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September 16 2011

Cornelia Parker selects spectrum of Government Art Collection

Whitechapel Gallery's choice of government-owned art includes works by Andy Warhol and Grayson Perry

A video of a man hanging precariously from a ladder seems somehow appropriate for a collection intrinsically linked to politics and politicians, as does the portrait of Elizabethan statesman William Cecil which recently hung in Ken Clarke's office. A phallic geyser bursting out of the earth may be less obvious.

"People will make their own links," said the artist Cornelia Parker about a new exhibition she has curated, choosing 70 works from the Government Art Collection (GAC).

The show is the second in a series of five at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in which different people are let loose among the 14,000 works in the collection.

Parker said the experience had been fun. She trawled through books and printouts before she decided that she was going to display the works according to colour. "I went through lots of ideas and this one about colour is the one that stuck and it gave me permission to be very eclectic," she said.

It means Old Masters are hanging next to modern work. A portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, for example, is near to Brews, a strikingly orange work, by pop artist Ed Ruscha and a big photograph in Liberal Democrat yellow by Jane and Louise Wilson which recently hung in Nick Clegg's office.

Other works in the show include Grayson Perry's Print for a Politician, which George Osborne personally chose for his office, a Peter Blake screenprint of the Beatles, previously in the residence of the deputy UK representative at the UN in New York, some colourful William Turnbull screenprints last in the ambassador's residence in Panama and an Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen from 1985.

Parker has also chosen one of her own works, which was one of a suite of six that for 10 years hung in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's wood-panelled dining room while Gordon Brown was there – a feather from the pillow of Sigmund Freud.

Spending cuts means the GAC is not buying anything for two years, the first time it has been forced to stop collecting since the second world war. It has been acquiring works for 113 years and around two-thirds are out on display at government buildings and embassies worldwide at any time.

Next at the Whitechapel after Parker's choice will be the selection of historian Simon Schama, and after that staff from 10 Downing Street will be making the decisions.

GAC selected by Cornelia Parker: Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, 16 September-4 December. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 03 2011

The art of politics

Peter Mandelson went for a portrait of Elizabeth 1, Samantha Cameron chose a Lowry . . . These paintings are from the Government Art Collection which, for the first time in its 113-year history, is going on public display

There are three great national art collections that exist somewhere in the no-man's-land between the public and the private: the Royal Collection, the Arts Council Collection and the Government Art Collection. These are big beasts. The Queen, for example, has in her care some 7,000 paintings, 40,000 drawings and 150,000 prints which, according to the Palace, she holds, "in trust as Sovereign for her successors and the Nation, and are not owned by her as a private individual"; the Arts Council's holdings number some 7,500 works, mostly of modern or contemporary British art; and the last of the three, the Government Art Collection, has a hefty 13,500 pieces.

The financial value of these national assets is incalculable – the Royal Collection alone contains 600 Leonardo drawings – but certainly runs into the billions. Their value to Britain's cultural life is equally hard to pin down. While 3,000 items from the Royal Collection are on long-term loan to other museums and galleries and the Queen's Gallery itself has a rolling programme of exhibitions, the bulk of her collection is hidden from view. The Arts Council is a generous lender, sub-letting its pieces to galleries around the country and abroad. However, the collection that is most rarely seen by the people who paid for it is the Government Art Collection. Rarely seen that is until now. For the first time, a selection of the collection's works is on public display – at the Whitechapel Gallery – in the first of five exhibitions showcasing this little-known treasure hoard.

The Government Art Collection's roots go back to 1898 when the Office of Works decided to collate the artworks dotted piecemeal around government buildings. A year later, the Treasury agreed to pay £150 for five portraits to hang in the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary's offices, and in a nice example of Whitehall sophistry, justified the expense on the grounds that the pictures would, "save us a good sum in decoration". Shortly afterwards both the sum and the remit were increased, but the provision remained only for buildings in Britain – ambassadors abroad were required to take responsibility for adorning their empty embassy walls themselves.

It wasn't until the mid 1930s that the men who administered the pink part of the map were included in the scheme and an Overseas Picture Committee – which included the directors of the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery – was formed to supervise the purchasing, albeit with the Foreign Secretary's prescient warning that buying modern art might lead to "undesirable controversy" ringing in their ears.

As the collection became more established its potential for acting as a showcase for contemporary British art was recognised and works by living artists began to be commissioned. In the 1950s and 60s a concerted effort was made to expand the collection and use it to present Britain's cultural face to the wider world. The prime mover was Harold Wilson, the first PM to display modern art in Downing Street, believing that the "white heat" of the technological revolution warmed the British art world too. Perhaps predictably Mrs Thatcher held no truck with Wilson's taste and preferred the company of historical portraits of great men. It was not Tony Blair's fixation with Cool Britannia that put contemporary art back in No 10 but the determinedly uncool John Major. In this, if in nothing else, succeeding Labour governments and the Coalition took their lead from him.

At any one time two thirds of the collection are on display in 400 government buildings around the world. The remainder are stored in an anonymous building just off the northern end of London's Tottenham Court Road, a street better known for electronics shops and sofa outlets than for art. But it is here that ministers and ambassadors can come, in one of the choicest perks of office, to go through the racks of prints and paintings and pick what they would like on their walls. As the collection's director Penny Johnson diplomatically puts it, some mandarins are too busy – for which read "uninterested" – to visit in person, but of the top tier of the current government both Nick Clegg and George Osborne ordered their ministerial cars to this unprepossessing spot.

Naturally the comings and goings are at their greatest during a change of government – the new incumbents are often as quick to distance themselves from their predecessors' pictures as they are from their policies.

