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January 05 2011

Denis Healey: the artist within

He's best known for his distinguished political career, but the Labour heavyweight has always had a love of the arts and, as his son found when helping his father sift through old papers, was something of a fledgling artist himself

'It was one of the most stupefying experiences I ever had in my life. Of course I'll never forget it." It takes a lot to stupefy my father. In political life he was indomitable, whether handling a currency crisis or the problem of nuclear deterrence. Dad thrives on big challenges, and on refusing to be fazed by them. His great asset, of course, is that He Knows It All. In family arguments, even when proven demonstrably wrong – wrong with knobs on – he will never acknowledge defeat. Hilariously, the most he will concede is: "There may be something in what you say."

So what was it that knocked him for six? It was a wartime experience, during the Italian campaign. My father was a beachmaster first at Porto San Venere and then at Anzio, and after the dramatic assaults was stationed at Siena where he had a chance to relax and explore the countryside in the company of his then girlfriend Lavinia, a young captain in the Fany (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry).

"We often went swimming at Positano, which was one of my favourite places, and being Italy and the war, we used to swim in the nude. I took some lovely photographs of her swimming, and she took one of me, although I'm glad to say I found a fig leaf with which to disguise my virility.

"Lavinia and I also used to go in my jeep to see beautiful places around Florence. One day we were going out towards Livorno and I saw a signpost saying Montegufoni. I remembered that that was where the Sitwell family lived when they were in Italy. So I decided to drive up there with Lavinia and we found the villa. I rang the bell, and an old lady came out and said: 'Yes?'

"'Oh, we're English officers and great admirers of the Sitwell family. Do you think you could be kind enough to let us for a moment look inside the place where they lived?' She said yes, so we went in and we went into the drawing room. There, lying in sunlight on the floor, was one of the most beautiful paintings ever painted: the Primavera by Botticelli."

Castello di Montegufoni, about 40 miles from Florence, served as a refuge for many treasures brought from the Uffizi to protect them from bombing during the war. Dad was not the only wartime visitor to have a heart-stopping experience at the villa. A famously enthusiastic photographer, my father has always been deeply responsive to all the arts and painted a lot in his youth. In the months following my mother's death in July last year, my sisters and I spent some time with Dad at his home near Alfriston in Sussex, going through old family papers and photographs. Among the ephemera I came upon a folder of Dad's artworks – about 60 watercolours and pencil sketches going back to his boyhood at Keighley, in Yorkshire. Under the circumstances, the one that inevitably touched me most was a painting of my mother asleep, probably done at some time in the 1950s. It's a very tender sketch, and as I look at it now I can almost see her breathing.

We talked in the sunroom at Dad's Sussex home, with its wonderful views down the Cuckmere valley to a sliver of sea beyond. "What I'm very, very conscious of here in Sussex is that when I walk over from here to the next valley, to Jevington, say, we go over a heath moorland that is just like Yorkshire where I grew up."

Dad was born in London but was raised at Riddlesden near Keighley, and went to Bradford Grammar School where he first began painting. "I started at school. We had a very good art master called Mr Maddox who helped me, and I often used to go to his home just outside Saltaire, between Keighley and Bradford. Also, I used to buy postcards from a church bookshop that was about a hundred yards from the school, particularly by the impressionist painters and Van Gogh, who was a great favourite of mine from very, very early youth.

"Then there was quite a good art gallery at Cartwright Hall in Lister Park, Bradford, which was only a few hundred yards from the junior school. I used to go there before I was 12. As I remember, they were mainly 20th-century English: I don't think they had any great old paintings. But of course I saw the old paintings as soon as I started going to London and visiting the National Gallery and the Tate."

As far as Dad's own painting was concerned, Mr Maddox remained a key influence. "He gave me lessons in watercolour painting, and he also introduced me to some of the great watercolour painters such as Peter de Wint, Ethelbert White, and John and Paul Nash, all of whom had a great influence on me."

The Nash influence is particularly noticeable in some of my father's early paintings, which often seek to simplify landscapes to reveal their underlying structure. Dad caught the architecture of the scene, perhaps viewing it more as a draughtsman than a colourist.

One of his first watercolours hangs in the telly room: "It's a picture I painted when I was only 16 years old, of the wood at East Riddlesden Hall, which was just at the bottom of the road, Granby Lane, where I then lived." Dad painted most prolifically in his sixth-form years, around 1934-35, and often on the moors above his home. "We lived on the north side of Ilkley Moor and there was a road that went from Riddlesden to the top. Then it was just a track with boulders – impossible to drive on. To the west side of Ilkley Moor was Rombald's Moor, with the Doubler Stones, Windgate Nick and Heron Ghyll. I photographed and painted all around that area."

Dad's portraits from this time are as architectural as his landscapes, revealing especially the structure of the face. There are many good examples from the pre-war years: "Tock" Lewis was his classics teacher at Bradford, who later retired to live in Cornwall with his sister Cicely Lewis, a Cambridge don. Dad spent a week or two every summer with him at Treyarnon Bay.

My own fascination with marginalia draws me especially to Dad's doodles. Many furtive sketches of his teachers survive in his old exercise books, and his diaries are spangled with vivacious cartoons; one favourite shows a drunken German, done when he went on a cycling tour, youth hostelling round Germany and Austria in the summer of 1936.

"That was the best holiday in my life, really. It was in the summer between leaving Bradford Grammar School and going to Oxford. It was during the Hitler period but I found the Germans extremely friendly to me, although all the villages had little posters up on their village green saying 'Air Raid Protection is Very Necessary'."

