," he began, addressing a nation about to descend into the bitterest stretch of the Thatcher era. "I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old."

It was a rhetorical masterpiece from a man whose oratory would later be much mocked. But its power was its prescience. Kinnock saw the Thatcherite tsunami that was coming and warned of the deluge that would follow.

This time even the most pessimistic Labourite cannot feel the certainty Kinnock had then: all kinds of permutation are still possible. But if the Labour vote crashes close to, or even below, 1983 levels, then David Cameron in Downing Street is the most likely outcome, whether governing as a minority, in alliance with the Lib Dems, or with a narrow majority of his own. What would he do if he gets there? What cautionary message might a 2010 Kinnock issue? For those still weighing their vote, here are a few salutary thoughts.

I warn you that a chance some have waited for all their adult lives will slip away, perhaps taking another generation to come around again: the chance to reform our rotten, broken electoral system. If Cameron wins, he will not only thwart any move to fairer voting, he will act fast to rig the system in his favour. Even neutrals agree that his plan to cut the number of MPs by 10% – presented as a mere cost-cutting measure – will be one of the grossest acts of gerrymandering in British political history. Cameron will redraw the boundaries so that his rivals lose seats and he gains them, locking in a semi-permanent Conservative majority. Reform of our absurd, unelected second chamber will be postponed indefinitely, enabling Cameron to pack the Lords with his mates and sugar daddies, including perhaps a few more of those businessmen who so obligingly sided with the Conservatives in condemning Labour's plans for national insurance.

If, on the other hand, Cameron is kept from Downing Street courtesy of a Labour vote tomorrow strong enough to make a Lib-Lab coalition plausible, then there's a clear chance for the 55%-plus majority who regularly vote for liberal or left parties to prevail and reform the system – ensuring that, from now on, the Conservatives hold power only as often as their minority status suggests they should. (They were always a minority party, even in the Thatcher heyday.) In other words, the victor tomorrow will get to set the rules for decades to come. This is a winner-takes-all election and the stakes could not be higher.

I warn you that the economy could slide back into despair. Maybe people have not paid attention to this argument because Gordon Brown has been making it, but the danger is real. A sudden shut-off of the public spending tap could well send a frail recovery staggering back into recession: the dreaded double-dip. It's happened elsewhere and could happen here. The US and other economies are seeing the tide turn, but that's because they've kept the public cash coming. Cameron's aim, played down in the rhetoric because it polled so badly, is to cut spending immediately, ushering in what he once proudly trumpeted as an "age of austerity".

If Britain were to return to recession, then brace yourself. For many, this last downturn has not quite felt like the worst since the Great Depression, whatever the economists say. Unemployment, house repossessions and bankruptcies are all fractions of what they were in the 1990s recession. That's not by accident. It's a function of Labour's active interventionism, which has sought to reduce the impact of the downturn on those at the sharpest end. Such state activity clashes with every Conservative instinct. Cameron still describes government as more problem than solution. Last time the Tories were in charge, dealing with a recession that was actually much less severe, the pain was greater and the weakest suffered most. There is nothing in current Tory policy – despite Cameron's final debate plea to the camera that it's "the most vulnerable, the most frail and the poorest" he truly cares about – to suggest it won't be like that again.

Indeed, there are at least three signs that point in a gloomy direction. First, despite all the austerity talk, the Tories have clung to their promise to give an inheritance tax break to the 3,000 richest families in the country. In the words of Nick Clegg, it's the "double-millionaires" Cameron wants to help. And yet, given the hole in the public finances, cash will have to come from somewhere. The obvious source – not that the Conservative leader has ever been challenged on it – is an increase in VAT. That's the most regressive of all taxes, inflicting disproportionate pain on the poorest: pain that will only deepen with the coming Tory assault on tax credits. A third cause for alarm can be expressed in three words: Chancellor George Osborne.

I warn you not to have an urgent need for the NHS. Sure, the Tories say they've ringfenced health spending, but check the small print. They plan to drop Labour's guarantee on waiting times. No longer will any patient be sure to see a cancer specialist within two weeks: under the Tories, that decision will be left to the consultant. Fine for the sharp-elbowed middle class, who are used to barging their way to the front of the queue. Not so good for the poorest who, all the data shows, struggle to get the most from public services.

I warn you not to be a single mother or widow. You'll get less than those who are married. Not that much less – about £3 a week – but just enough to know that the tax system regards you as a second-class citizen and to remind you of how life used to be under the Conservatives, when single parents were a routine target for public mockery and scolding.

I warn you that we will be back to the sterile relationship with Europe of the 1990s, a British government once again on the margins, but aligned this time with homophobes, rank antisemites and assorted apologists for fascism. Prepare within weeks for a Cameron stunt, demanding negotiations to "repatriate" powers back to Westminster. Britain is set once again to become the club bore of the EU, happily swallowing the agenda of economic liberalisation but moaning about sovereignty in the abstract, annoying the other members but never having the courage to up and leave.

Cameron won't have much choice in the matter. He'll be answerable to the newly-strengthened backbench hard right of his party, who will have veto power over his programme: he won't be able to govern without their votes. With their loathing of Europe, their disbelief in man-made climate change and their disproportionate ties to the City and finance, they will ensure Cameron sticks to the right and narrow.