The GAC, having seen 22 different administrations during the course of its history, is well used to dealing with politicians' foibles. For those new appointees oblivious to their working environment, the collection's staff in true Yes Minister style, offers a gentle steer – promoting contemporary pieces and suggesting which pictures would best suit which office. And so it goes that some government members win a reputation for avant-garde taste when it isn't theirs at all.

As part of its brief to champion British art, the GAC also has a rolling six-monthly display of contemporary works at No 10 itself. It means that the such artists as Susan Hiller and Mary Martin can keep temporary company with the paintings of Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Nash and Freud that family Cameron already enjoys.

Although the present Prime Minister didn't make it to the Tottenham Court Road repository himself, those ministers who do venture north will find a large room filled with rack after rack of carefully labelled artworks ranging chronologically from two panel portraits of Henry VI and Edward IV painted c1530 to a pair of collages by Abigail Reynolds created last year. While some other countries run similar art schemes, no other can match the GAC's historical spread. The 2010 pieces, however, may well be the last new works for a while as spending cuts mean the GAC has no purchasing budget for the next two years.

Slide out each rack though and there is still plenty to choose from. They are draped with portraits of past statesmen and great Britons by the likes of Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller; a David Bomberg drawing of boats on the Thames nestles against a Patrick Caulfield pipe; a huge composite Howard Hodgkin etching competes in colour with bright chromatic splashes from Victor Pasmore; an immaculately detailed pencil drawing of a London weed by Michael Landy contrasts with a Martin Creed neon sculpture, and on and on it goes.

The bulk of the works, however, are by very minor artists, from Eleazar Albin to George Zobel. And there are innumerable topographical prints and vistas of British towns of the sort that usually hang forgotten in the back bedrooms of grand country houses and which are destined some day to fill a space in a Whitehall corridor or an office in our consulate in Armenia.

The Whitechapel exhibition can give only the merest hint of the breadth of the collection. It features 26 works chosen by seven "curators", among them the PM's wife Samantha Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, former Labour minister Lord Mandelson and the head of MI6 Sir John Sawers. Their choices all come from pieces that have been in their workplaces and the majority are contemporary. The future four exhibitions, selected by notaries including the artist Cornelia Parker, the historian Simon Schama, and the non-political staff of No 10, will help fill out the picture.

Needless to say, the pieces now on display provide numerous opportunities for amateur psychologising. Just as you can judge a man from his shoes you can judge a politician by his art. Lord Mandelson, for example, has selected an anonymous 16th-century portrait of Elizabeth I, a photograph by David Dawson of the current Queen Elizabeth sitting for her portrait by Lucian Freud, a small bronze by John Michael Rysbrack of the artist-courtier Rubens, and a design for the Festival of Britain by Cecil Stephenson. So, that's one absolute monarch, one picture mixing royalty and respectable celebrity, one representation of a well-travelled international statesman who hailed from the Brussels region, and one painting hinting at Herbert Morrison, Mandelson's grandfather and the force behind the festival. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that what Baron Mandelson looks for in a work of art is not its intrinsic qualities but how it reflects the New Labour grandee himself. The pieces add up to a collective self-portrait.

Sir John Sawers's picks include both Jim Lambie's The Doors and Norman Blamey's In the Cellar Mirror. The former is a concertinaed wooden sculpture of a pink door that appears, depending on which angle you view it from, to be simultaneously open, closed or in the act of opening; the latter is a double portrait seen via a mirror – each is a trompe l'oeil showing that even in his art choices our spy chief prefers things not to be what they initially seem.

Samantha Cameron's selection of LS Lowry's teeming Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook can be read as a nod to the man-of-the-people protestations of her husband's administration. Meanwhile, the presence on the walls of our Moscow embassy of Derek Boshier's I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race, painted in 1962 during the Cold War, is an elegant bit of teasing by the ambassador, Dame Anne Pringle. And poor Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, has been so browbeaten by red boxes full of documents that he even hangs text on his walls – Michael Landy's poignantly titled Compulsory Obsolescence, a hand- written/drawn collage of letters, faxes and newspaper clippings.

The exhibition has already prompted some utilitarian-minded individuals to question whether in these straitened times the collection shouldn't be sold off and the money used for more efficacious projects. Penny Johnson's practised response is that the pictures earn their keep: many were bought at a discount because artists are keen for their work to be part of the collection; every item in the collection has at some point been sent out and will travel again; by the terms of its brief the GAC, like other accredited museums and galleries, is forbidden from deaccessioning works; and, above all, it is a working collection with a job description to promote both Britain and Britart in general.

It is, of course, no coincidence that the GAC is showing its face at a moment in time when every public institution has to justify its existence. And perhaps now that their expenses are not quite so malleable, our political masters have all the more need for the consolations of art.

• The Government Art Collection is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until 4 September 2012. For more information call 020 7522 7888. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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Political figures pick their top artworks

From Samantha Cameron to Lord Mandelson, political figures have chosen their favourite works from the Government Art Collection for a new exhibition. What do their choices reveal?

December 03 2010

The great British art collection

Nick Clegg and Samantha Cameron among guest curators for exhibition of works normally housed in embassies and ministries

It has witnessed governments and empires collapse, heard the gossip of mandarins and seen the rise and fall of many a calculating politician. But, for the first time, the Government Art Collection is to face an entirely different audience – the public who paid for its acquisition.

The collection – which has decorated British embassies, consulates and ministerial buildings throughout the world for more than a century – is going to be displayed to the public.

Arch political operator Lord Mandelson, the prime minister's wife, Samantha Cameron, and the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawers, are among the guest curators choosing which of the 13,500 works will go on display.

