Celebrities in politics: Does it ever work?

Posted on February 2, 2011

James Frayne, a predecessor of mine as Campaign Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, has been blogging for some time now at the excellent Campaign War Room. He mused over the weekend about celebrity endorsements in political campaigns and whether they actually bring any benefits. He concludes:

Sometimes celebrities can make a campaign look normal and mainstream by having celebrity establishment endorsement, and in such circumstances then why not. But I don’t think it substantially changes the way a campaign is perceived. More often than not, in Britain at least, you’re probably better off focusing on sorting out your message and developing case studies / endorsements from real people who genuinely do amplify the message you’re pushing out.

By and large I agree. As I see it there are four possible outcomes that a celebrity endorsement can bring for your campaign, which are worth pondering:

1) The “Eh? Who?”

Smaller parties and campaigns who are frustrated that the mainstream media are neglecting them can often fall into a state of clutching at straws. This means that when a so-called “celebrity” turns up on their doorstep, they will grab them and shout it to the rooftops – even if they are either unheard of or completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Or both.

The outcome is normally that your campaign will suffer from the embarrassment of being visibly proud of the dubious endorsement of someone a bit random – causing harm rather than the supposed gilded benefits of having a celeb on board.

The classic example in this category is Rustie Lee. I know, I hadn’t heard of her either. Rustie Lee is – apparently – a TV presenter and chef, who enjoyed her heyday in the ’80s. In 2004 it was announced with great fanfare that she was joining UKIP, and she’s since stood for them in one General and one European election. She’s not a bad candidate¬† so far as I can judge, she’s just a bit random. When UKIP sing about her as a celebrity, it just exacerbates their key problem of people assuming they are small fish in a big pond.

2) The Liability

Far worse than a little-known celebrity is one who you initially welcome on board but who then proceeds to become an embarrassing liability. The famous are particularly prone to this because by definition they tend to be unusual, driven characters and because they are normally quite naive and unpracticed when it comes to how politics actually works.

There are quite a few examples of this phenomenon, ranging from Jim Davidson speaking at the 2000 Conservative Party Conference, through David Icke acting as co-leader of the Green Party before discovering the “truth” about how giant lizards run the world and announcing he was the new Jesus, to Frank Maloney refusing to bring his UKIP campaign to Camden because there were “too many gays” there.

Even Sir Michael Caine, with long experience of learning scripts, managed to fluff his lines last year by praising the Government rather than the Opposition when he was supposed to be endorsing the Conservatives.

3) The Backlash

The other risk you take on board when you given prominence and importance to the political views of a celebrity is that they will later change sides – slamming you with the Backlash. It’s difficult to shrug such a change of heart off – after all, if the voters were meant to listen to them when they were on your side, why shouldn’t people pay attention now your pet star has decided you’re actually rotten to the core/personally rude/a massive let-down/a danger to the nation?

This is exacerbated by the, shall we say, flighty nature of a lot of celebrities. What little benefit the Lib Dems got from Colin Firth’s backing swiftly evaporated when he withdrew it over tuition fees. Labour got a flush of embarrassment when D:Ream-star-turned-celebrity-physicist Brian Cox announced that while he had hoped things could “only get better” in 1997, he would in 2010 be voting Lib Dem due to Labour’s “cock-up” on science funding. In 2009 UKIP learned the danger of getting a newspaper columnist on board when the Telegraph’s Robin Page used the paper to denounce them and announce his resignation after a personal spat with Nigel Farage.

4) The Smooth Runner

Sometimes, of course, celebrity endorsements do go well – or at least don’t go badly.

Plenty of celebrities are uncontroversial¬† political players – Tony Robinson has played a prominent role in the Labour Party since the 1980s, Daniel Radcliffe announced his support for the Lib Dems but hasn’t apparently done much for them and William “Ken Barlow” Roache is apparently a lifelong Tory. The thing that really stands out about those celebrities who aren’t actively bad news for their chosen cause, though, is that none of them really stand out as stunning successes either.

Best of all was probably Joanna Lumley as an advocate for the Gurkhas. As well as being articulate and media-savvy, she had a genuine reason to be interested in the issue at hand and stuck with it throughout the campaign. It’s telling as to the value of celebrity support that she is notable mainly for having been pretty good at it – an almost unique example of a successful endorsement that didn’t backfire.

Of course, these four categories are slightly artificial distinctions – things get really tricky with celebs when they appear to be one of these categories and then turn out to be another (or even several of the others). Most dramatic was Robert Kilroy-Silk, who when he joined UKIP at first appeared to be a bit of an “Eh? Who?“. He swiftly shifted to the appearance of a Smooth Runner, giving UKIP a poll boost and romping home in the European Election. Unfortunately he then almost immediately became a Liability, jumped quickly into Backlash mode by slagging off the party and then left – to become a Liability for his own ill-fated outfit, Veritas. Let that be a warning to all others who are tempted by the siren call of a celebrity saying “Is there anything I can do to help?”

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Categories: Opinion, Politics, Westminster

6 Responses

  1. Tim:

    I’m sure there was a ‘Thick of it’ episode featuring an argument over the merits of using Andy Murray to launch a campaign…

    08.02.2011 12:48 Reply

  2. William Norton:

    Looking at the Tags, I never thought I’d ever see a line up comprising James Frayne, Harry Potter and Joanna Lumley. Frayne, Jim Davidson and Kilroy, on the other hand….

    08.02.2011 16:05 Reply

  3. nemesis:

    Judging by the examples quoted, best advice should be:
    ‘Just say NO’

    08.02.2011 22:41 Reply

  4. Sres:

    The D-Ream one certainly worked for Labour back in 1997, I can see the thinking behind celebrity endorsement. Getting the lardy family off the sofa to follow their pop idol to the polls may sound interesting to politicians, especially after coming out of one of the biggest slumps in voter turn out.

    09.02.2011 09:37 Reply

  5. A fellow lobbyist:

    Celebrities and political parties don’t really seem to mix then do they – your example of Lumley is good because she was apolitical and was clearly passionate about the issue, not about politics. When Ricky Tomlinson started raising awareness about coronary heart disease that worked well too – even though he is known in some circles for some quite particular political views.

    09.02.2011 09:52 Reply

  6. Hugh:

    Kenny Everet’s reputation never recovered – not so much for what he said – but because someone who had made a career out of being anti-establishment supporting a political party

    10.02.2011 15:35 Reply

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