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September 15 2010

Campaign tale

After 5,000 miles on the road in a camper van, Simon Roberts recalls 'fantastic experience' as photographs go on show

From his lofty perch on the roof of a camper van, parliament's official 2010 general election artist looked down on two voters in their immaculate Luton front garden gazing worshipfully at Esther Rantzen; on crowded streets in Westminster and Wales; on the only place in Belfast where loyalist and nationalist posters hung side by side; and on a scrum of reporters and camera crews pleading to share his roof as the melee of Duffygate broke out in Rochdale.

But mostly Simon Roberts captured curiously lonely political figures desperate to hunt down voters, sprinting along deserted streets, hammering on closed doors and roaming desolate shopping malls.

He photographed the former home secretary Jacqui Smith, one of the most prominent victims of the expenses scandal, as a lone figure in a bleak Redditch schoolyard, on her way to losing her seat. "She seemed very isolated, as if she had already been abandoned by her party," he recalled.

UKIP's Nigel Farage appears to have trapped some voters on a bench in Buckingham, hemming them in with party workers and subjecting them to a full-on political harangue. In fact they were all party workers, receiving a pre-canvassing pep talk. Farage was days away from the plane crash that was one of the most bizarre episodes in the election.

"I wanted to capture the landscape of the election, not just the people – and the unfortunate truth is that in England that is going to take you to some pretty bleak places," Roberts said.

He was struck by Nadhim Zahawi, a successful Conservative candidate, working a street of immaculately bland new houses: they are on the edge of Stratford-upon-Avon, but for all the evidence of human life they could be on the moon. He also admired the dauntless slog that another Tory, Hamira Khan, put into a hopeless seat in Glasgow East.

Usually he just recorded whatever he found when he got where he was going, but occasionally he knew in advance the shot he wanted: the Lib Dem Ian Swales, who took Redcar from Labour with one of the biggest swings in the country, with the giant mothballed Corus steel plant in the background; or David Cameron on polling day with a Lib Dem poster in shot.

Now that the images taken with his huge plate camera have been developed, printed, framed, formally handed over to become part of the parliamentary art collection and about to open as an exhibition in Portcullis House, opposite Big Ben – open to the MPs today, and to the public this weekend as part of the London Open House architecture event – Roberts can finally relax.

The idea of parliament appointing an official artist to cover general elections dates from 2001, when Jonathan Yeo, son of the Tory MP Tim Yeo, created a triple image of the party leaders Tony Blair, William Hague and Charles Kennedy, with the size of each portrait based on their share of the vote.

The most controversial was David Godbold in 2005, who claimed that Labour figures including the then Speaker Michael Martin had applied "sinister" pressure to change his work – which used religious imagery to make points about the Iraq war and broken manifesto promises.

Roberts was the first photographer chosen for the role, from a panel of 12 young photographers nominated by experts including the V&A and the Photographer's Gallery.

When he returned home after 5,000 miles travelling, sleeping and working in the camper van, all he wanted was a shave, a bath and a night in a proper bed. It's taken until now for him to work out that he enjoyed the experience immensely.

"Because it took me so long to get anywhere, and so long to set up my shots, I was worried I'd always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I'd get nothing. But it was a fantastic experience to be part of such a huge political event," he said.

"My other real worry was that it would be, as people predicted, the Twitter election, conducted entirely behind doors through television and other media – but that wasn't true either. Because of the expenses scandal the politicians had to get out and face the people, and work for every vote.

"The public really engaged with it, they sent me over 1,700 images, and they're all going into the exhibition too. In some cases you can see those happening – when I photographed Gordon Brown in Rochdale, you can see people taking photographs of the scene on their mobile phones, and those images then got sent to me and have gone into the project as well." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 10 2010

A grotesque eye on history

Beautifully coloured and ever-sharp, Steve Bell's cartoons have been a general election highlight. If anyone in Britain is a true history painter, it's him

Last week saw the painter Dexter Dalwood being shortlisted for the Turner prize. According to his jury citation he is a "history painter"; the name of David, the great artist of the Oath of the Horatii, was invoked.