Works from the collection, whose purpose is to promote the best of British art, will be on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London from June next year until September 2012. "The government art collection has been in existence since 1898, but this is the first time in its 113-year history that people will be able to walk in off the street to see it, we are thrilled to have it running for 15 months," said Penny Johnson, director of the collection.

The works serve an important diplomatic service, she said. "They can act as important icebreakers, or conversation starters. Of course the reason they are there is to promote British art but if they help make conversations flow a little easier, that's another positive."

The first of five displays will also include choices from the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the British high commissioner to South Africa, Lord Boateng, the British ambassador to Moscow, Dame Anne Pringle, and culture minister Ed Vaizey.

"The collection is a unique treasure," said Vaizey. "It's run on a shoestring and shown in a haphazard way in ministries and embassies, but what better way to open it to the public than at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, in one of the most diverse communities in the country."

Out of the thousands of paintings, prints and sculptures hanging on the walls of embassies around the world or kept at the collection's base off Tottenham Court Road in central London, Samantha Cameron chose a work by distinctly working class, unavoidably northern painter LS Lowry. Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, painted in 1946 and bought by the collection for £120 a year later, depicts mill workers enjoying one of their two statutory days' holiday a year at a bustling fair.

Mandelson has plumped for a shadowy historical portrait of the celebrated, but ruthless, Queen Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, while Boateng has chosen Peas are the New Beans by Bob and Roberta Smith.

The collection was established, in a typically British way, almost by accident, with parliament deciding that it was cheaper to buy large portraits to cover walls than redecorate Whitehall at the end of the 19th century. Since then the attention bestowed on the collection has depended in no small part on the political rough and tumble of the age, with the art in buildings such as Downing Street and the Treasury changed to suit the tastes of new inhabitants after each new government or cabinet reshuffle. And while David Cameron was too busy to chose the art for his new offices personally, both his deputy Nick Clegg and his right hand man George Osborne took a keen interest.

For the consulates and embassies around the world, the 14-strong team at the collection chose works that not only show off the best of British, but hold relevance for the countries they live in.

A dashingly romantic portrait of Lord George Gordon Byron, by Thomas Phillips, bought for £110 in 1952, resides in the Greek embassy in Athens, a nod to the poet's fateful decision to fight in the Greek war of independence, while there are no prizes for guessing where LA woman by Scottish artist Jim Lambie can be found.

Johnson and her team continue to scour small art galleries and emerging artists' studios to invest in the British art of the future with a £200,000 annual budget to add to the collection, which includes work by Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Constable, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Paul Nash,

Pushing in a rail of priceless works from the 16th century onwards, at the collection offices in central London, she suggested one reason why the public should be keen to visit the exhibition. "If these paintings had ears, imagine what they would they have heard, and known," she said. "They've had very interesting lives." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 17 2010

Nick Clegg as a cartoon figure

Nick Clegg is now a target for political cartoonists and is not faring well. Here four leading political cartoonists reveal what inspires them and Peter Preston explains how the damage can be minimised

Political cartoonists, the satire squad of breakfast time, need something real to work with. And real, for them, means weak, pathetic, a scab that will bleed time and again while its victim squirms. Real is a human faultline turned to baleful laughter. Real is something we can all glimpse for ourselves, but served with a savage relish. Real, though, is often really hard to find.

Is Nick Clegg already doomed to go down in history as Little Clegg Riding Hood? As David Cameron's Eton fag, as the commanding officer's batman, as little boy lost? Look around and, only a couple of months into coalition cohabitation, you can see rival themes working. But, if you're Clegg, you'll naturally fear what may follow another few months on. Then one image will have trumped the rest. And, then, perhaps, it will begin to do real damage.

John Major felt that after the Guardian's Steve Bell started to draw him with shirt tucked into Y-fronts, a nerd of a superhero. Was that more damaging than Spitting Image's TV puppet version of a grey bloke eating peas? Absolutely, because Super-Y-front could sweep into battle, fighting the global menace of traffic cones. Ridiculously active, not passive.

But Spitting Image would also seem to have supplied the template for Messrs Cameron and Clegg – the ruinous relationship between David Steel and David Owen as twin masters of the Alliance a quarter of a century ago. There was Owen, dominant, imperious, a bit of a swine, and there was the Boy David, a snivelling midget stuck in his pocket. This wasn't any sort of true alliance, it suddenly seemed. This was a ventriloquist and his dummy.

"I think that was a ghastly thing to have happened to him and that he handled it with great dignity," says Owen now. Which meant that Steel, much traduced, tried to make a joke of it. "It's totally outrageous – I'm half an inch taller than Neil Kinnock!" But the damage – maybe even precipitating an end to alliance – was there, stamped into the public psyche. Now, as head of house and quivering fag, we may be in for it again.

Is there any escape for young Nick and decisive Dave once the caricatures of night begin to close? They can't choose the Thatcher route (simply to be so much of a cartoon figure to begin with that satire doesn't stick). Nor can they attempt a Blair-Brown rematch, because – under cover – the satire mob never quite got to grips with that until Peter Mandelson gave them a few facts to chew on.

Only one way out is there for the taking: basic counter-reality. Clegg wasn't a shrinking violet at coalition time: he was a mover and shaker (now the instant histories start to be written). Cameron wasn't a top toff dictating terms: he was a needy lad, too. If, in government, Clegg can appear as more co-equal than squeaking midget, if the casting's just all wrong, then the cartoon circus may have to leave town for a while.

But don't breathe too many sighs of relief. They'll be back at the first sign of frailty. It's their real bread and butter.