The diaries reveal Dad's amazing vitality – cycling 100 miles a day is not uncommon – as well as a thirst for experience and keen eye for detail. The drunken German appears in an entry for Friday 7 August – the 11th day of his German tour. My father left the market town of Oberstdorf high in the Bavarian Alps, ascended to Einödsbach and made the further climb to a dizzying chalet called the Waltenberger Haus.

"In a short time the mountain was surrounded by cloud, and one could not see a thing near the house," his diary reads. "A sense of complete isolation and immense height was overpowering. In the house I was buttonholed by a drunk German with loose false teeth who was showing off his English on me; his friend was interested in modern art, though this is banned in Germany. To be almost alone with a vociferous drunkard 6,000ft high was a new but comic experience. The man was wearing the universal costume of short, decorated trousers, waistcoat, Tyrolean hat, and had a great wobbling paunch."

Pages of the diary are devoted to the galleries Dad visited on this trip, the most important being in the Bavarian captial, Munich, which he often visited on later trips to Germany. Back home he would stage exhibitions of his own.

"When I was at Oxford, I started a thing called the New Oxford Arts Society, which organised exhibitions of modern painters with the help of Roland Penrose, the surrealist painter. I remember him very well; he was a friend of Picasso and Salvador Dalí. He had a beautiful girlfriend, the photographer Lee Miller. Roland had quite a strong profile, with a large-ish nose and greyish hair, and his interest was entirely in art. One of the very first exhibitions we organised included a painting by Magritte, called Le Viol – The Rape. It was a face formed by a woman's naked body, and I had to cover that with a piece of cloth whenever ladies were going into the gallery."

It was at Oxford that Dad first became deeply involved in politics, but his passion for art remained undimmed. In the summer of 1937, he cycled round France where he gulped up the Louvre and other galleries. "When I was cycling back from the south of France, I saw a sign – Giverny – and I said to myself, my God, that's where Monet lived. He didn't die until 1926, which was only a few years before I was there. I asked where his house was and they told me. In those days they hadn't got a museum. I climbed over the fence and took photographs of the little lake in the gardens of Giverny with beautiful waterlilies and trees behind."

Following the award of a double first at Oxford, Dad was offered a fellowship at Merton College. "What I was hoping to do was to write about aesthetics – the theory of beauty – a subject which interested me very much."

But the war intervened, beginning for my father on 13 September 1940. "I did a little painting in North Africa and Italy during the war, as well as taking a lot of photographs during the landings at Porto San Venere and Anzio. This was absolutely illegal, although I am sure others did too."

Very few of the wartime paintings and sketches survive in the family archive. One is a view of Spur Camp, Algiers, where Dad was stationed in 1943. The brushstrokes seem more agitated, somehow, than in those earlier landscapes – as well they may have been, under the circumstances. Dad's diaries are almost entirely handwritten, but a typewritten sheet headed "Spur Camp, 2 May 43" provides a stark little companion to the painting, ending: "Not far away, up the line, Bren guns pummel hot air, men gasp and clutch, die casually, sweat and groan. The world is focused to the flash on the distant hill, to the bomber's drone. The eye strains, strains to pick out the atom of meaning in the indifferent landscape."

After the war, my father turned more and more to his camera. "I'd been taking photographs since I was eight years old with my little Box Brownie. And I found photography was . . . I won't say more attractive, but easier, because you can take a photograph in a hundredth of a second and it takes you several hours to do a proper painting."

Despite his increasingly busy life, Dad never gave up painting and sketching entirely. I like the drawing of socialist and pioneer feminist Frida Laski, dating from 1947, when Dad was international secretary for the Labour party. "I think the sketch was almost certainly done when Edna and I went out with Laski and his wife to northern Italy," he recalls. From the same period comes a neat little cartoon of Paul-Henri Spaak, the socialist prime minister of Belgium. "I used to meet the leaders of the socialist parties from all over Europe. I saw quite a lot of him . . ."

The wonderful portrait of Dad's mother (my grandmother) Win was probably done in this postwar period. Win was a hugely influential presence in his life. "She was very interested in the arts herself, though not so much, really, in the visual arts."

Otherwise, the postwar sketches and watercolours were done chiefly on our family holidays – in France, Switzerland and Italy, where the Alps and the Dolomites often furnish the backdrop.

We ended my visit to Alfriston by walking round the house to look at some of the paintings Dad has on his own walls, reproductions I remember as always being part of my childhood scene. There in his bedroom is the Douanier Rousseau – A Carnival Evening – with its moonlit Pierrot and Columbine. "It is really a lovely painting and that's why I have it in my bedroom, so I can see it every night when I go to bed and every morning when I get up," he told me.

In his study are satirical 18th-century prints, including one depicting a Jack-in-Office "a typical civil servant, with a dog urinating on his leg". There's a big modern original, too, of back-to-backs in the north. "That I love. It's so typical of a Yorkshire town, a print by a chap called Martin Turner, 1978. It shows some people walking along the road by an iron fence, and beyond them the snow is falling."

On the stairs is a set of large Chinese prints, showing horsemen on the plains. "They're prints, probably done from wood, and I love them, actually. They have a tremendous reality, although they're just horses and people on a white background. There's one up there which looks like Jesus. It is, in fact, a Buddha, but it is enormously reminiscent of a Christian painting and so are the two figures on each side, who really look like angels of a bit of a Buddhist type."