Of course, it would feel better to make a positive case for Labour, echoing its promises on a living wage and a cap on predatory chargecard interest rates or its plans for green jobs. But the hour is late. Tomorrow is the day of decision. And we have been warned.

• More election comment from Cif at the polls


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Election 2010: Conservatives – not just for England | Martin Kettle

The overnight: David Cameron's visits to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales aim to portray the Tories as a truly national UK-wide party

It is tempting, and the BBC this evening fell for the temptation, to see David Cameron's visit to Northern Ireland yesterday – almost certainly the first election campaigning trip of its kind by a major UK party leader in modern times – in the frame of a possible hung parliament. Looked at this way it can be made to appear like a last minute attempt by the Conservative leader to shore up potential support for a possible minority Tory government if Cameron falls just short of an overall majority to 6 May. Those 18 Northern Ireland seats (effectively only 13 if permanent abstainers Sinn Féin hold on to all their 2005 seats this week) could count for a lot if the Westminster arithmetic gets tight when the votes are counted. Seen this way, Cameron flew to Belfast in a last ditch effort to take his party over the finishing line in a tight race by appealing to Ulster voters as potential allies

Actually, it's something completely different. There's nothing much that Cameron can do to affect the essentially pre-ordained and pretty traditional outcome in Northern Ireland. When the votes are counted, the 10 current unionist seats (or whatever particular stripe) will all be potential Tory supporting MPs in the new parliament while the nationalist MPs from the SDLP have already said they will be supporting Labour while Sinn Féin stay at home while pocketing their Westminster expenses. Even if one or two seats change hands in Northern Ireland this week, which seems likely, the essentials of the outcome there are pretty much set in stone by community division. A quick swing through Belfast by Cameron is not going to change that equation significantly (though it might just help Reg Empey win a seat for the UUP and thus perhaps fulfil Cameron's pledge that Ulster MPs may serve as ministers in a Conservative government).

More realistically, Cameron's trip to Belfast is purely symbolic but in a larger Union frame. His last 48 hour itinerary is taking him from Northern Ireland to Scotland (yesterday evening) and on to Wales today before he ends up in England – and ultimately in his comfortable south midlands Witney constituency. It's designed, in other words, to show the Conservatives as a truly national UK-wide party – not just the English party – on the eve of the party's possible return to government. Last time, in 2005, the Tories took a total of 198 seats, of which a massive 194 were from England, leaving just three in Wales along with the solitary single Scottish Tory MP David Mundell. The polls in Scotland don't currently show much likelihood of any improvement this time. Wales could be another matter altogether, with anything up to 10 Tory gains if things go really well (that's probably optimistic if the Lib Dem campaign surge holds up). Even if Cameron's Ulster Unionist allies pick up a seat or even two, the reality is that any Conservative government this time next week will be overwhelmingly an English based government once more.

This presents a problem for Cameron and an opportunity for his rivals, especially (as Alex Salmond has never tried to conceal) the Scottish Nationalists. Salmond is gagging for the chance to revive the SNP's momentum – which may slow on Thursday – by running as the anti-London, anti-England, anti-Tory, anti-Cameron party in next year's Scottish parliament elections. Cameron is not likely to go out of his way to oblige – he's not so stupid. But the sheer weight of English seats in any Tory majority would be one of the large givens of the new parliament. Cameron loses no opportunity to proclaim himself a traditional unionist Tory – and it is exactly what he is. His problem, though, is that his English party is far less unionist than it once was, and in some respects is teetering on the edge of an explicitly anti-unionist English nationalism.

Yes it's embarrassing for the Conservatives that they are making such modest progress outside England. But look at the other trends. Northern Ireland is not going to lurch into separatism any time soon. Wales is electorally much more like England than Scotland. And in Scotland the chances are that a period of Tory rule may actually help Labour in Scotland rather than the SNP. Cameron would be able to live with all that. The end of the union could be farther off than nationalists north and south of the Tweed would wish.

• More election comment from Cif at the polls


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May 04 2010

Gordon Brown urges voters to 'come home to Labour' after late poll boost

Buoyed by a YouGov survey giving Labour the lead in terms of seats, prime minister gives a stirring performance in Manchester

The momentum behind a last-minute resurrection of Gordon Brown's election campaign grew last night after he delivered a powerful testimony to his party's achievements and appealed to undecided voters to consider their record and "come home to Labour".

Buoyed by a strengthening in Labour's polling position – YouGov today puts the party back in the lead in terms of the number of seats – Brown told a rally of 500 party faithful in Manchester that they had a record to be proud of and to fight for.

In a passionate and detailed speech, he read out a 55-point list of Labour's achievements, ranging from the minimum wage to free museum entry, to rapturous applause.

Brown, who was flanked by 10 cabinet ministers, warned that a Tory government would undo that progress, and launched a powerful critique of David Cameron's judgment, saying the Tory leader would have left families to "sink or swim" in the recession, and businesses to go to the wall, and have seen unemployment as a "price worth paying".

The prime minister depicted the Tory leadership as living in "gated communities with 24-hour security" and therefore careless about cutting policing, saying that they can afford private healthcare and school tuition, unlike ordinary people who rely on public services.