Peter Brookes for the Times

"After the coalition was formed, there was talk about the 'new politics'. To me, that was a huge laugh – there's nothing new about having ex-public- school boys ruling us all. "Clegg is very much the junior partner while Cameron has that air of entitlement about him. So the idea of Cameron as a prefect and Clegg as his fag seemed a theme that is infinitely playable on. "I've called him 'Cleggers' because it's a public-school way of addressing somebody. I've also introduced the idea that Danny Alexander is Osborne's fag. The Lib Dems are a party to the left of Labour and they are doing the Tories' bidding – they are fig leaves, being used to justify Tory policy. "At PMQs, you can see Clegg immediately behind Cameron. You can tell he's uncomfortable, as you would be if you were having all this stuff heaped upon you by the Tories. The whole thing is riddled with these wonderful, strange anomalies that will never be resolved, which is why the coalition is so good for cartoonists."

Chris Riddell for the Observer

"The reason Clegg is such a gift to draw is certainly not to do with his physical appearance; he's a pretty ordinary-looking bloke. He doesn't have glasses, doesn't have a beard, he's not balding... But his political position makes him an absolute gift, because of his status in this coalition. So week after week, we do Clegg as a lapdog, a ventriloquist's dummy. A few weeks ago, I did him as Little Clegg Riding Hood, with the Tory wolf waiting in the woods. I think I might be pursuing that a little bit more. Metaphorically, he's much smaller than Cameron, so we'll have him sitting on his knee and being a little person. We did the same with Hague; made him a very small figure, even though he's quite tall.

"I think the way politics is done these days means that image matters a lot. No politician would ever comment on a cartoon unless it was to show what a great sense of humour they have, that they can laugh at themselves. But if there is this growing perception that they are weak, that they are showing weakness in a position, eventually it can really eat away at what they're trying to do."

Steve Bell for the Guardian

"Clegg and Cameron are bound together; they need each other to keep this project going. I think they're deluded. They have a belief in themselves that is there to be punctured. After the election, I came across graffiti on a poster. It was one of Cameron's posters, with him in his shirtsleeves. Somebody had written: 'You're my butler now' and it just made me laugh. The world is Cameron's butler now.

"Clegg is so blank, which is always going to be a problem for a young politician. There are no salient features you can grab and hang on to. That's what made me think of Bubbles', the Millais painting – Clegg's lack of substance. There's a look about him – not vacant, but distant. Nothing much you could put your finger on, but you make that into a feature. He's got a very high forehead and a very pronounced bum chin. Beyond that, it's hard to get a handle on him.

"It's partly because he doesn't have a distinct identity. Politicians have to define themselves first before you can define them. As a cartoonist, though, you're doing it simultaneously, so you do help the process along a bit."

Nick Garland for the Daily Telegraph

"I am aware that other cartoonists are more critical of Clegg, and draw him as a bit of a fool, but I don't think he is. He has a boyish quality, as if he hasn't quite matured. I'm not suggesting he's not a mature olitician – but it's his appearance. You can imagine his mother wiping dirt off his shirt. That was noticeable in their press conference in Downing Street's garden. Cameron automatically sounded like a prime minister, albeit a young, untried one. He is obviously the bigger figure – he is more established and powerful.

"I'd never drawn Clegg before the coalition was formed. Although the Liberal Dems have always included some highly intelligent politicians, they were never going anywhere. As a cartoonist, one tends to look where the action is, so I tended not to pay much attention to them.

"I'm aware I have a pathetic tolerance of politicians. I tried to model myself on the Hungarian cartoonist Vicky, a tremendous hero; I was attracted to his approach. His drawings were comical but rarely bitter or grotesque. By ridiculing somebody, you take away something of their dignity, but you don't do any real damage." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 05 2010

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 live blog

Andrew Sparrow covers the latest general election news and events, including Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg on the campaign trail.

10.52am: Caroline Lucas, the Green party leader, has also been sounding off about the leaders' debates. She told BBC News:

What they have done is turn a two-party stitch-up into a three-party stitch-up and they have still silenced lots of voices that I believe the British public would have wanted to hear. When you had the debates talking about foreign policy, not one of those three parties was talking about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is Green party policy, not one of them was talking about international development, poverty eradication, getting rid of our nuclear weapons. A whole range of different options aren't on the table for as long as you exclude the smaller parties.

10.46am: This is excellent. We asked readers to submit some election questions - not the standard Q&A ones, but quirky, clever ones, like why is the election so male, and how did Britain end up with first-past-the-post in the first place - and Guardian writers have been answering them. I'm going to quote one, just to give you a flavour of what the answers are like, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Why do so many of the media outlets, the Guardian included, persist in the mistaken reference to the opinion polls having a margin of error, typically plus or minus 3%? These polls are carried out using quota sampling. As such, they do not have a margin of error. BigEd

You are right. To statisticians, margin of error can only apply to pure probability theory. And polls don't work on pure probability. The term has become shorthand in the British and US polling industry as a way of explaining that there is a chance the results are slightly wrong. This matters when all parties are close and the order and share affects how they are seen at an election. The Guardian has only used the phrase five times in the last two years. We'll stop, I promise.

10.35am: The phone-in is now over. Nicky Campbell concluded by asking Gordon Brown what he would do if he lost on Thursday. Brown would not speculate about that and said that he was fighting for the values he believed in.

I've got very strong views. I'm impatient to do things. I want to have a chance to build a better Britain for the future.

10.29am: A man called Alan rang in to say that he was dying of lung cancer and that the Department for Work and Pensions was forcing him to look for work. Gordon Brown said that that should not be happening. He said that he would take Alan's details and get the situation changed.

10.26am: Nicky Campbell asked Gordon Brown about Cowell's article in the Sun (see 9.35). Campbell said that Cowell likes Brown but thinks he's tired. Brown said he's not tired: "I'm energised."