Hmm. There was another event last week – a historic one. The general election 2010 offered newspaper readers, and followers of the Guardian in particular, the chance to see "history paintings" every day. Let's hear it for the political cartoonists. But why be coy? Let's hear it for Steve Bell.

The Guardian's cartoonist has far more claim to be called a "history painter" than Dalwood does. Bell is one of my favourite contemporary artists, and has been since I was at school. In the dark days of Thatcherism, his strip If… was a rallying cry and comic escape rolled into one: it was what made me a Guardian reader.

If… continues, gloriously, but what made me laugh most in this election were Bell's ambitious, indeed epic, creations for the comment pages. These are masterpieces in the vein of Gillray. On Friday, he caught the reality of a hung parliament more accurately than any number of words can.

Art criticism should surely mean being awed by talent, and it is awe-inspiring how Bell can produce images that are so beautifully coloured while being so grotesquely apposite – and do this to punishingly tight deadlines. And the cartoon is a great art form. Tate Britain is right to honour it with the exhibition Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, due to open in June. In truth, this is our own national genre of "history painting".

While artists such as David were making history the highest genre in 18th-century France, the attempts of British artists from James Barry to Joshua Reynolds to elevate history painting in Britain never quite took off. Instead, the local alternative of comic history painting was born. Regency cartoons with their vicious depictions of political leaders have a sense of history all their own, a scabrous vision of the follies of the world. It surely lives in Bell's vision of the general election. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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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 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Roy Greenslade: Bizarre coincidence of name shared by journalist and BNP member

How about this for a bizarre coincidence? The reporter who wrote the infamous, uncritical piece about a British National Party meeting in the Brentwood Gazette (see here and here and here) shares a surname with a BNP member.

But Natalie Hoodless says there are no familial links whatsoever between her and John Hoodless, the man originally chosen by the BNP as a general election candidate in Darlington.

Hoodless, though selected as the BNP's prospective parliamentary candidate, was replaced after an acrimonious falling out with the party. A local man, he stood for UKIP in the 2005 election but, according to a BNP website, later "saw the light" by joining the BNP.

Hoodless is not a common name, but when I phoned to ask Natalie Hoodless if she was related to John Hoodless, she said: "I'm related to A John Hoodless".

Is he the BNP candidate in Darlington. "No, he's a carpenter". But are they one and the same? "No. I didn't know there was a John Hoodless there [in Darlington]."

Fair enough. But it also emerges that Ms Hoodless has a track record of writing sympathetically about both the BNP and UKIP. (BNP examples here and here; UKIP example here).

Then again, the stories would have gone through the normal subbing process so we must presume that the Gazette was happy enough about their laudatory tone.

NB: The offending article about the BNP by Ms Hoodless was taken down from the Gazette's website after my calls to the paper last week. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The politics of faith | Nick Spencer

A comparison of Clegg and Attlee shows how bland politics has become. Leaders should be able to speak out on belief

Nick Clegg and Clement Attlee do not have a great deal obviously in common. They do, however, share one significant political feature. They are (or were) each openly atheist.

According to Peter Hennessy, Attlee was one of only three post-war British prime ministers who fell firmly into the unbelief camp (the others were Churchill and Eden). In spite of attending Haileybury Imperial Service College, "a school suffused with Anglicanism", Attlee seems to have been "entirely untouched by organised religion".

Clegg, as he admitted in the second prime ministerial debate two weeks ago, is also "not a man of faith", and it was this point that Eddie Mair, presenter of Radio 4's PM programme, chose to take up with the Liberal Democrat leader at the start of his extended interview with him last week. He opened with a viciously simply question. "In the last television debate you volunteered that you are not a man of faith. Why don't you believe?"

Nick Clegg's answer began with a few seconds of stunned silence, lasted a minute and was a masterclass of incoherence.