"I want to say to those who have yet to decide – listen to what we have to say. When the last 48 hours of this campaign has passed, in that one minute in the polling booth, vote for the kind of country you believe in. And come home to Labour."

Lord Mandelson, who described the speech as "another bravura performance", highlighted today's YouGov/Sun poll which put the Tories unchanged on 35%. Labour was up two points on 30% while the Liberal Democrats were down four points on 24%.

This could give Labour 288 seats, the Tories would have 261 and the Lib Dems would have 72.

"We have a day to go," Mandelson said. "This poll shows we are still in it. Far from David Cameron waltzing into No 10, the public are not dancing to his tune. They are looking very carefully at the choice between Labour and the Conservatives."

The speech and the polls cheered Labour after a tricky start to the day when a candidate described Brown as "the worst prime minister we have had in this country". Manish Sood, who is standing as a Labour candidate in North West Norfolk, said Brown was a "disgrace".

The prime minister was speaking as Cameron embarked on a round-the-clock tour of Britain to cement his support in the final hours of the election campaign.

Cameron echoed the famous declaration by the senior George Bush, in an attempt to reassure pensioners that their benefits would be safe with the Tories. "All these things are safe," he said. "You can read my lips: that is a promise from my heart."

Bush famously reneged on his "read my lips" pledge not to introduce taxes.

On a visit to Scotland Cameron launched a vigorous attack on the prospects of a hung parliament run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Speaking to Tory activists in East Renfrewshire, he mocked Nick Clegg for indicating that he would not support Brown but might be prepared to prop up a Labour government. "If you vote Liberal who knows what you're going to get? You might get a prime minister who wasn't even in those television debates; if that is democracy, if that's people power, I'm a banana."

In a ground-breaking election visit to Northern Ireland, where his alliance with the Ulster Unionist party has broken a decades-long convention of bipartisan politics by British party leaders, Cameron sought to portray himself as a unifying figure.

Speaking in a hotel where one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles took place, he insisted the Tory-UUP alliance had created "a new, dynamic force" for Northern Ireland.

But Cameron suffered a blow when Kenneth Clarke, the shadow business secretary, dismissed the idea of brokering deals with Northern Ireland politicians. Warning of the dangers of a hung parliament, Clarke told politics.co.uk: "In the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it's not the way to run a modern sophisticated society."

His remarks will have applied to the idea of having to rely on the support of the larger Democratic Unionist Party. The Tory leadership is hoping that the DUP will support Cameron if he is forced to try and lead a minority government.

But Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, last night contrasted his independence from Cameron with the UUP's formal link with the Tories.

The new alliance appears to be struggling, according to Belfast Telegraph/Inform Communications poll. This showed that the UUP's share of the vote is 13%, down on the 17.7% it won in 2005. The Democratic Unionists are on 26%.

Cameron arrived at Belfast City airport in a turbo-prop plane shortly before 2pm yesterday just as the "no-fly ban" had been lifted by airport authorities on both sides of the Irish border. The ban had been caused by the return of volcanic ash clouds above the island.


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April 27 2010

The art of the political poster

Unimpressed by the few political posters around, we asked leading British artists to inspire us and to come up with their own creations. Jonathan Jones introduces their work

View a gallery of the artists' posters

I feel a warm, or perhaps it's a hellish-hot, nostalgia looking at the election posters designed by artists for G2. They all seem steeped in memories of Labour publicity in the 1970s and 80s, in its age of defeat. These are anti-posters, which aspire to be honest rather than glib. The tradition of the poster as contemporary art is, in fact, not Labour but Tory: it was the Saatchi & Saatchi poster "Labour isn't working" that created the whole idea of stylish, eye-catching campaigning.

There is, of course, a far older tradition of beautiful and inspiring political poster art; but there is no point here in raking over the history of the Soviet avant-garde, or of Aleksander Rodchenko's photomontages. This is a British election and these are British artists, who have rejected the Saatchi tendency towards killer publicity in favour of recapturing the intense emotions of us-and-them, of anger and loyalty, that Labour adverts inspired 25 years ago.

Back then, Labour was a tribe, and nothing captures the tribal feelings it must now fall back on better than David Shrigley's brilliant drawing of Gordon Brown: not so much a caricature as a delve into the primitive roots of political loyalty. As for the alternative, Jeremy Deller has portrayed a Conservative vote with the caustic accuracy that does what a campaigning poster should – it campaigns. But are there really no Tory artists? Tracey Emin, who has made positive noises about Cameron and shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey, has not yet launched a Tory manifesto policy, but you'd think she could at least do a slogan for them: "Labour isn't fucking working", perhaps. Nor is there a strong Liberal sentiment –unless Goshka Macuga is sending us a subliminal Clegg message.

These posters are the only things I have seen in the course of this entire election that capture the way I feel. Most of the artists are of my generation, in their 40s, and remember the reality of Tory rule. Shrigley speaks viscerally for the tribe: re-elect our leader Gordon Brown.

Martin Parr

I took this photograph at the St Pauls carnival in Bristol last summer, which is like a mini-version of the Notting Hill carnival. In a picture as busy as this, there will often be somebody or something that doesn't quite work: I like the fact that all the people are there and it works. The crowd is predominantly African-Caribbean, with a few white English people watching with their cameras, as I was, so it's almost like a self-portrait without me in it.