He went on:

This is not an election to be decided by celebrities or by insiders or by journalists or by media people. It's the people's election. That's why I respect the fact that at the last minute there are many people ... who say quite rightly that they are undecided. And the reason they are undecided is that this is a big decision.

So why was Brown using Ross Kemp on the campaign trail yesterday, Campbell asked.

Brown said that Kemp had been helping the Labour party for years. But Kemp would accept that celebrities should not decide the election, Brown said.

10.13am: While the Brown phone-in carries on, here's a statement from the Green party leader, Caroline Lucas. She is attacking Nick Clegg for a comment he made in the Financial Times yesterday about electoral reform not being a precondition for coalition talks with the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats have made a huge noise about being the party of change but when it comes down to it all they really are is the party of changing their minds. It's common knowledge that the Tories don't want electoral reform. Any coalition negotitations that don't set out electoral reform as a deal breaker will lead to five more years of the same old system and it's the voters who will suffer.

The FT suggested that Clegg had changed his tack because last week he said the electoral reform was "an absolute precondition for renewal in this country". But yesterday, in response to the FT story, Clegg insisted that he was not being inconsistent. He said that he still believed electoral reform was a precondition for renewal, but that he had never spelt out any conditions for the talks that might take place between the Tories and the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament.

The Green party press release also says that two polling firms, YouGov and ICM, are predicting that Lucas will win in Brighton Pavilion.

10.05am: Nicky Campbell challenged Brown to defend his handling of the banks. How many Canadian banks needed to be bailed out, he asked. Campbell answered the question himself: none. Brown said Canadian banks were not international.

10.00am: A caller has just tried to get Gordon Brown to endorse tactical voting. He said that he was a Labour supporter, but that he lived in Cheltenham, where Labour does not have a chance. The Lib Dems hold the seat with 39.4% of the vote (in 2005), the Tories are just behind with 38.7% of the vote and Labour is trailing on 11.8%. The caller asked if Brown wanted him to vote Labour or Lib Dem tomorrow.

Brown would not take the bait.

I would like everybody who's Labour to vote Labour.

But Brown also said there was "an anti-Conservative majority in this country". He said the Tories went into the election expecting a coronation but found they had less support than they expected. Nicky Campbell told Brown that he had a coronation when he replaced Tony Blair in 2007.

9.46am: Nicky Campbell reminds Gordon Brown that he is being filmed. And he tells listeners that David Cameron did not accept an invitation to appear on the programme.

Brown says an emergency budget from the Conservatives would put the recovery at risk. He says he thinks there should have been more policy debate during the campaign.

Campbell asks about Gillian Duffy. He says that Brown said he would take responsibility in his Citizens UK speech. But when the Duffy incident happened, Brown's instinct was to blame "Sue". Which is the real Brown, Campbell asks.

Brown says he took responsibility after the Duffy incident.

I have said I take responsibility. I have always said when I make a mistake that I have made a mistake.

9.37am: Gordon Brown is about to start a phone-in on Radio 5 Live.

9.35am: I've mentioned the main stories in the papers already (see 6.59am, 8.33am 8.51am). Here are some of the others worth noting.

In the Sun, Simon Cowell says that he believes David Cameron is "the prime minister Britain needs at this time".

And the Sun says Labour's Harriet Harman and the Lib Dems' Lynne Featherstone would ban Page 3 girls.

David Miliband tells the Daily Telegraph says that Labour is about to get "the most New Labour parliamentary party ever".

The Daily Mail joins the tactical voting craze. It's urging people to vote tactically against Labour and it lists 65 seats where Mail readers could keep Labour out by voting Tory, Lib Dem or Plaid Cymru.

The Times says Vincent Cable has donated £14,000 to the Liberal Democrats.

Sue Cameron in the Financial Times says training for new MPs will start on Monday.

9.15am: Is there anyone in British politics with a better turn of phrase than Alan Johnson? This is what he was saying about the Lib Dems earlier on the Today programme.

The Liberal Democrats are on a slow puncture and the air is coming of the tyre. Whether enough of it will come out by Thursday, I don't know.

Johnson said that people liked what they saw of Clegg three weeks ago but that since then he had become "a bit grating". Johnson went on: "He's been trying the same tricks in every television debate and it gets a bit wearing."

The home secretary also said that David Cameron was "arrogant" because he thought he was going to win and that Clegg was "arrogant" because he thought he would be able to pick the prime minister.

8.51am: If George Osborne becomes chancellor, he may have to have some difficult conversations with Treasury officials. The Treasury spends a huge amount of time preparing the budget "red book", the vast document that contains all the figures about tax, spending and the state of the economy. But Osborne has just described it as rubbish. "The red book is largely a work of fiction," he told the Financial Times in an interview today. He said it included over-optimistic growth forecasts and hidden pension and public finance initiative liabilities.

8.47am: I've just been a Press Association account of one of David Cameron's overnight stops. Cameron was asked if the visit was a stunt. He replied:

I'm here with the emergency services. They work all night, I'm perfectly happy to work all night. Call it what you want.

Cameron was also asked if staying up all night was the equivalent of last-minute exam revision. "Well it worked for my finals," he said. (He got a first.)

8.33am: The Times publishes an interview with Brown today. The prime minister seems to have been in a curious mood. In the interview, he accused the Times (which has endorsed the Conservatives) of being biased.

We have figures that stand up to scrutiny and I'm afraid that's just the way life is. Once The Times has made up its mind to go in a particular way, then I don't think the evidence is necessarily the substantiating factor.

It also sounds as if he pretended not to know who the children's secretary was.

