The cult of the political celebrity

At the Tory Party conference, Tessa Mayes found herself caught up in the Bozza-focused eye of a celebrity storm.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

Last week, I succumbed to celebrity political culture. Instead of asking a politician a lengthy, considered question, I found myself asking him a two-second, dumbed-down, soundbite one. ‘Celebrity politics – good or bad?’

The politician I asked was Boris Johnson, mayor of London, in the middle of his visitation to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. My truncated question was asked in a hurry. It was hard enough to get his attention in the pushy, scrum of fans asking for autographs and photographers with long lenses, let alone force him to stop walking and continue talking between pre-arranged interviews with BBC Radio 4 and Sky News without being manhandled by security.

I seized my moment in a dark corridor. He didn’t stop walking. Instead, helpfully grabbing me around the shoulders so I could keep up with his frantic pace, he replied: ‘Well I don’t know. It seems to be a fact of life, doesn’t it? We might as well say plants, good or bad? I think plants are good, you know.’

‘You can’t escape it then?’, I asked, stunned that there was time for a follow-up question; in this frenetic, political circus, there shouldn’t be. ‘Yuh’, he said, turning away and letting go of me to swerve into yet another throng of people taking mobile-phone photos. He was whisked up to the Sky News studio. Within a minute or so, he was live on air. The mayor of London was the only politician I saw whose security had to stop other people from blocking his path or trying to interview him while he was already being interviewed on TV! This is the new world of celebrity politics. And Boris is in the thick of it.

Birmingham was my first Conservative Party conference. I’ve been to the Liberal Democrats conference (also this year) and the Labour conference (a few years back), but I had seen nothing quite like this. For all I knew, senior Conservative politicians always get mobbed at the party conference, permanently wear stage makeup and sit in the front row with stiff backs and their eyes glued wide open. So I asked a few veteran Conservative Party conference attendees if they thought anything had changed?

‘The presentation of the main speakers has got slicker’, said a BBC cameraman after David Cameron’s leader’s speech. ‘It’s one man up there alone, giving a soundbite speech for the media and including a bit of emotion about his father; but we’ve all got sad stories to tell. They know that the media picks up on anything. And did you see Theresa May’s shoes?’ I had. They were pointed, in red and black colours with a bit of leopard skin fur.

See what I mean? Shoes were a talking point.

‘Was celebrity culture getting in the way of politics?’ I asked a young, slightly gothic party member called Dan, from Hull. ‘Any system’, he said, ‘which puts up one person on a pedestal, whether it’s Cameron or Boris, to define the party, will turn that person into a celebrity. Just look at the US presidential system: the only person we focus on is the person in the White House… In politics, we used to say you vote for your MP. Now many people don’t really know their MP and vote for a party because of its leader.’

For Dan, celebrity political culture increased because of New Labour Tony Blair. ‘He arrived when there was more 24-hour media coverage and he was more visible. Cameron is less “out there”. Boris plays up the celebrity thing and uses the media to raise his profile, but Boris is a celebrity by choice. Cameron is a celebrity by circumstance.’

According to 34-year-old Festus Akin, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in Milton Keynes: ‘There is a symbiotic relationship between the media and politics. Politicians need the media to get their message across, and people need the media to hear the politicians. The downside is if you’re not a performer or charismatic, you come across badly. For example, television exposes the way Ed Miliband moves his lips in a particularly unattractive way. Politics has become an entertainment event rather than something substantive that affects people’s lives.’

And can we fight against this? I asked him. ‘I doubt it’, Akin said. ‘The media spreads so widely and rapidly. It’s like asking a volcano to stop throwing up molten magma. With the televised leadership debates, which political leader dares say no?’

David Cameron isn’t the first prime minister to be famous, talk in soundbites, wear good clothes and makeup, gesticulate and rabble rouse. Margaret Thatcher did all that in the Eighties. But back then, she was known as a character, not a celeb.

For Chris, a white-haired, 68-year-old Conservative Party member from South Staffordshire, the issue was not celebrity versus political culture but entertaining versus boring politicians. ‘My favourite speaker was Maggie Thatcher because she had charisma’, he said. ‘Older politicians are all characters. Say what you like about Ken Livingstone, he’s a character. But there aren’t many characters left in politics. It’s alright to be entertaining in politics. I enjoyed Boris. What he says doesn’t take away from the gravitas of politics. He put over serious points. I just find some of the other politicians boring.’

He added: ‘I wouldn’t say David Cameron was an entertaining leader. After today I thought “I’m glad that’s finished”. But he has a job to do and put over a message.’

At the end of conference week, I found Dave, a tabloid journalist, among the 80-odd press journalists and photographers typing furiously on their laptops and downloading pictures in the media room. What did he think was new about party conference season?

‘In 13 years of covering party-political conferences, I’ve never seen a scrum of media around a politician’, said Dave. So that’s a celebrity mark for Boris, but not Cameron. ‘It’s the whole razzmatazz that surrounds all the politicians that’s new today’, he said. ‘The video screens and the control of the media is new – now we’re herded behind white lines on the floor. It’s the choreography of it all – that’s all new.’

As Dave noted, even the image on the speaker’s podium on stage was designed so that every photo, regardless of how it was cropped, would either capture the party slogan ‘Britain can deliver’ on the left hand side, or the Union Jack image on the right. Every aspect of the image is thought through and managed.

Boris Johnson lookalike
Drew Galdron

In the end, Boris beats Cameron as a celebrity. After all, he’s even got his own lookalike, a man I found outside the conference hall with a blonde mop of hair, pale skin and big teeth. There was nothing celebrity-like about his political approach though. Despite doing impressions of Boris when the TV cameras were rolling, Drew Galdron from Warwickshire spent most of the time off camera campaigning with the Warwickshire Police Federation. Distributing old-style leaflets with slogans like ‘Mr Cameron are you taking the P?’, they were arguing against cuts in the police force and angered by one of their members being called a ‘pleb’ by Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative chief whip.

This, incredibly, was one of the rare outbreaks of old-style politics I witnessed. Looking back, I’m tempted to conclude that it’s not what political people say that makes them celebrities, it is the absence of something significant to say.

Tessa Mayes is a journalist and filmmaker. Visit her website here.

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Topics Politics


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