I chose "Vote for Britain" rather than any particular party because that's the whole point. This is neutral and ambiguous and loaded. What does it mean to me? Well, I quite like Britain, of course, and one of the reasons I like taking photographs in Britain is that it challenges my own feelings about it: it's not all good and not all bad; there are things I like and things I don't. I'm soft left and I live in a marginal seat, Bristol West. I vote tactically, so I'll probably vote Lib Dem.

Mark Wallinger

We have been through quite a few campaigns without memorable slogans now. Everyone harks back to the Saatchis' "Labour isn't working", but that was 1978. As a lifelong Labour person, through all the party's vicissitudes and disappointments, I was intrigued by the possibility of a campaign that revealed some of the bigger fault lines between the parties, beyond the not-very-galvanising debate over national insurance and VAT. I came up with two other slogans apart from this: "What school did you go to?" and "Who can afford to go private?"

I admit this isn't the most sophisticated, but it does go to the heart of the credibility of the man. Cameron reminds me of a bar of soap. He has been leader for a long time now and I have no idea what he stands for. I hope that the idea of the emperor's new clothes and all his empty rhetoric is implicit. The colours are those of the two main parties, and the union flag; I wanted it to be punchy.

I hope people look at this and see that there are real choices. I'm sick of people saying, "Oh, they're all the same." They're not, and it's up to us to see the differences. Labour is the party for equality and for reform in the Lords. Like most people I feel a little jaded after the banking crisis, but I will vote Labour and hope for the best.

They're a po-faced lot, though, aren't they? Let's hope someone in the campaign discovers a bit of wit: a good joke does hit home. Roy Hattersley was a wit, Robin Cook, Tony Benn – the people on the old left who can see the bigger picture. Though I did like Ken Clarke's description of the Hoon/Hewitt attempted leadership coup earlier this year: hiding behind the dagger and stabbing with the cloak. That was very good.

David Shrigley

When I'm drawing people, I tend to do it really quickly – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Nick Clegg is not easy to draw because you'd be hard pushed to think of anything physically defining about him. The only one I seem to be able to draw is David Cameron: I trace his face, then I make his features smaller in Photoshop and that seems to work. I drew Gordon Brown and it started to look like him the more I looked at it.

Historically I have voted Labour, but not since the Iraq war – I couldn't countenance that. I would never vote Conservative. This poster doesn't express my strong personal support, although of the three of them, I would like Brown to win. Originally the background was yellow, because I like black on yellow, but then I realised yellow was the Lib Dem colour. So I've gone for a rosy red, a kind of New New Labour red. The words say "re-elect", although he wasn't elected as leader, as such. I like the ambiguity.

Bob and Roberta Smith

I don't want to tell people how to vote. The important thing is just to get involved in the whole jamboree – by voting, yes, but also by finding satirical messages to deface posters with, like the person who turned David Cameron into Elvis. If my own poster goes viral, so much the better. It's made up of four timber panels. On the upper panels are pictures of some of my Labour heroes: Clement Attlee, Tony Benn, Glenda Jackson, Bernie Grant – people with extraordinary vision. I put them there to remind me why I'm a Labour supporter. I stopped voting Labour after the Iraq war, and started voting Green. But I'm going to vote Labour in this election. I'm particularly impressed with Ed Miliband's stand on green issues: he could turn out to be in the same category as these heroes. Cameron just reminds me of a disappointed school master, lecturing his students about their stupid antics.

Gerald Scarfe

They're both crap, I suppose that's what I'm saying. If you go to the extreme and call them shits, that's probably not so nice. But I'm saying, really, voters have a crap choice. You would assume Cameron would be ahead, because he is new, and a change, and hasn't made all the mistakes Brown has, but he isn't and the election is very close. The caricature must come from the character of the person. I wasn't a supporter of Margaret Thatcher but she was good material, because she had such a strong personality. I could portray her as a knife or an axe; I couldn't do that with John Major or Iain Duncan Smith. I used to find drawing Brown quite dull because he's a dour personality – a big blob with ears. I draw Cameron in his Bullingdon outfit, because he's so desperate not to appear to be a toff. How daft does he think we are? My position as a cartoonist/journalist for all these years has been to try to remain neutral and to attack all sides, because they are all capable of fallibility. I know this is a bit of a cop out but here I'm saying, I don't know who to vote for. Like I say, it's a crap choice.

Richard Wentworth

There are people who are obsessive about being born under a certain star sign, and those who believe you can only be born when you're born: that that was your time, that only those people could be your parents. I didn't want to leave people with the cheesiness of a bad joke about "labour", but I did want to remind people that they are born into a political space. I worked with some lovely designers who made this look as if it has been around for ever. The font is reminiscent of those Keep Calm and Carry On posters – it's of that period. The red wasn't a conscious decision in terms of "Labour red", just a happy accident; red goes in the eye quickly. I would love to see it reproduced very big. If people look at it and go "What does that mean?", that's good.

