While we wait for the final result of the EU referendum, I want to take you back to the glory days of New Labour for a few moments. When the party under Blair was at its height, the party’s operatives became obsessed for a while with producing lists of celebrity endorsements. This was designed to prove the contrast between the broken old Tory party in its mustard cords and the then newly hip, happening Labour party with its leader who strummed a guitar and said “hi”.
Most notoriously, Blair’s advisors corralled pop and rock stars to humiliate themselves by offering endorsements. But the party also became fond of list of industrialists, actors, and even for a while, of Tories prepared to endorse New Labour.
After their landslide defeat in 1997, the Tories under William Hague tried to compete in the celebrity stakes. This was a mistake.
I recall standing on the little road at the top of the cliffs on Bournemouth that led from the Highcliffe hotel the short distance down to the conference centre in what must have been 1998 or 2000. There was a little pretend train that ran up and down the hill for the benefit of older Tory members and refreshed political correspondents and columnists. Just ahead of the leader’s speech the Tory train that day was reserved for Tory-supporting celebrities. I recall comedian Jim Davidson and Patti Boulaye (winner of TV’s New Faces 1978) being involved. If they weren’t there, I’m sorry, but they should have been.
Whoever they were, it was a pitiful sight to see the Tory celebs as they disembarked form the pretend train and were ushered to VIP seats to hear Hague speak. Up against the massed ranks of the Cool Britannia brigade, the jaded efforts of the poor old Tories only advertised how out of touch they were when compared to the exciting dynamism of New Labour, with its Millennium Dome and plans to get tough on fox-hunters and Saddam Hussein.
But even in New Labour the concept of endorsement by list of the famous started to lose its fizz around that time. In Scotland, in 1997 various lists of names had been dispensed to friendly newspapers to good effect in the cross-party Scottish referendum campaign. The Nationalist Sean Connery was persuaded to appear with Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown, and then whoops, some time after the vote, it emerged that grumpy Donald had blocked Connery for a knighthood on the grounds of his nationalism. Labour, it seemed, was prepared to use people from other parties for endorsements and then treat them badly when they were no longer of any use.
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In 1999 in the first devolved elections, Scottish New Labour had one last proper go at assembling a list of endorsements, but the novelty had faded and the phone calls from the press person at party HQ made to political editors (including me) started something like this:
Press person: “Endorsing Scottish Labour’s land reform policy I’ve got the road manager of Deacon Blue, the Celtic B-team coach, TV’s Wee Jock from Hamish Macbeth (a West Highland terrier) and the inventor of washable Harris Tweed underpants. Any interest? Not even as a letter?”
Unfortunately, the political endorsement has made a comeback in this cursed EU referendum. Indeed, at times it has seemed as though the Remain campaign has hoped to win principally by tweeting lists of famous people saying Britain should vote In.
We reached the end, complete overload, however, when Stronger In started boasting on referendum day about the soliloquy delivered by James Corden on his US chat show last night. I won’t repeat the precise case for Remain he made here. You can look it up on the internet if you must. But in essence it amounted to this. The astronaut Tim Peake (has he mentioned he’s been in space?) has just come back after a year in space (actually it was six months) and when he was looking down at earth it made him realise how small we are. All the countries are next to each other and in some way, like, totally connected. It’s obvious from this that we should be getting rid of barriers, not raising them, and then the world will be a better place. So (audience whoops) vote Remain.
Corden is a talented man, but I would have loved to see him try out the idea on a US audience that the US Supreme Court or the US government should be overruled by a Pan-American court based in Toronto. Even in the most liberal parts of New York they probably wouldn’t like that idea. Yet, via Corden’s touchy-feely space-themed plea, with shades of John Lennon’s worst solo material, people are encouraged to whoop at the erroneous idea that the European Union is simply a slightly more serious version of the Eurovision Song Contest, rather than a failing project which has inflicted misery in the form of the single currency and cannot control its borders.
Can we just all agree that celebrity endorsements in political campaigns have had it?