"Why don't I believe? Em … Gosh, that's one of the most difficult questions, I, I think I can, I can imagine … I … why do, why do I not know … whether God exists or not … it's not something, it's not something … "

At this point Mair came back in, although it was clearly to bury Nick Clegg rather than to praise him. "You tell me what you think and what you don't think and explain why you arrived at that conclusion."

Clegg stumbled on. "Because I quite simply don't know whether, whether, whether God exists and … you know, I know it's obviously fashionable to say, say that, you know, one does, but I … I don't, you know, I'm not a man, a man of faith … sometimes I very much wish I was, because I think having faith must be a great thing. You know, members of my family do, my wife does, my children are being brought up in her church, and I think it can be a wonderful, unifying thing … but I, I myself ... you know, have not, have not, have not, you know, experienced, if you like, clearly what other people of faith have. Maybe it'll happen one day."

You could almost sense Mr Clegg's relief when he finally ground to a halt, but Eddie Mair was not finished with him. "Were you brought up in a Christian family?"

This was, at least, an easier question which Nick Clegg answered with confidence if not relish, concluding that faith "is not something that has happened to me, or at least not yet."

"So is it something you have actively rejected or have yet to be convinced of?" Mair pressed on.

"No, it's not something I've actively rejected at all," Nick Clegg replied. "I'm, I'm very interested, I think, like everybody is to, you know, a very personal level, with, you know, issues of, of, of spirituality, I think that's what makes us human … and … you know, it's nothing to with my politics but I, like every other individual, struggle with those very important aspects of our, of our, of our lives. So it's not something I'm closed off from at all. No, far from it."

Now, let's compare this exchange with one that Clement Attlee had with Kenneth Harris on the same subject.

Harris: Was it Christianity that took you into politics?

Attlee: Social conscience, I would say. Inherited it. My parents were very much that way.

Harris: But your parents were actually professing Christians, weren't they?

Attlee: Yes. And my brothers and sisters.

Harris: But you weren't?

Attlee: No. I'm one of those people who are incapable of religious experience.

Harris: Do you mean you have no feeling about Christianity, or that you have no feeling about God, Christ, and life after death?

Attlee: Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can't believe the mumbo jumbo.

Harris: Would you say you are an agnostic?

Attlee: I don't know.

Harris: Is there an afterlife, do you think?

Attlee: Possibly.

Comparison between these two exchanges is a little unfair. Clegg was live on air during a campaign; Attlee talking to his official biographer. Clegg's response is a direct transcription (well, minus the "ums" and "ers") and everyone sounds incoherent when thus rendered; Attlee's was doubtless edited during transcription. And Clegg and Attlee are simply different characters. Attlee, as Peter Hennessey has observed, had the habit of reducing interviewers to near desperation by the brevity of his replies. Douglas Jay, who worked with him in No 10, once said that Clement "would never use one syllable where none would do."

Nevertheless, the comparison remains instructive. Can you imagine Nick Clegg or any other party leader saying to Eddie Mair, "Well, Eddie, I believe in the ethics of Christianity but I can't believe in all the mumbo jumbo." Radio nerves and Mair's notorious curve-balls notwithstanding, it would never happen.

Those of an atheist disposition will put this down to the ludicrous oversensitivity that we show today towards religion. Politicians have been bullied into silence by religious fanatics and are simply scared to roll their sleeves up, get stuck in and call mumbo jumbo by its proper name.

That, however, is obvious nonsense. Tony Blair, who knew a thing or two about being in the public gaze, took a vow of silence about his religious beliefs when he realised, to his cost, how people reacted whenever he mentioned God. On the rare occasions he broke his own rules – such as when he let slip to Michael Parkinson his entirely innocuous belief that as a Christian he thought he would be judged by God – he was reprimanded, not least by tolerant liberal secularists like Evan Harris MP who warned him against making "references to deity" in public life.