Jeremy Deller

This poster is anti-Conservative rather than pro-Labour. Rupert Murdoch is the most powerful lobbyist there is in this country, so I'm drawing attention to the fact that a vote for the Tories is a vote for him. If I'd made a poster for the last election, it would have looked almost the same, except it would have said "Vote Labour" next to a picture of George Bush – Bush was so close to Blair. This time around, it's Murdoch who counts for the Tories, even more than David Cameron or any other Tory politician. It's a small poster, so it could be used as a bumper sticker on a car. But I'd love to see it blown up on a massive billboard. The posters and adverts Labour are using for this election are terrible; it's as if they haven't put any thought into them at all, just sent them to the newspapers to grab that day's headlines.

Yinka Shonibare

This slogan doesn't refer to politicians: I want people to vote for me. My party is the Me party. It's not registered yet, though. I'm just celebrating the fact that, in this democratic system, anyone can stand. I like me, you see, so I assume everyone else will. People think politicians like to be the centre of attention, but artists are worse. So I'm poking fun at artists, too. They are not rosettes – they are flowers made from African textiles, in the colours of the three main parties. Flowers are attractive, whereas political posters are rarely well done. And even when they are, they're still knocking or negative. I think politicians are only interested in power and lining their own pockets. But I have always voted; who for is my own business. When I was a child in Nigeria, a military regime was in charge. There were soldiers everywhere and there was no question of voting. It started to feel normal. That's why I value the vote.

Goshka Macuga

I made this with the designer Fraser Muggeridge. It's double-sided: the "Left Right Forward" panel is the front, and the blue side is the reverse, printed on the kind of thin, textured underlay that is used underneath billboard posters to make them look opaque. I wanted to think about a political poster as a physical object, rather than just an image.

The front reflects the confused picture we have of UK politics right now. I have mixed feelings about Labour, especially regarding the war in Iraq, and the fact that what people really felt about it wasn't taken into consideration. But I'm also concerned about what a Conservative government would mean for arts funding. It seems like the two parties have merged into one: whether you vote for the left or the right adds up to much the same thing.

But without voting, you have no control. So the quote on the back of the poster is to remind us about the roots of democracy. It's from a speech Pericles made to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian wars. He's speaking about the impossibility of doing justice to the brave men who have lost their lives in the war – something that resonates with the war in Iraq. But he's also reminding us of the respect given in Athens to those involved in politics, something that today we have all but lost.

Maggi Hambling

Every morning I paint the sea, and I am always reminded of how remarkably small I am. It is a very humbling experience, and I think a bit of humility wouldn't go amiss with our politicians. So I've chosen the sea to remind politicans about the bigger picture: nature, and the way it is taking its revenge – through climate change, through volcanic eruptions, through coastal erosion. They could all do with thinking more about that, and less about political bitching and wrangling. All artists are anarchists at heart – at least, they are if they're any good. So I've chosen red – the colour of anarchy, along with black – for the quotation, which curves and curls across the sea picture like a wave. It's from Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare's most political plays, and seems particularly appropriate at this moment. It reminds us that everything is about timing: the Falklands war was crucial to Mrs Thatcher's success, and now the changes in nature and climate are defining the issues for this election.

I vote in London, where my MP is Labour's wonderful Kate Hoey. She is pro-hunting, as am I, so she'll be getting my vote.

Maggi Hambling: New Sea Sculpture, Paintings and Etchings is at Marlborough Fine Art, London W1, from 5 May to 5 June.

Liam Gillick

As with all my art, I went back to the source: in this case, the Labour party's own website. "The democratic socialist party" is the phrase it still uses to describe itself, though you'd be hard pushed to recognise that in the way the party talks about itself today.

I find it perverse that Labour is shying away from its own legacy. There are lots of aspects of its current policies – the new tax rate, the investment in public spending – that fit with these core values. I hope my poster reminds politicians and voters alike of that.

With its strong Helvetica font, the poster is nostalgic: it reminds me of growing up in the 1970s, when Labour was in crisis, and you could recognise every Labour family in the street from their bold posters: they really stood out. Campaign posters have become nasty and cynical, taking their cue from the Saatchis' for the Tories, which were more about people than policies. Ironic, postmodern posters are not what we need: the most important thing is to remind voters what the party stands for, and to encourage them to vote.

Alison Jackson

I've been shooting a whole series of photographs, and working on some web video clips, during this election. Nick Clegg wasn't hard to cast: he's quite a normal-looking guy and there are quite a few people who can look like him. But a good Gordon Brown has been impossible to find: I held casting sessions all over England and Scotland, scouring areas where there might be someone who looked like him. He's a big man, so I focused on places where people eat a lot, in Scotland particularly, but no one wanted to put themselves forward. I put five casting directors on it, and they were practically in tears: they had never experienced anything like it. I've found one, and he's reasonably good in profile, but there's only one side that works. Cameron I'm still working on: in his case, there are lots who will put themselves forward, but I'm still looking for the perfect one.

During the first TV debate it was striking how much Brown was trying to align himself with Clegg. I wondered what might be happening behind the scenes, and came up with these scenarios: Clegg and Brown celebrating, Brown letting Clegg try out the prime minister's chair. And I'm very interested in Mandelson and his role: what a comeback, having parted ways with Brown – now he's here to help. You just never know what people are planning.