In the hall is a detail of the Botticelli Primavera, Piero della Francesca's Baptism of Christ and Georges De la Tour's candle-lit chiaroscuro St Anne with the Christ Child, which Dad admires for its "immense quietude".

In the kitchen, the Breughels: The Peasant Dance; Hay Harvest and Fall of Icarus. "Breughel is the Shakespeare of painting, in my opinion. All human life is in him and he has extraordinary variety, not only of subjects but the way he paints them. The one of a peasant dance is brilliantly funny; the harvest is mainly landscape, a most beautiful landscape, it's summer I think. The Fall of Icarus is one of the most extraordinary paintings in the world, and on which Auden wrote a very good poem, Musée des Beaux Arts."

At intervals through the interview, Dad will pull a funny face or, for shock effect, roar "Can you hear me, Mother?" into my microphone. Now, rising with an effort from the kitchen chair, he delivers a favourite, soldierly expletive.

"Fuck me gently!"

"You're straight out of a Breughel yourself, you know that, don't you," I say to him.

"Yes, exactly."


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May 17 2010

A soulless celebration

All Tate Modern's weekend jamboree showed was that modern does not equal radical. It's a lesson the Labour party, for one, needs to learn

Labour now has a unique chance to rethink its attitudes to everything – including culture. Compared with the possibility of being reduced to third place in the election earlier this month, it has had an astonishingly soft landing. What this means is that the soul-searching can be measured, rather than vicious as it was in the 1980s. But soul-searching there must be – and this should include some broad questions about the party's relationship with the world of the arts.

Tate Modern yesterday afternoon was a good place to ask those questions. As part of its tenth-anniversary celebrations, the gallery was hosting No Soul for Sale, a festival of independents. Some critics get their words posted up outside productions of Hamlet – me, I get quoted on an advert for a bouncy castle. "People have come to expect crazy spectacle and interactive fun in the Turbine hall", said Jonathan Jones on a card distributed by Seattle art venue Western Bridge, to promote their contribution, a silvery-grey inflatable cube in which children could jump up and down. At least it offered some good vibrations, which was more than you could say for most of the stalls or exhibits or whatever they were that sprawled along the floor of the Turbine hall like the grisly litter of a cultural meltdown.

Honestly – was this a joke? Not so much a festival of independents as a carnival of jerks, this part of the jamboree for the much-touted Bankside anniversary was a massive own-goal, a treat only for the museum's harshest critics. NO FUN, I was raging inside. We had come for a family afternoon by the Thames. It was raining outside, so we were trapped among feedback-playing guitarists, ironic souvenirs, mashed-up magazines and all the other detritus of imaginations that have long since given up. It was like an afternoon with Bob and Roberta Smith's less gifted mates.

How does this relate to Labour's fall, you might ask. From its flirtation with the Cool Britannia pop scene in the 1990s to the Millennium Dome to what settled into a complacent affiliation with the hipness of contemporary art, New Labour remorselessly and desperately identified itself with cultural modernity. The lousy party at Tate Modern on Sunday afternoon felt like the spectre of the Dome, come to remind us of the strange cultural impostures of the past 13 years.

This is what Labour needs to learn about culture: the modern does not equal the radical. Nor do history, tradition and achievement equal conservatism. Rembrandt is not a conservative – but Tracey Emin did flirt with voting, and, for all I know, did actually vote Cameron. The narrow desire to be the party of Tate Modern (and leave the National Gallery to the Right) was a dry and self-diminishing discipline.

Compare this to the British Museum last autumn, where vast crowds enjoyed a celebration of Mexico's Day of the Dead, with skeleton stilt walkers, candy skulls – and lectures that we listened to eagerly. Labour's obsession with contemporary chic has underestimated the intelligence and curiosity of a country that can no longer be characterised, after this divided election result, as either modern or old-fashioned. In the past, Labour intellectuals claimed the inheritance of John Ruskin. They need to do so again.


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May 05 2010

Don't underestimate Ed Balls | Mehdi Hasan

The children's secretary is not much loved by the commentariat. But that doesn't mean he won't be the next Labour leader

Is Ed Balls the devil incarnate? That seems to be the considered view of much of our commentariat, on both left and right.

OK, I exaggerate. But how else to explain Matthew Norman's vitriolic outburst in the Independent? "Cocky, fake, slimy, inelegant, ineloquent, charmless, witless, weird, sinister, glacially cold and luminescently remote, he may be the most chillingly repulsive politician of even this golden generation," wrote Norman. Have you not met George Osborne, Matthew? Then there's the Guardian's Polly Toynbee, who dismissed him as a "dinosaur"; the Telegraph's Cristina Odone, who called him "ghastly"; and the army of bloggers and tweeters collectively praying for Balls to be unseated by his Tory challenger on Thursday night, in a reverse "Portillo moment".

Balls, however, has done what he and his mentor, Gordon Brown, do best: he has come out fighting. "I'm caricatured as a tribalist. That's garbage," the children's secretary told me at the weekend, in the midst of intense campaigning in his redrawn seat of Morley and Outwood. "It's not that I'm tribal," he said. "It's just that I'm not a Tory. I'm Labour. I believe in Labour values."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a "Ballsite". My own political leanings are to the left of Balls, who is – it is often forgotten – one of the architects of New Labour and its Faustian pact with the City. He and I also, for example, disagree on proportional representation – which the children's secretary continues to stubbornly oppose. Nor do I quite believe him when he says he has never briefed against his opponents inside Labour: "It's a politics I've never been involved in before… If you asked lobby journalists if my reputation is for anonymous briefings, they would say absolutely not." Hmm. I have – and they disagree with him. (Having said that, I couldn't help but agree when he said that "there is an irony in me being criticised anonymously for being involved in anonymous briefings".)