The truth behind Nick Clegg's vacillation, Tony Blair's silence, and the reason why both are so different from Clement Attlee's abrasive, monosyllabic honesty, has much more to do with our broader political culture.

Growing religious illiteracy, fear of religious violence and the media pressures that have turned election campaigns into minutely choreographed tours of duty have forced a crushing blandness on our party leaders, draining them of serious personal opinions that might offend voters. As part of that trend, we are seemingly incapable of grasping the fact that public servants are driven by private motivations. Because they are there to serve the universal public good, we seem to believe that they must be driven by universally acceptable public beliefs.

But people don't work like that. Every belief is a belief in something and not in something else. Everyone thinks their beliefs are right, which often means other people's are wrong. And every politician – or at least every conviction politician – is motivated by a particular conception of the good which is informed by particular beliefs about the world. Pretending otherwise, even if it is for noblest reasons of inclusion or public accessibility, is to practise a vast deceit on public life, evacuating politics of its honesty and vigour.

Describing Winston Churchill's own faith (which was rather more in himself than in God), the historian Paul Addison has written how Churchill "belonged to an era of secularised religion in which the doctrines of liberalism, socialism and imperialism were all bathed in the afterglow of a Christian sunset. Now the afterglow has gone: and political discourse has shrunk into a narrow, stultifying recital of economic indicators, enlivened by occasional outbreaks of xenophobia."

The Christian sunset may have faded, but the very fact that Eddie Mair opened with the question he did reminds us that the question of religion and politics burns as bright today as it ever has done. We seem ill-adept at dealing with it, liable to denounce political leaders for believing in things we don't. If we ever hope to escape the political stage-management and stultifying recital of economic indicators, we need to permit our representatives, whether atheist Cleggs or Christian Blairs, to speak openly about the personal beliefs without jumping down their throats when we hear something we don't like. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?!


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?


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?


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


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?


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?


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.


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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.


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?


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?


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?


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.


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?


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?


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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Roy Greenslade: The Sun recruits Simon Cowell to its pro-Tory campaign

At last, The Sun calls in the nation's real leader to assist in its campaign on behalf of the Conservatives. "I have always hated celebrities lecturing people on politics," says Simon Cowell. But what the hell? I'm going to do it anyway.

His message, strangely, echoes that of the paper. A hung parliament would be bad for Britain. Gordon Brown is past it. Nick Clegg has worrying policies. David Cameron, wouldn't you just know it, "has substance and the stomach to navigate us through difficult times."

Cowell has met "David" twice and trusts him on "gut instinct" because "he was very quick to commit to helping with a serious funding deficit for a children's hospice charity I am involved with."

It appears that Cowell is more of an expert on politics than his modesty suggests. A hung parliament, he writes, "ends in months of stupid arguments and then a dull compromise, which means nothing ever gets achieved."

He does not reveal how he came by this insight. So what? It must be worth a splash if Cowell is saying it.

And if that doesn't get Sun readers worked up, then the Page 3 picture of 16 topless models will surely do the job. They will be on the dole, says the paper, if the Tories do not get elected.

Why? Because Labour's Harriet Harman and the Lib Dems' Lynn Featherstone want to change the law to "ban Page 3 forever."

To underline this assault on our liberties, The Sun introduces its readers to "the radical ideas of 17th century philosopher John Locke" who, it says, "helped shape our freedoms."

So that's it. The election is decided. Cowell plus Locke plus 16 Page 3 girls equals certain victory for Dave. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

General election 2010: how to vote

Still don't know how to vote in this week's election? There's not long left, you know. Luckily, Tim Dowling has created a flow chart to help you make up your mind

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Why is the US mocking our 'Harry Potter' election? | Hadley Freeman

British voters and politicians have been treated to quite extraordinary levels of condescension from American commentators

There have been many irritating elements to this election, not least the unignorable, looming realisation that this country's finances are about to be put in the hands of a man whose only qualification in the study of money seems to be that his wallpaper-designing family has a lot of it.

