Election 2015

Election 2015: Political props - a chequered history

Ed Miliband with his stone plinth of Labour pledges Image copyright PA

Ed Miliband's 8ft (2.4m) stone - engraved with Labour manifesto pledges - has drawn a fair amount of flak on social media. But the #EdStone, as it was quickly labelled, is just the latest in a long line of political props, some more successful than others.

Think of Mr Miliband's predecessor, Harold Wilson, and you might well picture him with pipe in hand, perhaps pausing to light up before answering an interviewer's question.

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However, Mr Wilson was known to prefer cigars in private. As historian Tim Stanley wrote in the Telegraph: "He made sure always to be seen with a pipe in public - a masterstroke of PR that not only made him look dead normal but also contemplative rather than demonstrative, and thus prime ministerial."

Looking "dead normal" would be a prerequisite for leading a People's Army, as Nigel Farage and his supporters style themselves.

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So what better place for the UKIP leader to be snapped than in a pub? Mr Farage's favourite, foaming, frothy prop is a pint of ale. When accompanied by an enthusiastic expression, it's an irresistible combination for picture editors.

Mr Farage has claimed to be the only politician "keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive", and the Iron Lady's prop of choice - the handbag - could be used to devastating effect.

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"Many are the ministers who have cursed the contents of that wretched blue handbag," former Education Secretary Kenneth Baker recalled in an article published after Margaret Thatcher's death in 2013.

"When Maggie was really up against it, she would put her handbag on the cabinet table and take out a well-crumpled paper. This was the brief that came from no-one knew whom - a friend, or someone who had rung her up. It was unpredictable, sometimes illuminating, at others weird."

Not all props prove so successful, however.

Remember John Gummer?

If your political knowledge is too sketchy to recall him as a minister for the best part of a decade under both Mrs Thatcher and John Major, then this photograph might help.

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Tucking into a burger with his daughter Cordelia, then four, at a boat show in 1990, he was agriculture minister at a time of growing concern over "mad cow" disease, or BSE.

It was intended as a demonstration of confidence that British beef was "perfectly safe" to eat. But it would return to haunt him when, in the face of growing evidence, the government eventually admitted there was a link between BSE and the human form of the disease, new variant CJD.

By then, he was environment secretary under John Major - another man remembered for using a prop to good effect.

With the country gripped by recession, Mr Major's Conservatives were trailing in the polls during the 1992 election campaign when the prime minister was jostled by hecklers in Luton.

Having been forced to use a megaphone to make himself heard, Mr Major announced at his next trip that he would resort to using an old political tool to deliver his message. In Cheltenham, Mr Major climbed atop a soapbox - actually a Central Office document box - and went on to record an unexpected victory.

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Only last year, Labour's Jim Murphy enjoyed some success with a variation on the theme while campaigning for a No vote in the Scottish independence referendum. His upturned Irn Bru crates travelled with him on his 100 Towns in 100 Days tour of the country.

And while his lofty position made him an easy target for egg-throwing protesters - as was Mr Major 22 years earlier - they also helped raise his profile in such a way that helped him become party leader in Scotland in December 2014.

Mr Murphy has a fight on his hands to preserve his party's usual dominance in Scotland during this election campaign, with David Cameron keen to play up the influence of Labour's main challenger the SNP.

The PM's been regularly deploying his favourite prop - the increasingly dog-eared note left by Labour's last Treasury Secretary Liam Byrne informing his successor there was "no money left". "I bring this note with me everywhere," he told the audience during Question Time's leaders special.

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Clearly, something about showing something off in black and white appeals to politicians. Labour's pledge card was employed by Tony Blair to highlight promises such as cutting class sizes and NHS waiting lists, ahead of the 1997 landslide.

"Keep this card and see that we keep our promises," it told the reader, above a copy of Mr Blair's signature. Who knows whether anyone got in touch to check but Mr Blair's long-time deputy John Prescott evidently thought it was a good idea, repeating the trick in the next three election campaigns.

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The Liberal Democrats tried it too, last time around.

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Despite leader Nick Clegg's protestations that he and many of his MPs were "between a rock and a hard place" when they voted to increase student tuition fees - in direct contradiction with their pre-election pledge - it seems they are destined to be forever reminded of the U-turn by continued publication of photos such as the one above.

If this infamous saga left voters sceptical as to whether pledges are worth the paper they're written on, then perhaps the permanence of stone attracted Ed Miliband to dream of planting a slab in the Downing Street garden.

Whether it proves as successful as Mr Major's soap box, or goes the way of a William Hague baseball cap remains to be seen.

Image copyright PA