Above all else, however, ahead of what could be a protracted Labour leadership contest as close and as bitter as this general election itself, I was intrigued to see Balls use his interview with me in the New Statesman for a bit of old-fashioned political positioning and, even, personal rebranding. Would he sit in a coalition with Lib Dems, if he had to? "Of course. You deal with the election result as it comes." That's pretty black and white, isn't it?

Would he back anti-Tory, tactical voting in Tory/Lib Dem marginals? "I always want the Labour candidate to win, but I recognise there's an issue in places like North Norfolk, where my family live, where Norman Lamb [the Lib Dem candidate and sitting MP] is fighting the Tories, who are in second place. And I want to keep the Tories out." That's a "yes", then.

Perhaps Balls isn't the dyed-in-the-wool Labour tribalist he is so often assumed to be by the great and good in the Westminster village. As even Martin Kettle, one of his leading critics, acknowledged on Cif: "If Balls were to be the next Labour leader, he would not, I think, be quite as bone-headedly labourist as many assume. This is a man who has crossed from the centre-right to the centre-left of the Labour party in double-quick time, after all." But Kettle adds: "The main charge that those in the know make about Balls is not that he is dogmatic but that he is purely tactical – opportunist is the word one hears most often."

Is the Balls shift to the left an act of opportunism? Perhaps – although he has long been a proponent of "dividing lines" between left and right. Will it be enough to secure the votes of the Labour left? If Jon Cruddas fails to throw his hat in the ring and his opponent is David Miliband, I suspect it will. The children's secretary is making all the right (or should that be left?) noises.

On financial regulation, he acknowledged that the "legitimate criticism is that there was too little state regulation of the financial services industry and I hold my hands up for my role in that when I was financial services minister". And he heaped praise on his one-time critic Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London: "Ken rightly criticised us for not being tough enough on financial regulation." (Yesterday, Livingstone returned the compliment, telling the BBC that he planned to back Balls in any future Labour leadership contest.)

On Iraq, still a hot-button issue for countless Labour members and voters, he said: "In retrospect, it is now clear on the basis of what we know is that we should have given the inspectors more time and the rush to a second resolution was not necessary." He condemned the "anti-French" stance adopted by Downing Street at the time.

And does he hope to be the next Labour leader? "If I said I didn't want it, you wouldn't believe me."

I don't. He wants it, and it would be a mistake to write him off.

More election comment from Cif at the polls


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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



Labour can't be written out of the progressive script | David Clark

No party has a monopoly on virtue, and both the Lib Dems and Labour have much to contribute to liberal-left politics

Among the countless mistakes made by Labour in its election campaign, the failure to understand the nature of the Liberal Democrat challenge is perhaps the most damaging. David Miliband attributes the party's unexpected surge to a mindless "anti-political" reflex, while Gordon Brown dismisses Nick Clegg as little more than a "gameshow presenter" – all style and no substance. All this does is make Labour seem clueless and out of touch.

As it happens, Clegg's progress owes a great deal to substance and the fact that in the leaders' debates he gave the most sensible and thoughtful answers to questions about political reform, the environment, defence, wealth redistribution and how to clean up the City. His appeal is based on a positive and healthy desire to reject old taboos and make a break with the prevailing order of British politics. Instead of insulting the intelligence of those minded to give the Liberal Democrats a try, Labour would do far better to understand the frustrations of disillusioned progressives and respond accordingly.

I agree with those who argue that a breakthrough for the Liberal Democrats and a hung parliament could be a "progressive moment" opening the way to badly needed reforms blocked by the other two parties. I hope they end up with a share of power, partly as earned reward for having been right on the two most important issues of the last decade – Iraq and the dangers of a financialised economy – when Labour and the Conservatives were so culpably wrong, but mostly because they have some of the best ideas about how Britain needs to change. I would like to see those ideas implemented by Liberal Democrat ministers sitting in the next cabinet.

And yet, when I was approached to sign the letter of writers and intellectuals supporting Nick Clegg in the Guardian, I found myself unable to do so. In their enthusiasm for change, it seemed that something important had been missed. I felt similar unease at the Guardian's editorial in support of the Liberal Democrats. It's not that I dispute the thrust of the argument in favour of a realignment of progressive politics and a bigger role for the Liberal Democrats. It just seems to me that the absolutist terms in which the case has been stated mirrors the error Labour partisans have always made in the past of believing that their party has a monopoly on virtue. Much as some people may wish it, Labour cannot simply be written out of the script. For a mixture of electoral and ideological reasons, it will remain central to the hopes and prospects of liberal-left politics in Britain.

The letter from John Kampfner, Richard Reeves and others makes the undeniable point that during the last 13 years of majority government Labour has often proved to be an obstacle to progressive change. There are, sadly, too few reasons for thinking that the next 13 years would be very much different if Labour continued to govern on its own. But since we can safely discount that as a possibility, the range of effective choice is between a Conservative government and a coalition involving the Liberal Democrats and one of the other major parties. In any honest assessment, the only formation capable of turning the next parliament into the great reforming moment envisaged by the letter's signatories is a Lib-Lab coalition. So why leave that elementary political truth unacknowledged?