But perhaps most trying of all has been the degree of curious condescension British voters and politicians have been treated to from American commentators: "America's Deadbeat Older Brother, the United Kingdom, is holding an election for Best Wizard! Or Prime Minister, or something," snarked the reliably snarky website Gawker. Only four weeks long! No smear campaigns! And those cute accents!

Even Saint Jon Stewart slipped into this all-too-easy mode on The Daily Show last week, when he amusingly yet not entirely fairly managed to reduce the UK election down to a little squabble about bus passes. "You all know you used to rule the subcontinent, you do know that?" he asked, while unscrewing a salt shaker and slicing up some lemons.

To characterise America as the Champions League and England as the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final suits both American self-aggrandisement and British self-deprecation, and is an easy source of lazy laughs. It's the Grumpy Old Nations approach to international relations, and as someone who is lucky enough to pay taxes in both the UK and US, I try to avoid this cheesy stance. However, there are times when it's hard not to think that, yup, we Americans sure do things bigger and better

Last week, something happened in Rochdale that you may have heard about. A pensioner demanded that Gordon Brown inform her of the origins of eastern Europeans, Brown muttered in his car that she was "bigoted", the pensioner huffed to the Mail on Sunday (reportedly for £80,000) that she was more outraged that he referred to her as a "woman" than a "bigot", and the UK media dubbed this ripple in a teacup "Bigotgate". You want Bigotgate? I'll show you Bigotgate.

The same week that the UK rightwing press was crowing that Brown's "gaffe" proved that "immigration is this country's most incendiary issue", America was facing the prospect of it being illegal to not be, if not racist, then let's say race-ish, in one of its states, Arizona. Read that again, slowly.

Thanks to the passing of a law – known officially as SB1070, and unofficially as "nazism" by a Cardinal Roger M Mahony, as quoted in the New York Times – police are now not only required to demand documents from anyone of whom they are "reasonably suspicious", but Arizona citizens can sue the police if they think they have failed to harass a "suspicious looking" person.

As several politicians, Democrat and Republican, have pointed out, this sounds distinctly like racial profiling. Arizona's governor Jan Brewer has denied this, but has failed to specify quite what kind of looks count as "suspicious". And Gawker's accusation on Monday that the Arizona State Senate majority leader and proponent of SB1070, Chuck Grey, was following not one but two white supremacist groups on Twitter doesn't exactly help Brewer's claim. Nor – as Frank Rich pointed out in last Sunday's New York Times – did Rush Limbaugh's recent linking of the birther movement and SB1070 ("I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers. Maybe he's afraid somebody's going to ask him for his." Um, if memory serves, they did, Rush and he produced them). Not that Brewer seems to give a damn what people think.

If I have failed to convey the true nature of this bill, maybe this will help: the Bush family finds it offensive. Perhaps SB1070's supporters should use that as a tagline: "SB1070: the law that's so rightwing, it makes the Bushes look moderate."

One person who does like it, though, is the politician formerly known as Maverick John McCain. Again, this is an example of America doing things on a much larger scale than the UK. If you think Labour has lost its moral compass over the past 10 years, meet John McCain, the man who three years ago said that America needed to find a "humane, moral" way to deal with illegal immigrants. Two weeks ago he told – Fox News, who else? – that these "illegals" are "intentionally causing accidents on the freeway", a statement that manages to make querying where eastern Europeans flock from sound intelligent.

The setting for McCain's announcement is telling. The engine that has moved America's Republican party to the right of the Bushes has been Fox News, home of Glenn "Obama's a racist" Beck and Bill "I just wish hurricane Katrina had hit the UN" O'Reilly.

Where America has highly partisan TV and neutral broadsheet newspapers, Britain takes the opposite approach, and Fox News's equivalent in this country is not, surprisingly, a Murdoch product but the Daily Mail. There are many, many complaints one can make about the Mail but, so far, the Conservative party has managed to resist having its policies dictated by it (it remains to be seen for how long Cameron resists being dictated to by Murdoch), and, reluctant as I am to defend the Mail, at least that paper speaks out explicity against the BNP – unlike Fox News which actively champions looney pockets such as the Tea Party movement.

