Bob and Roberta Smith: on a mission to unseat Michael Gove

Furious about the state of education, Patrick Brill (AKA the artist Bob and Roberta Smith) is standing against Michael Gove in the election. Nick Curtis joins him as he takes to the streets of Bagshot – converting a dog-walker and one Tory councillor to his cause

“I call it the honeypot or the flypaper approach,” says Patrick Brill, better known as the slogan artist Bob and Roberta Smith. He’s talking about his unique style of canvassing: Smith is standing against Tory MP Michael Gove in Surrey Heath at the general election, in protest at what he sees as the coalition’s denigration of the arts in education. Rather than knock on doors or hector from a soapbox, Smith has been staging artistic happenings in the constituency, hoping to attract the curious and then hit them with his serious political points.

Last week, he filmed himself in Camberley town centre, where he went for a “psychogeographic” walk (it was dictated by an algorithm – second right, second right, first left, etc – so he didn’t know where he would end up). Russell Brand tweeted the YouTube link to his 8.7m followers, which is ironic given Brand’s attitude to voting. And today, Smith and I are off to Bagshot, a town that sounds like it was named after a shire-dwelling Tory colonel, where Smith plans to do some drawings and watercolours to “highlight the issues”.

Smith thinks the Department for Education’s system of discount codes – which give less academic value in secondary schools to art, music, drama and dance than to science, technology, maths, English and so on – will have a disastrous impact on the nation’s economy and its reputation for creativity, design and innovation. “The social value of art in schools is that it gives you a way of shaping your world and your way of thinking,” says Smith. Art is as valuable as maths or computer-coding, he says, when it comes to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit.

Smith on the campaign trail.
Smith on the campaign trail. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian

What’s more, he says, the founding of free schools in existing buildings represents a shirking of governmental responsibility to provide pupils with drama studios and pottery kilns, as well as science labs and playing fields. Smith – who is also a lecturer and a father to Etta, 19, and Fergal, 14 – considers Gove, now chief whip, the chief architect of these destructive policies when he was education secretary. He rarely badmouths his rival, but on the opening night of his current London exhibition, Why I Am So Angry, he flogged 50 prints of his text-artwork Letter to Michael Gove at £100 a pop. This funded his campaign.

Today, Smith’s bid to penetrate the blue heart of Surrey Heath is hampered on several counts. One, it is Mother’s Day, and even his campaign manager Matthew Couper has cried off. Two, it is bitterly cold and drizzly. Three, trains aren’t running to Bagshot, so he had to use the replacement bus. A lolloping, likable figure in fur hat and bright blue trews, Smith turns this into an opportunity to canvass passengers. “Gove is damaging a lot of things,” agrees Alex Berry, a primary school teacher. He accepts a badge saying “Vote Bob 4 more art” and a flier (“Be Bobtimistic!”), but he won’t be voting for Smith – he’s not a constituent. He’s just here visiting his mother.

Some of Smith's campaign artwork
Some of Smith’s campaign artwork. Photograph: Guardian

Bagshot does not, at first, look inspiring art-wise, with its acres of Brookside-style housing and uncrossable A322. Then we happen upon a Victorian viaduct. Smith sits, sets out some brightly coloured placards (“Every school should be an art school”) and starts to paint it. Neil Putley pauses with his dog Wesley to look and then listen to Smith’s pitch. “I’ll vote Tory,” Putley says, “but I think art should be taught in schools. If they’re not given the opportunity, you won’t find out what kids are interested in.”

A woman on a bicycle also pulls up and listens. “I don’t think I should be standing with you,” she says. “It wouldn’t look good.” She is a Conservative councillor and won’t give her name. “I think you are absolutely right in what you are saying,” she adds, “though I have the greatest respect for Michael Gove.” Keith Adamson, a retired insurance broker, hovers. “I’m not politically minded,” he says, when I ask what he thinks of Smith’s agenda, “and I’m emigrating to Canada before the election.”

Smith takes a seat on the High Street, opposite the Co-op, the King’s Arms pub and the Brook Church, a view he finds appealling. Beneath a signpost dedicated to Queen Victoria, he starts to rough out a painting in bold greens and purples, with a bruised blue for the steadily darkening sky. His father was the landscape painter Frederick Brill, head of Chelsea School of Art and a working-class man who benefitted from the access to education that Smith wants to preserve. Abu Bakar, owner of the nearby Princess Cottage Indian restaurant, approaches, agreeing with Smith’s arguments, even though he plans to stand as a Tory councillor this year. “It doesn’t matter what party you are,” he explains.

Smith on the streets of Bagshot
Smith on the streets of Bagshot. Photograph: Guardian

Smith begins to draw a 3D-effect badger, with a view to using it to get Queen guitarist Brian May, a local luminary, on side. But now the rain is insistent and not conducive to watercolours, so we retreat to the home of Karen Hall, who teaches drama in Shepperton. She read about Smith’s campaign on Twitter and volunteered to drum up support. “I believe the damage that’s being done to our schools is going to take a generation to fix,” she says, as her daughters Echo, Eden and Evaly parade around brandishing badges and placards.

In 2010, Gove won with 31,326 votes, representing 57% of those cast. But what will happen if Smith wins in 2015? “Oh God, it would be like The Producers,” he says. “It’s not about winning, though, it’s about highlighting the issues. But in a sense, there’s already been a win: I’ve been on The Daily Politics show, debating with Ed Vaizey; I’ve talked to people about something important. And at the end, I expect to get a large-scale artwork: my election diary, with paintings and films somehow woven together – out of it.”

One thing that counts against Smith is that he does not live in the constituency – although, to be fair, neither does Gove. Smith divides his time between a house in London and another in Ramsgate. Consequently, Smith is registered to vote in Kent. “The awful thing,” he says, “is I am probably going to have to vote tactically down there to keep Nigel Farage out. So I might actually end up voting Tory.”

• Why I Am So Angry by Bob and Roberta Smith is at Handel St Projects, London N1 until 9 May. Details:

Nick Curtis

The GuardianTramp

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