The works by Bob and Roberta Smith, Antony Gormley, Jeremy Deller, Mark Wallinger, Liam Gillick and Richard Wentworth form part of the Make a Mark project in aid of the Labour Party. For more details and to download your own copies visit makeamark.org.uk


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April 12 2010

A tale of two covers

Soviet chic and austere hymn book – the looks Labour and Conservatives have picked for their manifestos

The Tories and Labour are both clearly on a mission. Their rival manifestoes look uncomfortably, or comically, all too much like religious documents for the comfort of Britain's largely agnostic electorate.

The Tories' starchy blue "Invitation to Join the Government of Britain" reminds me of a book of trusty, well-established hymns. One can easily imagine I Vow to Thee my Country alongside Blake's Jerusalem, which both parties have adopted for their own faux-mystical ends even though the dissident poet would have hated this double misunderstanding of his plea for a world free for untrammelled spirits.

And, yet, if the Tory manifesto is more or less par for the course, although a bit too leftish in its message for the old party faithful (who wants riff-raff joining in the governance of these "sceptr'd isles"?), the Labour manifesto is decidedly, even feverishly and messianically so. From one perspective, this cover calls to mind illustrations found in The Watchtower, the Jehovah Witness house journal, in which perfect 1950s-style families picnic in Elysium fields surrounded by lions and lambs happily lying down with one another.

It's hard, though, not to get the feeling that both parties are sending themselves up. Labour's image of a heroic Soviet-style family, circa 1950, seems to be an in-house joke by someone who enjoys Private Eye's lampoon of Gordon Brown as the Supreme Leader of a half-cock, Soviet-style state. The cover of the Labour manifesto looks for all the world like a kind of run-of-the-socialist-mill poster, promising loyal workers, fecund farms, all-year sunshine and cities that appear like New Jerusalems over far hills crowned with a nationalised halo.

Manifestos tend to be deeply boring, if unintentionally comic, documents, especially this year when the parties have converged more than they are willing to admit to the electorate. The plain blue wrapper of the Tory manifesto might look very different at first glance from its colourful Soviet-chic Labour counterpart, yet at heart these are two parish magazines, or songs of praise, trying – a little too hard – to persuade us of the righteousness of two unholy political parties. In brief, both are very funny indeed, and even funnier taken as a pair.


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February 22 2010

'It is going to be tough'

Today the Tories launch their arts manifesto. Is it good news? Will its funding strategies work? Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt defends it to Charlotte Higgins

Blog: Are the Tories nice or nasty for the arts? Have your say

The other day, I was chatting to the director of a major national arts ­organisation. "What do you think of Jeremy Hunt?" this person asked. "Because I think he's wonderful. Absolutely brilliant." It was like slipping into a parallel universe: Hunt is the shadow culture secretary, a Tory, for goodness sake. And it is one of Britain's articles of faith that artists, a handful of eccentrics ­notwithstanding, are on the left. So what is going on?

For the past two and a half years, Hunt, aged 43, has been diligently charming the British arts world with all the polite conscientiousness one would expect from a former head boy of Charterhouse with a first from Oxford (where he was president of its Conservative association). ­Considerably aided by culture secretary Ben ­Bradshaw's underwhelming performance, Hunt has been surprisingly successful. ­Despite his privileged background – his father was a naval officer and he grew up in Godalming, part of what is now his Surrey constituency – he lacks the Bullingdon club mien of some of his Tory colleagues. One of his tricks is to park himself at the front of a stage and address his audiences without notes. Theatre directors admit he is quite the performer.

This charm offensive reaches its climax today – with the publication of the Conservatives' arts manifesto. It has been, he tells me when we meet in a Portcullis House conference room, all about challenging the ­"assumption that Labour's good for the arts, and the Conservatives are good for ­business". A recent interview he gave to an ­in-house Conservative website put it more bluntly: "Part of my job is [...] to detoxify the Conservative brand." So that's what it's all about: the arts ­provide a forum in which to broadcast the idea that the Tories are no longer the nasty party.

So what of the contents of the Tory arts manifesto? In reality, the stated arts policies of all three major ­parties are strikingly close. It was former ­culture secretary James Purnell who commissioned, in 2007, the McMaster report, the most important Labour statement on culture in recent years. That shifted Labour policy away from valuing the arts in terms of how they might help ­fulfil social policy goals; instead, the arts were to be celebrated for their intrinsic qualities, and encouraged to strive for "excellence". That ­approach has been adopted by the Tories. ­"Excellence in everything the arts does" is one of the Tories' stated (if ­syntactically dubious) "core principles".

Hunt affirms his commitment to the principle, if not the level, of ­public ­funding. "People have had certain ­assumptions in the past about ­Conservative governments, partly because of some of the things that happened in the 1980s, and partly because of the tone of some of the debate in the 1980s that appeared to say public spending on the arts was something you might want to progressively ­reduce. That isn't where the modern Conservative party stands."

He adds: "I think it's disingenuous of Ben Bradshaw to say that arts funding is safer under Labour; the honest ­position to take is to say that it is ­going to be tough in every department." His promise is that the arts "won't be ­singled out", but he declines to go further. "We have no way of knowing what the state of the nation's books might be, and to guess a percentage cut would be ­dishonest." But, surprisingly, he does say: "I am ­confident that over the next parliament, we can increase the amount of money going into the arts."