So yes, Britain, we Americans may recently have been mocking the "laughable tameness" of your political system and election. We might make jokes about the election being decided by Harry Potter's sorting hat. But the truth is, we're just jealous. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Who received EU farm subsidies last year? Whitehall won't say | David Hencke

In refusing to release information about who receives subsidies until after the election, civil servants are exceeding their brief

Over the bank holiday weekend senior civil servants running the country took an extraordinary decision to ban the public from seeing information because they thought it was so controversial that it would disrupt election campaigning.

They decided to protect candidates from being asked questions on the issue and thought it best the public be left in ignorance about the facts.

What was this issue? Not some horrendous economic figure, some real facts on immigration. No, it was decision not to reveal which farmers and agribusinesses scooped up some £3bn from the taxpayer from EU farm subsidies last year.

On Friday statistics were published simultaneously in the other 26 EU countries revealing who had been paid what – it is part of a victory by European journalists to force countries under freedom of information acts to release all this previously secret information.

But in London – against an EU directive – the information was banned. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website says: "Due to the general election campaign, this website will not be updated with the 2009 figures until after the election."

A letter from a Defra official to Jack Thurston, head of, which campaigns for transparency for EU payments, says why: "This decision reflects the need to maintain, and be seen to maintain, the impartiality of the UK civil service, given the potential risk that CAP payment information relating to any individuals involved in the election might be used as part of election campaigning."

Yet ministries continue to publish information on hospital admissions and roads, just to name two. And in post-devolution Scotland they have taken the opposite decision. They published their figures over the weekend – revealing that 19,000 farmers and agribusinesses shared nearly £600m of public money and the world has not fallen apart north of the border.

So who does this protect? Initial research by reveals that possibly up to 70 of the 650 Tory candidates standing at the election could be receiving some sort of subsidy. Up to half a dozen Ukip candidates – who campaign against the EU – could be receiving EU cash as well as a smattering of Liberal Democrat candidates. On the Tory side they have discovered that the declared postcode for receipt of EU subsidies is often the same one as used by a local Conservative Association, suggesting that leading officials of the local parties are also receiving subsidies. These are all taken from the previous year's subsidy figures.

Yet we won't know, thanks to Whitehall, until after the election – even though the EU has made it clear in an article in the EU Observer today that it is disappointed with Britain and intends to write to the new government pointing out it is not in line with the EU directive.

Frankly, disappointment is too weak a word. It is scandal that unelected officials should decide what information should be made public and when. The decision is also partisan in that it appears to protect opposition party candidates more than Labour candidates from scrutiny – particularly in the case of the Conservatives.

Sir Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, should reverse this now. Otherwise it bodes very badly if we are in hung parliament territory when Whitehall will be effectively running the country while politicians sort out a new government. If officials are going to select what information the public should know and what should be kept secret, they are exceeding their brief. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Mike Smithson's bet of the day: heading for a hung parliament

Challenge facing the Conservatives now seems too great and they are likely to fall short of the required 326 seats

Until now I have avoided the big question of what will be the outcome: a Conservative majority government or a hung parliament. This is so tight that the betting markets have been oscillating between one and the other with each new opinion poll.

My view now is that the challenge facing the Tories is just too great and that they will fall short of the required 326 seats. The reason: they are going to find it hard in encounters with the Liberal Democrats. Not only are they likely to finish up almost empty-handed in the battle for current Lib Dem seats but they could lose seats to Nick Clegg's party.

On top of that they are going to find it hard going in the three-way marginals. Every seat not won in these encounters means that they need to make more gains from Labour.

The odds are changing all the time and I suggest checking out one of the odds comparison sites such as Bestbetting to find the best value.

Mike Smithson is the founder and editor of © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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