Some of his colleagues at the top of the Labour party have been making noises about tactical voting: Lord Adonis and Peter Hain, for example, have made overtures to Liberal Democrat voters. Ed Balls, in particular, has voiced his sympathy for Labour supporters who might be tempted to vote Lib Dem where such a vote could keep a Tory out.

When this is put to Mr Brown, he says: "Ed who?"

8.24am: Is Michael Gove a banana? You must decide for yourself. The shadow children's secretary posed the question earlier today on the Today programme.

We know with proportional representation you cannot be certain that the party that gets the most votes, the party that is the most popular, forms a clear and decisive government. If people vote for the third party, for Nick Clegg, in this election, what they are doing is succumbing to a sort of blind date politics .... The voice is seductive, but when the curtain slips back, after having voted for Nick Clegg, you don't know who you are going to end up in bed with. You could have Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, or David Miliband as your prime minister. If that's democracy, I'm a banana.

Gove also claimed that the Tories would change the voting system to make "every vote count" and to make it "fairer". He was referring to the Tory plans to cut the size of the House of Commons. Gove said this would produce a fairer system because it would ensure every constituency was the same size. Under the current system, there is considerable variation.

8.07am: Alan Johnson, the home secretary, has just been on the Today programme. He said he thinks Labour can win.

I am absolutely convinced we can come through tomorrow with a majority.

He also paid lavish tribute to Gordon Brown. He described Brown as "the single biggest reason why this country did not go into the euro" and he said Brown "has done more to tackle poverty, both in this country and internationally, than any other leader I can think of".

David Cameron was on GMTV earlier. He explained why he had been campaigning through the night.

I never believed this election was going to be easy. I mean, elections are meant to be a challenge. The British people don't hand you the government of the country on a plate. Quite rightly, they are making us work for it.

Cameron hasn't gone without sleep entirely. According to the Press Assocation, he has been "grabbing some sleep in the back of the bus" between visits.

6.59am: David Cameron has been campaigning through the night. But has it impressed the voters? Like Cameron, my colleague Steven Morris never sleeps. He's been on the road early today and he heard a couple of truckers discussing Cameron's all-nighter at the Taunton Deane services on the M5. He's just sent me this:

"That Cameron was up all night, good effort," says the one.
"We do that every night," says trucker two.
"When is the general election anyway?"
Informed that it is tomorrow trucker two says he might vote if he gets up and will probably vote BNP.

In the papers today, tactical voting still dominates. In the Guardian Patrick Wintour says that Tony Blair has rejected the suggestion that Labour supporters should vote tactically against the Conservatives.

Speaking on a day when several cabinet ministers suggested that Labour voters should cast their ballot for the Liberal Democrats in some seats, the former prime minister set himself against the tactic, and was contemptuous of Nick Clegg's party and its claim to represent real change. He described the Lib Dems as "the old politics masquerading as the new", and said their entire history as a party showed them incapable of facing up to hard choices.

Voters, he said, should follow their instincts. "It is simple," he told the Guardian. "Vote for what you believe in. If you think their polices are good, vote for them, but if you don't, don't. The Lib Dems are not going out to people and saying 'vote Labour' – they are trying to take seats off us."

The Times carries an interview with Gordon Brown in which Brown says much the same thing.

The prime minister has rebuffed cabinet colleagues who suggested that Labour supporters could back Liberal Democrat candidates where such a vote would keep out a Conservative.

Instead, he told The Times that he wants people to vote Labour regardless of the state of play in their constituency. "I am asking people to vote Labour because I want to get the maximum Labour vote."

And the lead story in the Daily Telegraph says the Democratic Unionists are willing to enter a coalition with the Conservatives if Cameron does not win an outright majority.

Mr Cameron became the first of the main party leaders to visit Northern Ireland during the election campaign on Tuesday.

He indicated he wished to give Northern Ireland politicians ministerial positions — and see the province play a key role in the "mainstream politics" of the entire country.

There were two polls overnight. ComRes gave the Tories an eight-point lead over Labour, and YouGov gave the Tories a five-point lead. They both showed the Lib Dems clearly in third place. I'll post more details later, but you can read more now at UK Polling Report.

I'm leaving for Westminster now and I'll be posting again at some point after 7.30. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 27 2010

The art of the political poster

Unimpressed by the few political posters around, we asked leading British artists to inspire us and to come up with their own creations. Jonathan Jones introduces their work

View a gallery of the artists' posters

I feel a warm, or perhaps it's a hellish-hot, nostalgia looking at the election posters designed by artists for G2. They all seem steeped in memories of Labour publicity in the 1970s and 80s, in its age of defeat. These are anti-posters, which aspire to be honest rather than glib. The tradition of the poster as contemporary art is, in fact, not Labour but Tory: it was the Saatchi & Saatchi poster "Labour isn't working" that created the whole idea of stylish, eye-catching campaigning.

There is, of course, a far older tradition of beautiful and inspiring political poster art; but there is no point here in raking over the history of the Soviet avant-garde, or of Aleksander Rodchenko's photomontages. This is a British election and these are British artists, who have rejected the Saatchi tendency towards killer publicity in favour of recapturing the intense emotions of us-and-them, of anger and loyalty, that Labour adverts inspired 25 years ago.

Back then, Labour was a tribe, and nothing captures the tribal feelings it must now fall back on better than David Shrigley's brilliant drawing of Gordon Brown: not so much a caricature as a delve into the primitive roots of political loyalty. As for the alternative, Jeremy Deller has portrayed a Conservative vote with the caustic accuracy that does what a campaigning poster should – it campaigns. But are there really no Tory artists? Tracey Emin, who has made positive noises about Cameron and shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey, has not yet launched a Tory manifesto policy, but you'd think she could at least do a slogan for them: "Labour isn't fucking working", perhaps. Nor is there a strong Liberal sentiment –unless Goshka Macuga is sending us a subliminal Clegg message.

