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May 05 2010

General election stylewatch: Samantha Cameron's maxi-dress

Conservative leader's wife finds a solution for cold days that doesn't smack of catalogue chic

After her disastrous foray into middle-class catalogue chic earlier in the week, Samantha Cameron was back on terms today with a maxi-dress.

Presumably the Tory high command thought that the Toast look appealed purely to the safe-seat electorate and that a more fashiony look would poll better with the undecided-but-toying-with-the-Lib-Dems Grazia-reading voter. Or not.

Maxi-lengths are a good solution for days when it's too cold for bare legs, you don't want to wear opaques and maternity trousers just don't cut it. The look is well styled with the white blazer, hooped earrings and giant scarf lending an unexpected touch of the Olsen sisters. Fingers crossed that was intentional.

Trainers have already been granted political style status by Michelle Obama, although she wore designer ones by high-end label Lanvin and was criticised for it.

Cameron chose to play it safe in everywoman Converse. But then she could probably do without aching feet after the night shift.


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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 20 2010

Oh, come off it ...

David Cameron loves Take That, Gordon Brown's addicted to Glee, Nick Clegg's an Othello nut . . . as politicians vie for cultural kudos, Mark Lawson asks: who are they trying to kid?

Gordon Brown's favourite Shakespeare play is Hamlet, while Nick Clegg's is Othello. For the prime minister, the greatest living British painter is David Hockney, but the Liberal Democrat leader prefers Lucian Freud. David Cameron, meanwhile, is a fan of the music of Keane – but the band can't stand him.

These cultural revelations have come from the 2010 election campaign. The fact that we know so much about the tastes of the potential premiers reveals the extent to which references to entertainment have become part of the business of campaigning. What a politician likes to do for fun (or judges it politic to pretend he does) is seen as a clue to their personality, or even their politics.

There is a certain logic to this phenomenon. Shown into the house of a stranger, we make assumptions about them on the basis of the paintings and books on display. Similarly, were we to find an iPod in the street, we would use the tracks stored to make Sherlockian deductions about the age and background of its owner.

The view that everything from ticket stubs to record store receipts can be a form of confession has inspired an entertaining series of interviews in the Radio Times, in which party leaders are asked to choose from certain lists: "David Hockney, Tracy Emin, Banksy, Lucian Freud?" and "Coronation Street, EastEnders, The Archers, The Bill?"

Such exercises are an echo of the popular dinner-party "Blur or Oasis?" question of the 1990s, when preference for Damon Albarn was seen to identify a middle-class conformist, while admiration for the Gallagher brothers signalled solidarity with working-class radicalism. In school playgrounds in the 1970s, there was a similar class division between viewers of the BBC's Blue Peter and its ITV rival Magpie.

But problems arise when such an analysis is applied to politics, chiefly because it's unusual (except at certain stages of dating) for normal people to pose as fans of things they don't actually like. We suspect, however, that politicians do this all time, in their desperation to suggest that they are normal, or to redress a prejudice about them. We can be fairly certain that, when Cameron answers the Radio Times questionnaire about down-time next week, he won't be confessing to a fondness for Brideshead Revisited, Wagner and Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Equally, when Brown tells the magazine that his favourite TV show is Glee and that 6 Music is his favourite radio station, our reaction is not, "How interesting" but "For God's sake, drop the demographic massage and tell us what you really like". In the same survey, Clegg's refusal to accept any of the alternatives – given the choice of Avatar, An Education, In the Loop and The Hurt Locker, he opts out and goes for The Class instead – could suggest an independent mind; but it also fits suspiciously with his party's electoral pitch of looking beyond the conventional possibilities.

In the same way that it has become standard for journalists to ask politicians the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread, because ignorance of such daily stuff can reveal someone with a large cushion of wealth or staff, knowledge of popular TV shows is considered a badge of accessibility. This was why Brown began his contribution to last Thursday's TV debate with a reference to the fact that this wasn't "The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent".

But TV name-dropping can be treacherous. The first President Bush notoriously confirmed his stereotype as a grumpy grandpa figure by pledging to make US families "more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons". This not only dated the politician (a 1970s reference rather than a 1990s one), but revealed that he was televisually illiterate: any regular viewer knew that, though very different in tone and structure to The Waltons, The Simpsons is, in moral terms, just as much a portrait of a loving and secure family. Any modern candidate would be advised to plump for Bart over John-Boy.

'Fire up the Quattro'

Despite their greater savviness in cultural matters, the main parties still got themselves in a mess over Ashes to Ashes at the start of this campaign. The Labour poster making a connection between Cameron and DCI Gene Hunt ("Don't let him take Britain back to the 80s") was always a risk because the Hunt character, though an antihero, is glamorous and attractive. For the Tories to show that they welcomed the identification – issuing their own posters glorying in the portrayal, including the slogan "Fire up the Quattro, it's time for change" – was also unwise, given that Hunt is a racist, sexist Thatcherite: exactly the type of Tory from whom Cameron has spent years trying to distance the party.

There was a further twist in that Ashley Pharoah, co-creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, expressed surprise that his character could be used without permission. The BBC later made the same legal point to both parties, with the result that more TV-stealing campaigns are unlikely.

But the use of elements of entertainment without permission is a common feature of elections, especially in the choice of theme tunes. In 1998, the singer Bobby McFerrin reacted angrily to the Republican party adopting his song Don't Worry, Be Happy and forced its withdrawal. Such spats, though, will continue because campaign managers are less concerned with the possible political affiliations of a singer than with the symbolism of the lyrics. Brown, Clegg and Cameron have all claimed to like David Bowie's song Changes, but, at a time of electoral transition, they would, wouldn't they? There's little risk, of course, of Bowie's Backed a Loser or Dead Man Walking blaring out of the loudspeakers at rallies.

If an artist does declare a political preference, though, things can get more complicated, not less. Cameron would be unlikely to cite Take That as a personal musical highlight (not cool enough) and would be wary of promoting Harry Brown as a favourite movie (it promotes vigilante violence as a response to social disorder). Yet once Gary Barlow and Michael Caine endorsed him, he had to endorse them back with joint appearances in public. Equally, it's hard to imagine Brown, in civilian life, at an Eddie Izzard gig; but because the comedian has stayed Labour while more fickle showbiz types have switched, they became pals on parade.

The use of cultural references involves strategic choices, while celebrity endorsement is simply a matter of making the best use of whoever chooses you. All the parties would like to have Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe to catch the youth vote, but he inclined towards Lib Dem even before it became a national fashion.

The problem with politicians trying to jump on cultural bandwagons is that leaders literally don't have much time for entertainment. Revealingly, Brown told the Radio Times: "I want to see The Hurt Locker." But that film has been available on DVD since December; if he were, say, a university lecturer, he would have rented it over Christmas.

On such issues as the state of Britain's finances and the economic measures needed to tackle the recession, leading politicians routinely pretend to know less than they actually do. On culture, they are doing the opposite – a tactical adoption of normal interests that will keep getting them into trouble.


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