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July 23 2012

Can you be too old to get a tattoo?

Lady Steel, the wife of former Liberal Democrat leader David Steel, has revealed that her 70th birthday present to herself was a pink jaguar tattoo





May 05 2010

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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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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March 14 2010

Jeffery and Miquette Roberts

My parents Jeffery and Miquette Roberts, who have both died aged 66, within 10 days of each other, shared passions for the arts and languages, and had broad-ranging, inquiring minds. In April 2009, Jeffery was diagnosed with cancer. He faced this with amazing fortitude, and the unending support of Miquette, who died of injuries resulting from a fall shortly after his death.

In my father's office were large maps of Russia and Finland, a piano and dictionaries covering various Nordic and Slavic languages. The effect was that of a musically gifted military dictator, combined with an eccentric taxi firm with an enormous catchment area. Jeffery had an avowedly internationalist focus, but his interest in the world was local as well, as shown by his time as a Liberal party councillor in Shoreditch, east London, from 1980 until 1987.

Born near Liverpool, of Anglo-Welsh parentage, he settled in London permanently in the early 1970s, having read geology at New College, Oxford, and then undertaken PhD research at Cardiff. He married Miquette in 1974. On his return from a period in Finland, working for Union Bank of Finland, in 1991 he formed Pomor Petroleum and Impivaara Securities, two companies that focused their attention on markets in Finland, Russia and the erstwhile Baltic states and beyond.

Jeffery spoke German, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, French and Russian. In the last years of his life, he took up Welsh. In his own language, he liked nothing better than talking at length, launching into excitable, provocative disquisitions, ranging in topic from delegate democracy, the situation in the Middle East (particularly Palestine) and the books of Karen Armstrong to the rise and fall of world empires.

He was passionate about music – playing it and listening to it. Among his favoured composers were Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Liszt. He was engaged and engaging, intellectual, energetic and funny, and by turns infuriating and generous (in every sense of the word). Jeffery found his counterpart in Miquette's quiet, determined character.

If Jeffery's room was his office, my mother's was the lounge. She had decorated it with a mix of African prints in sombre but not oppressive tones, and judiciously placed decorative objects. When a friend of mine visited, he stared as long as his manners allowed him to at Miquette's vibrant, shiny red shoes. He still talked about the shoes, and the contrasting tailored grey outfit, years later.

Such was the impact of my mum's individual style and her charismatic, yet unassuming nature. She had very definite ideas about style in fashion and art; and let it be known in gentle, but assertive terms that she disapproved wryly of my rainbow hair changes over the years.

Miquette was born in Glasgow, of mixed French and Scottish parentage. Her given name was Marie-Christine but she was universally known as Miquette, an affectionate name "usually given to cats in France" as she often remarked on meeting new people. Miquette will be remembered, among many other things, for her seemingly effortless ability to get on with others, and her talent as a writer (though she was far too modest to view herself in these glowing terms).

Having read History of Art, French and German at Glasgow University, she continued her studies at New Hall, Cambridge, graduating in 1966. She then worked in an educational capacity in various art galleries, ranging from those in Bristol and Aberdeen (in the 1960s and 70s) to Tate Britain (1992-2004).

On retirement, she took up the task of translating the wartime letters of her mother, Marie Touchard, from French into English. She also wrote an autobiographical work which she later doled out in tantalising snippets for the rest of the family to read. Her style was succinct and affecting. I remember her quiet but intense pride as she showed me the published letters of Marie Touchard in a bookshop in Paris in 2006.

Miquette is survived by her brother, Malcolm. Jeffery is survived by his sister, Joan. Both are survived by me and my brother Duncan.


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February 09 2010

Lib Dems' arts policy marred by spelling errors

The Liberal Democrats, it turns out, have an arts policy: it was laid out last week in a paper called The Power of Creativity. With a design incorporating ink splats and multicoloured typefaces (presumably to appeal to those madcap arty types), the document is certainly creative as to its spelling. We have a forward rather than a foreword (a progressive's Freudian slip?) and the clanger millenium for millennium. In case you were wondering, the Lib Dems' arts policy is a bit like Labour's and the ­Tories', only with a promise to retain exchequer funding at current levels.


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