The Guardian editorial at times reads like a rush of blood to the head, as if a repeat of the 1906 Liberal landslide might be on the cards. The possibility of a tactical vote for Labour in some constituencies – grudgingly conceded as a "pragmatic caveat" – is the only hint that things might be a bit more complicated. But far from being an exception to the general rule that voting Liberal Democrat is the best way to realise the "progressive moment", Labour remains the only serious challenger to the Conservatives in the clear majority of constituencies across the country. Cleggmania has not changed that fundamental electoral fact. To pretend otherwise lacks seriousness and candour, and risks putting into office a Conservative government that would do none of the things on the Guardian's liberal wish-list.

One thing is clear from this election; the future of progressive politics will have to be very different from its past. The culture of Labourism, old and new, with its machine approach to political change and its neuralgic aversion to sharing power, will have to give way to a new and more open style of politics. These could well turn out to be the last days of majority Labour government that Britain ever sees, but they cannot be the end of Labour as a party of government if the hopes of progressive voters are to be realised. This isn't merely a question of electoral necessity. The reasons why Labour was called into being more than a century ago remain just as valid today, even if the party itself has half forgotten them. We cannot turn the clock back and pretend that Labour was never invented; nor should we wish to.

The liberal tradition – with its principled commitment to human rights at home and abroad, its suspicion of the central state and its attention to constitutional reform – is an essential and too long neglected part of the progressive mix. But the good society cannot be built on liberalism alone. It also needs a party committed to establishing the material foundations of human freedom and the wider distribution of wealth needed to make it real – a party rooted in the democratic socialist tradition. For all its sins and errors, Labour is still best placed to perform that role. One of the major challenges for progressives in the next parliament must be to turn it once again into a vehicle for social and political change, instead of what it has become – an instrument for disciplining the left into accepting the status quo.

Tomorrow is a moment that calls for progressive realism, not wishful thinking. That goes for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters alike. Now that I have the approval of Ed Balls and Peter Hain, among others, I feel able to say publicly that I will be voting tactically to re-elect a very decent Liberal Democrat MP in my home constituency. I hope that Liberal Democrats elsewhere will feel able to set partisan impulses aside and cast their votes for the very many decent Labour candidates without whom the progressive moment will become another missed opportunity.


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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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I believe! Rock god Gordon's travelling salvation show

Simon Hoggart joins the prime minister at his Granada studios rally in Manchester and finds him a changed man

I don't know what they're putting in Gordon Brown's cocoa – malt whisky, monkey glands, 97 octane V-power unleaded – but it seems to be doing the trick. If he is heading for an almighty crash tomorrow, he's so high he may not notice.

Today he was at a rally in the Granada studios, Manchester. It was supposed to be Gordodammerung, the twilight of the grump, but it was more like the Sheffield rally of 1992, when Labour thought they were going to win. He was performing in front of 500 crazed Labour supporters. He was a rock god!

Celebrities, some not from Coronation Street, lined up on video to razz up the audience even more. Bill Bailey! Tony Robinson! Prunella Scales! Someone else you'd vaguely heard of! Jo Brand explained things Labour had done had made her angry. But it didn't matter, because "Cameron is a knob!" (Or possibly a nob. It's the new politics. "Mr Attlee, will you tell the voters why they should vote Labour?" "Because Mr Churchill is a knob.")

Our MC was TV's glamorous Gloria de Piero, Labour candidate for Ashfield, an old miners' seat. Her accent grew flatter and more northern by the minute, as if it was being steamrollered. "Wurr not Tories, an' we doan't tekk people for grunted," she said, to huge cheers. It was getting like a revival meeting, or possibly Alcoholics Anonymous. Voters were wheeled out to confess that in the past they had voted for other parties. But they had been saved. By Jesus! Sorry, by Gordon! The audience cheered and whooped, like drunken Texans at a rodeo.

Connie Huq of Blue Peter testified she had voted for other parties too. But she'd seen the light. They went berserk. Then she began to meander. She had trained as an economist. "I saw Iceland go down, I saw on the news, all those banks collapsing, and I thought 'oh my gosh!' and I was expecting Armageddon, I couldn't afford to live where I'm living with interest rates at 15%!" If it hadn't been for Gordo, she'd be living in a Toshiba box. Ms de Piero re-appeared on the platform, possibly to cover her mouth in sticky-backed plastic.

But nothing would stop the audience. When Brother Brown arrived, the climax of the travelling salvation show, they gave him a standing ovation. Then, thinking it wasn't enough, they gave him another, before he even opened his mouth. He was "following the commands of conscience," like a hell-fire preacher. He recited a litany of Labour's achievements, 55 of them, but nobody could hear more than a handful because congregation was praising the Gord so loudly. They were washed in the blood of the Gordo. One or two could be made out, including "the right to book into a bed and breakfast." Presumably he meant gays, but it sounded weird. Will the Tories force everyone to sleep apart?

I'll show you how relaxed he was. He even praised his predecessor, which must have hurt. "It's not my achievement. It's not even Tony's achievement, great as Tony was [pause] and is." Yes, he's not dead yet!

He praised his own faux-dishevelled look. "If you want the guy whose hair is always perfect, whose tie is always straight, you have a choice – the other two," which they applauded wildly, even though his hair was perfect.

But he was happy. This was for party loyalists, and an appeal for them to remain loyalists. "Come home to Labour!" he said at the end. Like a TV star he plunged into the audience.


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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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Cameron may ignore guidelines and claim victory

Tory leader signals if he fails to win he may challenge convention that serving PM gets first chance to form government

David Cameron is reported to be poised to claim victory even if he fails to win an overall majority on Thursday.

In doing so he will challenge the constitutional convention that says if Britain votes for a hung parliament, the existing prime minister gets the first chance to form a government. "There is a convention and there is practice and they are not always quite the same thing," said Cameron.

