Celebrities shy away from UK election campaign

As the parties campaign for the hearts and minds of voters on May 6, the recession has forced them to tone down the razzamatazz.

LONDON // There is something missing from the current election campaign in Britain - the stardust scattered on voters by celebrities. Normally, the stuff falls by the bucket-load on what politicians imagine to be an adoring and grateful public. This time round, though, celebrity endorsements are hard to find.

True, the author JK Rowling has come out fighting for Gordon Brown and his Labour Party, while the actor Sir Michael Caine has shared a platform with the Conservative leader, David Cameron. But the heady days of the 1997 election, when Tony Blair seemed to be tripping over trendy pop and show business stars as he swept to power in a nation dubbed "Cool Britannia", are a distant memory. While US election campaigns - in particular, Barack Obama's run for the White House - still feature more stars than the average night sky, politics in the UK has taken on a more sombre mood amid the current economic gloom and general disenchantment after the scandal over MPs fiddling their expenses.

"I think all parties are avoiding the celebrity razzamatazz that we've seen in previous elections," said a senior Labour Party official yesterday. "There's just not the public appetite for it and nobody wants to seem flippant in the current situation. "Celebrity endorsements are still welcome because they can get you precious column inches in the newspapers or a few seconds on TV. But in 2010, they have to be measured, considered contributions."

Hence, there will be no repeat of John Cleese cheekily fronting a Liberal Democrat political broadcast as he did 13 years ago and no sign of Noel Gallagher, leader of the rock group Oasis, sipping champagne in Downing Street with Mr Blair. "If I could be bothered enough to vote now, it would be for the Liberal Democrats," Gallagher said, summing up his - and many others' - disenchantment with politics in general and Labour in particular.

However, Caroline Flint, a Labour MP and former government minister, believes the celebrity endorsement is still useful. "It gives quite a boost to party members to know they have the support of celebrities and it can go down well with some age groups. But it is never going to sway the result of an election." The Conservatives, who have never been as successful as Labour and the Liberal Democrats at attracting showbiz support, seem keener this time round on "celebs" than either of their two main rivals.

Hence, the appearance of the two-time Oscar winner Sir Michael Caine alongside Mr Cameron to endorse the Conservatives' youth policy (odd, perhaps, as Sir Michael is 77). And it was, presumably, the reason why the Tory leader went out jogging with Sir Ian Botham, the England cricketing legend. Apart from Rowling, Labour has won a ringing endorsement from David Tennant, perhaps the UK's most popular actor after his four-year stint in Dr Who, the BBC's long-running sci-fi drama, while the LibDems have the actors Colin Firth and Daniel Radcliffe (who played Harry Potter) backing them.

When Mr Brown launched his party's manifesto last week, he chose to be introduced by a star of the new media: Ellie Gellard, a 20-year-old political blogger. It was not the shrewdest move as journalists promptly discovered that Ms Gellard had called on Mr Brown to quit in a blog two years ago. Ms Gellard herself is no fan of celebrity endorsements and believes the days when "stars queued up at Downing Street" are long gone.

"So even though the backing of JK Rowling and David Tennant can't have hurt Brown, it won't be a case of the 'celebs that won it' this time. It will all be about policy." Richard Heffernan, an Open University lecturer and political author, agrees that mixing celebrities with politics is in nobody's interest in this election. "The show business set may have deserted Labour, but it has to be said there aren't many top-flight 'luvvies' rushing openly to support the Tories either."

One reason could be that stars tend to gravitate towards a winner and nobody is sure who will win on May 6. Piers Morgan, a former tabloid newspaper editor-turned-TV presenter, said bluntly: "Most celebrities are the kind of spineless, shallow little wastrels who only get photographed with things they think make them look better." Michael Winner, the film director, believes it has to do with the calibre of the party leaders. "In the days of Margaret Thatcher, I was very happy to appear on a platform with her. "But these days, you have got the choice between two nincompoops, and then there is [LibDem leader] Nick Clegg, who is a nice fellow, but there is no point in him, really."