These posters are the only things I have seen in the course of this entire election that capture the way I feel. Most of the artists are of my generation, in their 40s, and remember the reality of Tory rule. Shrigley speaks viscerally for the tribe: re-elect our leader Gordon Brown.

Martin Parr

I took this photograph at the St Pauls carnival in Bristol last summer, which is like a mini-version of the Notting Hill carnival. In a picture as busy as this, there will often be somebody or something that doesn't quite work: I like the fact that all the people are there and it works. The crowd is predominantly African-Caribbean, with a few white English people watching with their cameras, as I was, so it's almost like a self-portrait without me in it.

I chose "Vote for Britain" rather than any particular party because that's the whole point. This is neutral and ambiguous and loaded. What does it mean to me? Well, I quite like Britain, of course, and one of the reasons I like taking photographs in Britain is that it challenges my own feelings about it: it's not all good and not all bad; there are things I like and things I don't. I'm soft left and I live in a marginal seat, Bristol West. I vote tactically, so I'll probably vote Lib Dem.

Mark Wallinger

We have been through quite a few campaigns without memorable slogans now. Everyone harks back to the Saatchis' "Labour isn't working", but that was 1978. As a lifelong Labour person, through all the party's vicissitudes and disappointments, I was intrigued by the possibility of a campaign that revealed some of the bigger fault lines between the parties, beyond the not-very-galvanising debate over national insurance and VAT. I came up with two other slogans apart from this: "What school did you go to?" and "Who can afford to go private?"

I admit this isn't the most sophisticated, but it does go to the heart of the credibility of the man. Cameron reminds me of a bar of soap. He has been leader for a long time now and I have no idea what he stands for. I hope that the idea of the emperor's new clothes and all his empty rhetoric is implicit. The colours are those of the two main parties, and the union flag; I wanted it to be punchy.

I hope people look at this and see that there are real choices. I'm sick of people saying, "Oh, they're all the same." They're not, and it's up to us to see the differences. Labour is the party for equality and for reform in the Lords. Like most people I feel a little jaded after the banking crisis, but I will vote Labour and hope for the best.

They're a po-faced lot, though, aren't they? Let's hope someone in the campaign discovers a bit of wit: a good joke does hit home. Roy Hattersley was a wit, Robin Cook, Tony Benn – the people on the old left who can see the bigger picture. Though I did like Ken Clarke's description of the Hoon/Hewitt attempted leadership coup earlier this year: hiding behind the dagger and stabbing with the cloak. That was very good.

David Shrigley

When I'm drawing people, I tend to do it really quickly – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Nick Clegg is not easy to draw because you'd be hard pushed to think of anything physically defining about him. The only one I seem to be able to draw is David Cameron: I trace his face, then I make his features smaller in Photoshop and that seems to work. I drew Gordon Brown and it started to look like him the more I looked at it.

Historically I have voted Labour, but not since the Iraq war – I couldn't countenance that. I would never vote Conservative. This poster doesn't express my strong personal support, although of the three of them, I would like Brown to win. Originally the background was yellow, because I like black on yellow, but then I realised yellow was the Lib Dem colour. So I've gone for a rosy red, a kind of New New Labour red. The words say "re-elect", although he wasn't elected as leader, as such. I like the ambiguity.

Bob and Roberta Smith

I don't want to tell people how to vote. The important thing is just to get involved in the whole jamboree – by voting, yes, but also by finding satirical messages to deface posters with, like the person who turned David Cameron into Elvis. If my own poster goes viral, so much the better. It's made up of four timber panels. On the upper panels are pictures of some of my Labour heroes: Clement Attlee, Tony Benn, Glenda Jackson, Bernie Grant – people with extraordinary vision. I put them there to remind me why I'm a Labour supporter. I stopped voting Labour after the Iraq war, and started voting Green. But I'm going to vote Labour in this election. I'm particularly impressed with Ed Miliband's stand on green issues: he could turn out to be in the same category as these heroes. Cameron just reminds me of a disappointed school master, lecturing his students about their stupid antics.

Gerald Scarfe

They're both crap, I suppose that's what I'm saying. If you go to the extreme and call them shits, that's probably not so nice. But I'm saying, really, voters have a crap choice. You would assume Cameron would be ahead, because he is new, and a change, and hasn't made all the mistakes Brown has, but he isn't and the election is very close. The caricature must come from the character of the person. I wasn't a supporter of Margaret Thatcher but she was good material, because she had such a strong personality. I could portray her as a knife or an axe; I couldn't do that with John Major or Iain Duncan Smith. I used to find drawing Brown quite dull because he's a dour personality – a big blob with ears. I draw Cameron in his Bullingdon outfit, because he's so desperate not to appear to be a toff. How daft does he think we are? My position as a cartoonist/journalist for all these years has been to try to remain neutral and to attack all sides, because they are all capable of fallibility. I know this is a bit of a cop out but here I'm saying, I don't know who to vote for. Like I say, it's a crap choice.

Richard Wentworth

There are people who are obsessive about being born under a certain star sign, and those who believe you can only be born when you're born: that that was your time, that only those people could be your parents. I didn't want to leave people with the cheesiness of a bad joke about "labour", but I did want to remind people that they are born into a political space. I worked with some lovely designers who made this look as if it has been around for ever. The font is reminiscent of those Keep Calm and Carry On posters – it's of that period. The red wasn't a conscious decision in terms of "Labour red", just a happy accident; red goes in the eye quickly. I would love to see it reproduced very big. If people look at it and go "What does that mean?", that's good.