The cabinet secretary, Gus O'Donnell, has set out guidelines to allow for a week of possible negotiations about a coalition, to ensure the Queen is not drawn into political controversy and avoid turbulence in the markets. But senior Conservatives have made clear that Cameron was not consulted on these guidelines and will ignore them if he fails to win an outright majority. Instead he intends to lead a minority government.

The Hansard Society, the independent parliamentary authority, say what happens on Friday will depend on a combination of the electoral arithmetic, the constitutional conventions, the pressures of the media cycle and the blogosphere, the reaction of the markets and the direction of public opinion.

By Friday morning it should be clear whether any one party has an outright Commons majority by winning more than 325 seats.

Assuming that no party has a majority and the Liberal Democrats finish with the third largest number of seats, what are the most likely scenarios?

1 Gordon Brown hangs on and tries to do a deal with the Lib Dems.

The Hansard Society say the incumbent "caretaker" prime minister has first call on forming an administration: "Only if the incumbent prime minister fails to put together a deal with one or more of the other parties, or, after having chosen to 'meet' parliament, he loses a confidence motion, will the leader of the opposition party be invited to form a government." He does not have to go until it is obvious that he does not command the confidence of parliament, which means his legislative programme is defeated in the vote on the Queen's speech on 25 May or he loses a subsequent vote of no confidence.

Constitutional experts say it is possible for Brown to hang on even if Labour has failed to win the most seats, but it is likely that his lack of moral authority, media pressure and public opinion would make this difficult.

In the meantime if the election arithmetic means that Labour and the Lib Dems together have a majority of votes and more than 325 MPs, Brown may try to secure a deal with Nick Clegg – who would be expected to demand Brown's resignation and full electoral reform. The O'Donnell guidelines provide for these negotiations to take a week to 10 days.

Brown might refuse to quit, insisting that the result is a Tory defeat. Depending on the arithmetic he may try to carry on as a minority government but would probably have to resign at the first major parliamentary defeat.

2 The Miliband/Johnson option

As above but Brown does agree to resign, being replaced under a little-known Labour party rule by either a caretaker, such as Alan Johnson, or a new leader such as David Miliband. The deal does not have to be a full coalition but could range from Lib Dems in the cabinet to an agreement not to vote down the minority government in exchange for policy pledges. However a PM who has not taken part in the leaders' debates would seem to lack a moral mandate.

3 David Cameron declares victory anyway.

He hasn't got a majority but wins the largest number of votes and even possibly the largest number of seats. With strong media support he insists that Brown resigns immediately and he goes to Downing Street as head of a minority government without bothering to try to strike a deal with the Lib Dems or any other minority parties.

Senior Conservatives have argued that the O'Donnell guidelines were drawn up without consulting Cameron so he doesn't feel bound by them. This option depends on the momentum of media pressure and public opinion to force Brown to quit. If Brown refused to go and insisted on staying on until the 25 May vote, the Queen could not be called upon to intervene.

The Hansard Society says the monarch does not possess any reserve discretionary powers to act as a broker between party leaders in difficult situations: "It is essential for the future of the monarchy that its detachment from the political process is maintained."

In 1974, Labour supporters protested at Heath's attempt to hang on when he had not won the largest number of seats but Harold Wilson bided his time before forming a minority government.

4 Second general election

If the three parties cannot agree then it raises the prospect of an early election. But the party leaders will be conscious that the public and the market are unlikely to forgive them for putting them through the whole thing again. Instead Brown may play a longer game and gamble that a Tory minority administration making unpopular spending cuts during a double-dip recession will rapidly lose support, raising the prospect of fighting an autumn election with his record for economic competence intact.


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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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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 21 2010

Bubbles and troubles

There were big promises, striking galleries, two new parliaments. But they made shocking mistakes, too

Christopher Wren was a great architect. His performance as an MP, in the 1680s and 1690s, however, was lamentable, a crumbling shack compared to the uplifting acropolis of his architecture. Ever since, politics and architecture have been awkward bedfellows. Politicians want bombast one moment – the Palace of Westminster, pre-fab tower blocks, the Greenwich Dome – and banality the next, especially when the financial going gets tough. Picture pretty much any building funded by a private finance initiative (PFI) over the past decade: bandage-thin new hospitals, tinny new schools.

One thing we can be sure of as we jostle towards a general election is that none of the major political parties has a handle on architecture or planning. Quite simply, there are too many interest groups involved. On the one hand, there are private developers and party-funding big businesses; on the other, a tangled web of quangos, rival government departments, snake-oil design consultants and local councils.

Planning in Britain has been treated as the merest of trades, while architects – even as they have become more businesslike – have seen their status drop, as so much building is now led by the construction industry. If I were to cast my vote solely on the basis of architectural and planning manifestos, no party would win it. The shocking state of our woeful and cynical new housing alone would stay my hand, while the wilful privatisation of our public realm would keep both hands firmly in my pockets.

New Labour bounded into office in 1997, committed to doing something about architecture and cities. After 13 long years of government-sponsored industrial decline, many of these, especially north of the Trent, look as if they have been through a war. Perhaps they have: Britain's interminable class war. Many a bold word was written in favour of "urban regeneration", notably Towards an Urban Renaissance, an optimistic government report championed by the architect Richard Rogers. I watched, however, in bemusement, then incredulity, as New Labour's Cool Britannia vision transformed too many historic city centres into gormless "regen" retail theme parks, as ill-suited to Birmingham or Liverpool as to Beijing and Mumbai.