There are two main strands to this claim. First, he says, the ­Conservatives will reform the Lottery so as to ­benefit its original good causes. With ­efficiencies and tax rejigs, he thinks it should yield another £40m per year for the arts – and, after the Olympics, "much bigger increases than that". This won't, however, be instead of regular funding: "The whole point of Lottery funding is additionality."

Second, Hunt has big plans for ­philanthropy. Organisations that take steps to build up an endowment (a large sum of money from which they can draw down interest as income) will be rewarded with longer-term funding agreements than the current three-year deals. As part of a bundle of reforms aimed to help ­museums, the ­acceptance-in-lieu scheme (which allows individuals to offer works of art instead of paying inheritance tax) would be extended. Gift aid, which gives tax relief on charitable ­donations, would be simplified. More than this, Hunt aims to engender a cultural shift. "We want to persuade people that ­giving is not just a duty, but one of life's pleasures. It chimes with David ­Cameron's ideas on social ­responsibility: if you have been successful, you should give something back."

There are problems here, not least in that it takes more than a government of a particular colour to change a nation's giving habits. In the US, endowments, an important income source for the arts, are in big trouble: failing to yield income in the current climate, they have left many organisations in crisis. "I so reject that argument," counters Hunt. ­"Saying that endowments don't work in the worst recession since 1931 is not a ­rep­resentation of what endowments can do for the arts over the next 30 years."

He adds. "I am under no illusion that this is a 20-year project. There will be no political dividends from this – at least until I am a grandpa." I ask him to sketch out what part he sees endowments playing in an ­organisation's finances. Say the National ­Theatre's income is £20m, he says, derived equally from the government, ticket sales and private donations: "Wouldn't it be great if they could get an extra £5m from endowments, so that the total income is £25m?"

Also problematic is the fact that certain arts organisations attract philanthropy more than others. In the US, high-profile outfits like the Metropolitan Opera act as magnets to the wealthy. A seat on the board of a glamorous museum or opera house is much more ­attractive to the rich than ­involvement in less glitzy establishments. My suspicion is that Tory policy favours – consciously or not – "posh arts". Tory temperament is inclined less towards, say, the avant-garde performance ­artist in a fringe venue. "That's exactly why philanthropy should never replace grant-in-aid," ­argues Hunt. "But if the Met can tap into all that wealth, then isn't it better that it should?"

In line with Tory rhetoric on other departments, Hunt is keen to see Arts Council England (ACE) and the ­Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) strip administrative costs "to the bone". He reckons ACE is "top-heavy" or "admin-heavy". He also believes that the DCMS ought to be in the arts policy "driving seat". "I want to see people with ability ­working for the DCMS and not ­thinking that the only place to go is ACE." Some ­Conservatives have, in private, ­expressed reservations about ACE chair Liz Forgan (who also chairs the Scott Trust, which owns this paper), because of her perceived ties to ­Labour. Hunt answers carefully: "We don't have an agenda to replace every boss of every quango who might be perceived to have Labour ­leanings. We will work happily with ­anyone willing to work with us."

It is traditional to enquire of MPs with culture jobs what film they last saw. In Hunt's case, there's no need: he recently wrote an admiring piece on his blog about An Education, which he and his wife Lucia, who is expecting their first child, went to see on Valentine's night. He has also tried his hand at art ­criticism, on the Van Gogh show at the Royal Academy in London.

What has he seen and hated? "Part of an otherwise excellent performance by Candoco dance company in which they mutated the national anthem into Hitler salutes. I thought it was tasteless and unnecessary." He is referring to the piece Still, by the respected choreo­grapher Nigel Charnock, a founding ­member of dance company DV8.

As for his theatre likes, he ­namechecks Gethsemane, David Hare's ­critique of New Labour; the National's hit War Horse; Jez ­Butterworth's ­Parlour Song (he says Parlour Games, but I know what he means) and ­Jerusalem. He enjoyed what he calls Doris ­Salcedo's "crack" (her ­Turbine Hall installation in Tate Modern), but a Dalí exhibition there proved "more ­challenging and I'm still not quite there with some modern abstract art". As for classical music, he says: "I am still early Schoenberg rather than late."

He says he likes poetry: "Osip ­Mendelstam and ... [he clicks his ­fingers] who's that woman Isaiah Berlin fell in love with?" At the end of the interview, he remembers: Anna Akhmatova. He liked Chaucer at school. "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote," he quotes, and I follow: "The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote." It's not every day you recite Middle English with a member of the shadow cabinet.

A game of pool with Tricky

At the end of the interview, Hunt brings me to his rather spartan office, and I search for more clues. There's a CD of bass-baritone Gerald Finley on the desk, a print of geishas by Koryusai (Hunt lived in Japan after university), and an 1808 ­Rowlandson and Pugin print of the House of ­Commons. "Only Tories have prints like that," he says of the latter.

