Written by Robert Jones
Celebrity involvement in British electoral politics and wider political debate is by no means a recent phenomena – attempts by pervasive television personalities, musicians and members of the film industry to shape and influence the nature of political discourse are a common feature of our celebrity obsessed society. Indeed the practice naturally tends to amplify in the run-up to a general election with Party endorsements coming through endlessly; consider Daniel Radcliffe for the Lib Dems in 2010, Noel Gallagher for New Labour in 1997, and Eddie Izzard for Labour in both 2005 and 2010 to name but a few. A similar scenario arose last year with 200 or so celebrities flinging their support at an open letter opposing Scottish Independence.
It would appear that 2015 shall be no different. Ed Balls yesterday revealed on Radio 4’s Today Programme that the Tories have enlisted the Take That front man and all-round patriotic nice guy Gary Barlow to attack Labour in the run-up to the election (Daily Telegraph, February 2nd 2015). I see two immediate issues with this, one of principle and one of practice.
Primarily, what qualifies someone to speak on behalf of a political party? According to the Conservatives it’s someone with no electoral accountability, limited political education and career experience in performing arts. To clarify, no one is suggesting that prominent figures such as Barlow don’t have the right to express their opinions however a consideration to the wider impact of their potentially unfounded political opinions should be given especially in the increasingly common cases where the parties themselves have approached celebrities rather than vice versa. To give someone with no political education spokesperson status with a major political party, no less an institution, is a dangerous reflection on ‘official’ Party communications.
Further issue can be found with the nature of Barlow’s personal finances. Promoting a figure as spokesperson for Conservative ideas whilst their assets reside in the Icebreaker Tax Scheme deemed by the Inland Revenue to be an elaborate facilitator of tax evasion is fundamentally at odds with the Chancellor’s position on the matter. Given that politicians have been brought down for much less a confirmation by the Tories that Barlow is onside may do considerable but temporary harm to their election campaign. It’ll be undoubtedly difficult for Tory campaign managers Jim Messina and Lynton Crosby to spin their way out of Barlow’s involvement in Icebreaker leading me to suggest that there’s still room for an emphatic denial of any such affiliation between Barlow and the Tories.
Regardless of the truth behind Ed Balls’ claims it’s still the principle that matters here. The Conservative Party would placing a lot of influence in the hands of someone without any political education on the basis that he resonates well with the British people, is (largely) uncontroversial and is fiercely patriotic. Barlow’s potential involvement in Tory campaigning represents a cynical and degrading practice which undermines the already compromised quality and clarity of political rhetoric in British democracy.
One positive outcome of the Gary Barlow – Tory collaboration (regardless of whether it comes to fruition or not) would be its use as a springboard to address the wider issue of celebrity involvement in wider political debate. Contrary to what I may have already suggested, celebrities, regardless of background or education, can make for commendable and influential lobbyists on issues with less political heat than a general election perhaps. Joanna Lumley with her Gurkha Rights Campaign and Angelina Jolie who recently spent time raising awareness of sexual violence in conflict spring to mind. Both Jolie and Lumley drew attention to under-the-radar issues whilst conducting their campaigns without sensationalist or ill-informed rhetoric and vain capitalisation. Apparent genuine compassion and a lack of political illiteracy defined their work. The prospect of other motivations for celebrities becoming involved in politics however is all too real.
The most prominent and perhaps worrying example would be that of Russell Brand with his over-simplification of the social inequalities we face and cynical cash-ins on the general anti-establishment mood of the electorate. He is undoubtedly giving a voice to the young and disillusioned but doing so whist simultaneously turning anti-capitalist ideas into a commodity – an irony which I hope is not lost on him.
Battles surrounding issues of social inequality, unchecked corporate power, women’s rights, immigration and such alike need a face, but not one whose priorities lie elsewhere.