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Oh, come off it ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Fire up the Quattro'

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

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

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

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

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

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

On such issues as the state of Britain's finances and the economic measures needed to tackle the recession, leading politicians routinely pretend to know less than they actually do. On culture, they are doing the opposite – a tactical adoption of normal interests that will keep getting them into trouble. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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