Tony Blair once promised to write the arts into Labour's "core script". How important are the arts – surely a ­marginal electoral issue – to the Tories? And are there not, for every ­modernising Cameron, legions of rightwingers who would leave the arts to the vagaries of the market? "They are fundamentally important," says Hunt. "George Osborne gave a speech [last December] at the Tate about the importance of art for art's sake. We haven't heard Alistair Darling give such a speech. David Cameron has reiterated his commitment to the arts, and indeed Samantha Cameron's ­commitment, which shouldn't be underestimated as an influence on David." Samantha Cameron, a scion of the blue-blooded landed gentry, studied art at Camberwell and Bristol Polytechnic, where she used to play pool with Tricky (which somehow seems a very ­modern Tory combination of grandeur and bohemianism).

As we finish talking, I ask Hunt if he thinks his efforts to win round the arts world have succeeded. Trust in ­politicians is so low at the moment, he says, that it will all boil down to what we actually do. It will indeed. At the moment, the burning question is: "Is this guy for real?"

What the other parties offer

Labour

Since 2007, the government has had four culture secretaries: Tessa Jowell, James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Ben Bradshaw. Though no pre-election ­document on arts policy has been published, the most wide-ranging statement on Labour arts policy came when Purnell accepted the recommendations of the 2007 McMaster report. This shifted the focus away from "the achievement of simplistic targets" (on, say, social or ethnic makeup of audiences) towards "a focus on the quality of artistic ­experience". The watchword became "excellence".

In 2008, Burnham pledged schoolchildren five hours of culture a week, and announced a million free theatre ­tickets for under-26s by 2011; ­according to Arts Council England figures, 121,345 have been taken up. In 2009, he ­announced a new scheme for British cities to be dubbed capital of ­culture for a year. Bradshaw recently argued that arts funding will be safer under Labour than the Tories.

Liberal Democrats

This month, the Lib Dems set out their thinking in a document called The Power of Creativity. Unlike the other parties, they pledge to retain current levels of funding. They aim to strengthen the arts' role as a tool of "soft diplomacy" (with performances for visiting foreign ­dignitaries) and increase culture's ­visibility at No 10. National arts organisations, they say, must get out of ­London more (this was also a theme of Burnham's tenure at DCMS). Like the Tories, they want gift aid reformed and acceptance-in-lieu to be extended to lifetime ­giving. Local ­government is to be helped to use culture as a regenerative force.

Mark Lawson on how the last Tory government dealt with the arts

Thatcherites objected to the arts from various angles: political, class, moral and financial. These progressively overlapped. The critique was that money from taxpayers (through arts council grants and the BBC licence fee) was used to deliver material that was either filthy or leftwing or both. Why, asked the Tories, should we fund stuff that offends our values and attacks our principles?

So the strategy was to reduce the flow of state cash. Thatcher would make pointed visits to Glyndebourne, which funded its operas privately, while grants to the big institutions were mostly frozen or filleted.

The rejection of the "arm's-length principle" in which the state pays the bills but doesn't ­question the content, resulted in a series of attacks, either directly or through proxies such as Mary Whitehouse: Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain at the National was attacked and there were challenges to some current ­affairs shows, such as ITV's Death on the Rock, which criticised the ­government over the shooting of IRA suspects in Gibraltar.

This punitive attitude (Thames TV lost its franchise largely because of that film) was tempered by the Major administration. But some aspects of Thatcherite policy – encouraging public companies to seek sponsorship and private cash, for example – remain prevalent 30 years later, regardless of the party in charge.


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January 12 2010

English Heritage visitor diversity targets 'unrealistic', say MPs

Committee criticises the Department for Culture, Media and Sport strategy, saying there is no plan for how it can be achieved

Targets to increase the number of black, disabled and economically disadvantaged people who visit England's historical attractions are today branded "pointless" by MPs. The public accounts committee said that three key 2008 targets – of which all but one were missed – were unrealistic and set without any plan for how they would be achieved.

The committee's report criticises the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's strategy, arguing that 70% of people visit historical sites and citing polls suggesting that the other 30% choose not to.

English Heritage, the main agency responsible for delivering the targets to increase the proportion of visitors who are from ethnic minorities, poorer homes or have a disability, failed to measure whether its efforts were even affecting the rates of visitors, it says.

The report also raises concerns about a 20% decline in the number of school children visiting English Heritage sites – such as Stonehenge and Hadrian's Wall – in the past five years.

Cuts to English Heritage's £125m annual budget have forced the agency to focus more on its money-making ventures than its public role, it claims. Charges for entry to key historical buildings, such as the cathedrals English Heritage is responsible for, need to be revisited to ensure they are not a bar to visitors.

The Tory MP Edward Leigh, chairman of the committee, said: "It is hard to see what useful purpose was achieved by setting targets to increase visits from this or that under-represented group.

"There was certainly no point in the department's setting targets to widen participation when it did not know how achievable they were, had little understanding of the different factors affecting participation and had no way of measuring the impact of its own actions or those of English Heritage."

The DCMS said: "We welcome the committee's recognition of the continuing high level of heritage participation in this country. The department believes that value for money is really important when investment decisions are taken. That is why realistic targets continue to be set for our objective to get more people participating across culture and sport.

"It is also why, in December 2007, ministers wrote to set out clear priorities for English Heritage to deliver with the money it was getting in the 2007 spending review. A detailed formal response will be made in due course."


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