Yes, new museums by big-name architects opened, and many historic buildings were renovated. Most of these, though, were beneficiaries of the Lottery launched during the "It could be you!" years of John Major's Tory government. Funds for such projects have dried up, leaving city centres prey to corporate developers, while the government and its quangos blather on about how New Jerusalem is just around the corner.

In a mind-numbing report, World Class Places, published last May under the signatures and beaming faces of Hazel Blears (since resigned) and Andy Burnham (moved on), we were told the government "is committed to improving the places where we live, whether these be villages or large cities". Everywhere in Britain was to become a "world-class place" – somewhere, presumably, along the lines of Birmingham's revamped Bull Ring or Las Vegas, Shanghai's Pudong district, or Sodom and Gomorrah.

Toronto, Barcelona, Barnsley

So excited with this idea was the new architecture quango Cabe (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), it commissioned Ian McMillan ("poet-in-residence for the Academy of Urbanism and Barnsley FC") to write a poem:

Think of them, the world class places: Barcelona, Barnsley, Ludlow,

Toronto; that walk from the station down to Newcastle's quay; plenty of flourish,

World class I reckon: world class.

Eat your heart out, William McGonagall. As for Cabe, set up by Blair's department of culture, media and sport, this tax-eating body barks fashionably about "sustainability" and good design, while robustly promoting the building of supermarkets in the very last of Britain's independent country towns, towns happy to be themselves rather than clown-like, retail-crazy "world-class places".

I know how powerless local people feel in the face of smooth-talking, unaccountable bureaucrats. Why do I know? Because Cabe wants an ugly and unsustainable Tesco built, despite opposition from the town council, chamber of commerce, schools and residents, on a beautiful, allotment-graced riverside site in my home town, Hadleigh, a happily self-sufficient backwater of rural Suffolk. With Cabe's help, its character and sustainable economy will surely be destroyed.

This playground bullying, by a government in thrall to big business, is key to understanding why our towns and cities have sprawled, why urban planning has come to mean property development on a brobdingnagian scale, and why the concerns of rural areas have been trampled underfoot.

Politicians of all parties, except Labour, are aware of the problem. "We aim to deliver power to local communities," says Ed Vaizey, canvassing in Wallingford, in his Oxfordshire constituency. "We'll push for planning development from the ground up. Developers and large corporations have been in the driving seat; we need to know what local people really want."

Vaizey, shadow arts minister, toyed with the idea of appointing, were the Tories to win, a chief architect to encourage more thoughtful development. He now believes such a role would be divisive, as an architectural tsar could favour a particular style of architecture over another, not a good idea in a pluralist society. So would Vaizey rely on Cabe for advice? "I've been a big fan of Cabe," he says. "It's a good idea in principle. In practice, it's too big, too bureaucratic.

"What we do want is expert advisers from a variety of backgrounds to help us understand local landscapes, their histories and identities as well as economic needs, so that we can ensure all places are treated with respect. We're well aware of how local councils are scared of the threat of appeals made by big developers they dare to reject."

Peter Phillips, very much in favour of localism, is one of three architects standing for parliament. Of the other two, one is Tory, the other Lib Dem. Phillips, however, is the BNP candidate for Windsor. "Does he design in the style of Albert Speer?" asks Vaizey when I tell him about Phillips. Well, no. The BNP's architectural message, I have to say, is not dissimilar to that of the Tories. "The BNP would reverse the increasing over-regulation and centralisation of government," says Phillips from his one-man practice in Surrey. "We'd get rid of the Homes and Communities Agency, the Partnership for Schools, Cabe and other unmanageable quangos. Centralisation of government, along with PFI and PPP [public-private partnership], has been costly and unhappy for architecture; local practices have been squeezed out from public-sector work funded in these new ways, with the result that architectural diversity has been diminished."

There's not much here a Tory candidate would disagree with, but then the more familiar face of the BNP reveals itself, as Phillips says: "Eighty per cent of our new homes are for immigrants, and this is one key reason why our towns are sprawling."

The Lib Dems are vague on the subject. A spokesman for Don Foster, culture secretary should Nick Clegg's crew win, says the great man will get back to me. He doesn't. Perhaps Foster is busy with his ukulele, which he lists as a hobby. Or maybe he is out in honey-coloured Bath – that battered and bruised architectural wonder, where he has been MP since 1992.

What I do know is that the Lib Dems would "slash" VAT on refurbishment, a move that would encourage the development of empty homes, especially in cities like Liverpool, where entire Victorian terraces stand boarded up. A Lib Dem government would also somehow retrofit every home in the country to the tune of £10,000 as part of a "pay-as-you-save scheme" (whatever that is); this means ensuring all homes are well insulated, whatever their age or style.

The party says it will protect the green belt, as would the Tories. It will abolish the new Infrastructure Planning Commission, a Soviet-style quango with powers to send nuclear plants, power lines and pylons to your neck of the woods whether you want them or not. Labour is in no mood to talk about such fripperies as architecture, development or planning. My attempts to speak to Margaret Hodge, Labour spokeswoman on architecture, were met with no response.

A jobless, car-bound subtopia

In terms of architecture and planning, the big problem with New Labour has been its almost paranoid need to centralise power and control events. This was evident from the start with the Millennium Experience, aka the Dome, a pointless, demeaning exercise that cost a billion quid and fell flat on its bloated face. While hype surrounded Lottery projects, and passionately concerned housing ministers came and went, cheap land – much of it floodplain – has been handed over to housebuilders so they can rush up the unsustainable slums of the future. This or that week's housing minister has barked on about headline-stealing "eco-towns" that were clearly a bad joke, a new form of jobless, car-bound subtopia.

