Ahead of the 2001 General Election, William Hague’s Conservative Party secured a quite stellar cast of celebrity backers. Among them were some of the best of Britain: Jim Davidson, Peter Stringfellow, Anthony Worrall-Thompson, Frank Bruno, Mike Read and Bill Roache to name but a few. How unfortunate that in the 14 years since then so many of these true blues have ended up being accused of various sex crimes, or convicted of shoplifting, or sectioned, or found to be a little bit racist.
Why do political parties do it? Every election, without fail, our politicians seek to secure the support of whichever C-list celeb they can pin a rosette on. They are at it again this week. Tory HQ have somehow managed to convince former England footballer Sol Campbell to put his name on an email to young campaigners, supposedly telling them: “I know what it’s like to work hard, and to keep fighting right through to the 90th minute. In this General Election it’s neck-and-neck and we need our strongest team out playing on the pitch”. Everyone who received that email knew that Campbell didn’t write it himself. Everyone who received it knew it was dreamt up by someone sitting at a desk at Matthew Parker Street who has probably never kicked a football in their life.
It’s not only the Tories. Last year Labour hired an aide on £33,000-a-year tasked with producing “an effective General Election endorsements programme with specific focus on real people and celebrity endorsements”. It would be fair to say whoever got the job hasn’t quite kept on top of things in recent weeks. Or so Ant and Dec, the Chuckle Brothers and Noel Gallagher tell us, anyway.
Labour do, however, have their own celebs to send fundraising emails. Ben Elton is at his funniest when he tells hard-pressed Labour voters they have “a choice between a caring and inclusive society that values every person equally or one that unashamedly favours the interests of a wealthy minority… I suppose these days I’m one of the wealthy minority, but nonetheless I choose a caring society”. If you donate £19 or more to the Labour Party they will send you a limited edition canvas bag especially designed by Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing artist. Anything more North London metropolitan elite and out of touch with old-fashioned Labour values you will struggle to find.
This tactic of party political strategists to shove celebs in front of the public – even worse, to allow them to run for office – is patronising, embarrassing and ultimately pointless. Perhaps Jamiroquai doesn’t like the mansion tax. Maybe Graeme Le Saux thinks Natalie Bennett did fine in her LBC interview. I’ve heard Dave Benson-Phillips is really angry about the cost-of-gunging crisis. Voters will make their minds up themselves, not because someone who was on TV 15 years ago has been wheeled out by a despairing party apparatchik.
Endorsements are one thing, but political parties lining celebrities up for parliamentary seats is quite another. Sol Campbell has hinted he is considering putting his name forward for the soon-to-be-vacated safe seat of Kensington. Also mooted for that seat is the Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell. The footballer Frank Lampard has even been lined up by the Tories for a seat somewhere. Parliamentarians make decisions affecting the lives of millions of people, they scrutinise and test the most complex legislation, they make decisions about whether to send our troops to war. Already, the Oxbridge-educated lawyers, economists and careerists in the Commons struggle to carry out their jobs competently. Politics is already suffering from a dearth of intellectual talent. With the greatest respect, footballers and rowers are not going to be able to do a better job.
Perhaps the most sensible recent comment on celebrity politics has come from a celebrity: Kensington resident and TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp. A well-known Tory backer, when it was put to her that she should run, Kirstie replied: “My borough needs serious minds for serious times… I’ve neither the education nor the inclination”. Honesty, humility; Kirstie clearly isn’t suited to Westminster. Some of these other vainer celebrities should question whether they are too.