Feature: Political celebrities

Monday, 01, Sep 2008 03:14

When details of those donating to political parties were published last week, there were a few eyebrow-raising celebrities on the list.

Eddie Izzard gave just under £10,000 to Labour, although that paled in comparison to the £120,000 given by Steve Lazarides, dealer for graffiti artist Banksy. The Tories got £25,000 off Chris Rea, whose hits include The Road to Hell and Driving Home for Christmas. Dave Whelan, the chairman of Wigan Athletic FC, gave £250,000.

But apart from the money, what does celebrity support really add up to in politics?

The debate is far better developed in America, where people tend to wear their political allegiance on their sleeves. Celebrities usually flock to the Democrats, with the important exception of old conservative stalwarts like Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood.

Quite what that's achieved is debatable, with many analysts saying the glittering endorsement of men like George Clooney and Matt Damon can alienate the middle class voter who looks for a president he would be comfortable sitting down for a beer with, not a celebrity demagogue. That's where John McCain's attack on Barack Obama as a celebrity came from - it capitalised on an image of the candidate as aloof, superior and intellectual. Or - as we'd put it in the UK - just not a good bloke.

The British don't have the same attitude to prime ministers as the Americans do to presidents. If we voted for people we'd rather socialise with, Charles Kennedy would have easily beaten Tony Blair and Michael Howard to Number 10. So you'd have thought celebrity endorsement could have a more positive effect on this side of the Atlantic.

What little research there is on the subject indicates it has a positive effect, but only on people who have no interest in politics. Researchers from the University of Bath's School of Management analysed 315 responses from people in or near Bath to questionnaires which involved a famous British actress with the caption "I vote Conservative, do you?" and another photograph of an equally attractive non-celebrity woman with the same caption.

There was a slight sway in people who admitted not being interested in politics, with 67 per cent saying they were more likely to vote Conservative after seeing the celebrity photograph compared to 48 per cent of people who saw the non-celebrity.

It's hardly overwhelming evidence, but then celebrities are hardly queuing up to endorse political parties either.

There was a collective period of navel gazing after the comedown from Labour's victory in 1997, when celebrities poured through the door of Number 10 to rub shoulders with senior members of the new government. By 2007, men like Noel Gallagher, who had given Tony Blair as much support as he could in the run-up to the general election a decade earlier, was saying there is nothing "left to vote for".

But celebrities were still an available resource when Blair's second general election came along. Gerri Halliwell, otherwise known as Ginger Spice, took part in Labour's first election broadcast of 2001, serving tea to pensioners to the tune of Lifted, by the Lighthouse Family. Yeah, I know. Other high-profile Labour supporters include Patrick Stewart, otherwise known as Captain Picard in Star Trek or Professor X in X-Men, depending on your preference, and the comedian Jo Brand.

Things get a little less funky when you look into the Conservatives. Their list of celebrity supporters looks like the dinner party from hell: Cilla Black, Ian Botham, Frank Bruno, Joan Collins, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Jim Davidson, Ken Dodd, Nick Faldo, Anneka Rice, Peter Stringfellow, Anthony Worral Thompson and Marco Pierre White. Oh, and Matt Jay from Busted.

The Lib Dems concentrate on quality rather than quantity with John Cleese and film critic Barry Norman their two most prominent supporters.

What does it earn them? Very little. People are unlikely to vote on the basis of Paul Daniel's political musings. But in the case of Labour, still suffering from an abject lack of funding following the cash for honours controversy, celebrity support can mean something more fundamental: Money. It's the one thing celebrities have, and the one thing political parties will always need.

Ian Dunt

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