Jeremy Deller

This poster is anti-Conservative rather than pro-Labour. Rupert Murdoch is the most powerful lobbyist there is in this country, so I'm drawing attention to the fact that a vote for the Tories is a vote for him. If I'd made a poster for the last election, it would have looked almost the same, except it would have said "Vote Labour" next to a picture of George Bush – Bush was so close to Blair. This time around, it's Murdoch who counts for the Tories, even more than David Cameron or any other Tory politician. It's a small poster, so it could be used as a bumper sticker on a car. But I'd love to see it blown up on a massive billboard. The posters and adverts Labour are using for this election are terrible; it's as if they haven't put any thought into them at all, just sent them to the newspapers to grab that day's headlines.

Yinka Shonibare

This slogan doesn't refer to politicians: I want people to vote for me. My party is the Me party. It's not registered yet, though. I'm just celebrating the fact that, in this democratic system, anyone can stand. I like me, you see, so I assume everyone else will. People think politicians like to be the centre of attention, but artists are worse. So I'm poking fun at artists, too. They are not rosettes – they are flowers made from African textiles, in the colours of the three main parties. Flowers are attractive, whereas political posters are rarely well done. And even when they are, they're still knocking or negative. I think politicians are only interested in power and lining their own pockets. But I have always voted; who for is my own business. When I was a child in Nigeria, a military regime was in charge. There were soldiers everywhere and there was no question of voting. It started to feel normal. That's why I value the vote.

Goshka Macuga

I made this with the designer Fraser Muggeridge. It's double-sided: the "Left Right Forward" panel is the front, and the blue side is the reverse, printed on the kind of thin, textured underlay that is used underneath billboard posters to make them look opaque. I wanted to think about a political poster as a physical object, rather than just an image.

The front reflects the confused picture we have of UK politics right now. I have mixed feelings about Labour, especially regarding the war in Iraq, and the fact that what people really felt about it wasn't taken into consideration. But I'm also concerned about what a Conservative government would mean for arts funding. It seems like the two parties have merged into one: whether you vote for the left or the right adds up to much the same thing.

But without voting, you have no control. So the quote on the back of the poster is to remind us about the roots of democracy. It's from a speech Pericles made to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian wars. He's speaking about the impossibility of doing justice to the brave men who have lost their lives in the war – something that resonates with the war in Iraq. But he's also reminding us of the respect given in Athens to those involved in politics, something that today we have all but lost.

Maggi Hambling

Every morning I paint the sea, and I am always reminded of how remarkably small I am. It is a very humbling experience, and I think a bit of humility wouldn't go amiss with our politicians. So I've chosen the sea to remind politicans about the bigger picture: nature, and the way it is taking its revenge – through climate change, through volcanic eruptions, through coastal erosion. They could all do with thinking more about that, and less about political bitching and wrangling. All artists are anarchists at heart – at least, they are if they're any good. So I've chosen red – the colour of anarchy, along with black – for the quotation, which curves and curls across the sea picture like a wave. It's from Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare's most political plays, and seems particularly appropriate at this moment. It reminds us that everything is about timing: the Falklands war was crucial to Mrs Thatcher's success, and now the changes in nature and climate are defining the issues for this election.

I vote in London, where my MP is Labour's wonderful Kate Hoey. She is pro-hunting, as am I, so she'll be getting my vote.

Maggi Hambling: New Sea Sculpture, Paintings and Etchings is at Marlborough Fine Art, London W1, from 5 May to 5 June.

Liam Gillick

As with all my art, I went back to the source: in this case, the Labour party's own website. "The democratic socialist party" is the phrase it still uses to describe itself, though you'd be hard pushed to recognise that in the way the party talks about itself today.

I find it perverse that Labour is shying away from its own legacy. There are lots of aspects of its current policies – the new tax rate, the investment in public spending – that fit with these core values. I hope my poster reminds politicians and voters alike of that.

With its strong Helvetica font, the poster is nostalgic: it reminds me of growing up in the 1970s, when Labour was in crisis, and you could recognise every Labour family in the street from their bold posters: they really stood out. Campaign posters have become nasty and cynical, taking their cue from the Saatchis' for the Tories, which were more about people than policies. Ironic, postmodern posters are not what we need: the most important thing is to remind voters what the party stands for, and to encourage them to vote.

Alison Jackson

I've been shooting a whole series of photographs, and working on some web video clips, during this election. Nick Clegg wasn't hard to cast: he's quite a normal-looking guy and there are quite a few people who can look like him. But a good Gordon Brown has been impossible to find: I held casting sessions all over England and Scotland, scouring areas where there might be someone who looked like him. He's a big man, so I focused on places where people eat a lot, in Scotland particularly, but no one wanted to put themselves forward. I put five casting directors on it, and they were practically in tears: they had never experienced anything like it. I've found one, and he's reasonably good in profile, but there's only one side that works. Cameron I'm still working on: in his case, there are lots who will put themselves forward, but I'm still looking for the perfect one.

During the first TV debate it was striking how much Brown was trying to align himself with Clegg. I wondered what might be happening behind the scenes, and came up with these scenarios: Clegg and Brown celebrating, Brown letting Clegg try out the prime minister's chair. And I'm very interested in Mandelson and his role: what a comeback, having parted ways with Brown – now he's here to help. You just never know what people are planning.

The works by Bob and Roberta Smith, Antony Gormley, Jeremy Deller, Mark Wallinger, Liam Gillick and Richard Wentworth form part of the Make a Mark project in aid of the Labour Party. For more details and to download your own copies visit © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 20 2010

Oh, come off it ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Fire up the Quattro'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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