"New Labour was never really interested in leaving an architectural legacy," says Amanda Baillieu, editor of Building Design. "But it was lucky enough to inherit a healthy economy from the Tories, and went on a spending spree. Sadly, all its 'acclaimed' public sector projects, like schools, have been hoovered up by big, commercially driven architectural firms. The bar's been lowered, not raised."

Among architects themselves, the vote seems to be split: figures from the Fees Bureau, a research group, suggest 32% will vote Conservative, 30% Labour and 27% Lib Dem. The parties might like to think more seriously about courting them, though no one expects them to have the subtlety of Christopher Wren. They might also think of public good rather than private gain.

As for our new housing, after a decade of bluster, profligate policy initiatives and relentless bullying, this remains a blight on the landscape, a stain on our collective soul, a national disgrace.


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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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November 19 2009

Quangos in a Tory arts quandary

An arts establishment filled by New Labour supporters is starting to court Team Cameron

When the culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, delivered a speech this month asking New Labour- supporting "luvvies" to rally to the defence of the arts, he omitted to mention the recent dwindling of their ranks. For the last year, the arts and media establishment has been thrilling to the sound of a minimalist, John Cage-like movement. Listen a bit more carefully, though, and the sound is unmistakable – it is the shifting of chairs in the direction of David Cameron's Tory party.

It's not hard to see why. The Tories are very likely to win the general election next year, and to make swingeing cuts to the public sector very soon after that. The arts look vulnerable, especially the expensive quangos that mushroomed under New Labour and are packed with its sympathisers. During the last year, for example, no one with an ear to the art-world's rumour mill can fail to have heard that the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts might well end up on the butcher's floor.

Nesta was inaugurated in 1998, during the initial euphoria of New Labour's Cool Britannia, and endowed with a cool £200m of National Lottery money. The idea was to promote innovation, but the problem was that Nesta never really had a clear idea of what that meant, and often confused it with social and political ends like reinventing politics or communities. It has also faced allegations of cliquishness and a lack of transparency. A report from the House of Commons select committee on science and technology, published in 2002, voiced its concern that Nesta's system for selection to its coveted fellowships left it "open to accusations of networking or favouritism".

Rumours about its precarious position seem to have made their way back to Nesta itself. If a report in last month's Prospect magazine is to be believed, its chief executive, Jonathan Kestenbaum, has been vigorously lunching those around Team Cameron. All this must be a little delicate for Kestenbaum; he is one of New Labour's business friends, after all, and in the autumn of last year he was forced to deny reports that he had been offered a job as David Miliband's chief of staff in a mooted leadership challenge to Gordon Brown.

All the same, he has bravely rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in. During the recent party conference season, Nesta ran a full five events at the Tory conference, compared to only three at Labour's. And during the summer Nesta appointed Phillip Blond, an academic identified as one of David Cameron's gurus, to one of its coveted fellowships.

On the face of it, it was a curious choice. Blond is a Christian theologian with some very interesting arguments about how a transformative ethic can renew Conservative political philosophy. For an endowment dedicated to innovation in science, technology and the arts, however, he seems to be just about the last person whose name would come to mind for a fellowship – he's had little or nothing to say on any of those subjects. When I asked Nesta to explain the selection process through which it had come to choose Blond as a fellow, its spokesperson referred me to a list of its other fellows – all well known for their ideas on how to foster innovation – and to an interview with Blond in the Guardian.

Nesta isn't the only organisation steeling itself for the political transition. It's a great time to be Tory. The planned restructure at the UK Film Council and its mooted merger with the British Film Institute are taking place with more than half an eye on an incoming Tory government; at the recent London Film Festival, both courted senior Conservatives with invitations to their gala events. As soon as his appointment was announced on Wednesday, Archie Norman – the new chairman of ITV – felt impelled to make a statement saying that he wouldn't "expect favours" from an incoming Tory government.

The danger is that the Tories might follow New Labour's example. Bradshaw's rousing defence of the principle that funding for the arts could be conducted at "arm's length" from governmental interference would have been more convincing had his party not sought to infuse arts organisations with the idea that innovation could be pressed into the service of immediate social and political ends – as if Twitter could renew people's interest in politics, for example, or public art could solve social ills. That instrumental approach is now discredited. The only people who benefited were mediocre artists and apparatchiks who could talk the talk.

The Tories, quite rightly, are going to have none of it. The problem is that quangos and arts organisations are still stuffed with New Labour's appointees, many in the invidious position of having to butter up the other side. Most are so deeply wedded to New Labour that they have little idea about who they should even be cosying up to, with the result that many of those lunches are going to waste. Over a cup of coffee one source, who has worked for Nesta, told me that the whole thing is "unedifying, like an episode of The Thick of It".

There is no doubt that an incoming Tory government should defend both robust funding for the arts and the arm's-length principle. A civilised country needs solid and independently minded support for its arts, particularly the difficult, challenging stuff – the real stuff of innovation – that commercial sponsors tend to turn up their noses at.

But the Tories should resist the temptation to replace New Labour's cultural leaders with their own. Tories are known for their charm, after all, but not for their taste. The irony of this shifting of chairs is that Team Cameron is still running a shadow operation in opposition, and is much too small to have worked out the finer detail of which quangos it plans to cull. In the meantime, however, they might want to beware the attentions of fairweather friends.


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