In early 2007, with Gordon Brown poised to take over the job he had coveted so long, this column wondered if he might ask his even-more-famous Edinburgh chum for a helping hand. I asked if a few supportive words from JK Rowling "with the ears of the world listening, could heighten the 'Brown Bounce' sought by the incoming premier. Will she succumb? Probably not: Rowling has managed her public profile with awesome shrewdness and discretion." No longer. It took 18 months, and a political pit far deeper than any to be found in the cellars of Hogwarts, for Rowling to cast her protective spell. News of her £1m donation to the Labour Party, directly to endorse the Government's programme to reduce child poverty and its equal treatment of lone parents, was meant to sprinkle the stardust of virtuous celebrity of over a downbeat conference week.
Can writers ever sway the polls? In Britain, almost certainly not. I doubt if fuming former lefties such as Kingsley Amis ever robbed a solitary vote from Labour in the 1970s. Likewise, Rowling's thick-and-thin approval will not save a single flaky seat. Here, the writers who wield any kind of public voice – from Dickens and Shaw to Orwell and Pinter – tend to lend their name to great broad-brush causes, often overseas, not the minutiae of day-to-day debate. That makes Rowling's intervention, with its focus on specific chunks of policy, a rare event on these shores.
Oddly, it makes one want to subject the planet's leading purveyor of magical fantasy to a reality-check. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, the 1999-set plan to halve child poverty in Britain by 2010 (from 3.4 to 1.7 million) looked to be on track until around 2005, but has lately stalled. New spending earmarked by recent Budgets will bring better news, and add around 450,000 to the current total of 600,000 children brought out from under the poverty line. However, without serious fresh investment, that will leave Labour almost half a million children short of its target by 2010. It may not make for a snappy soundbite – but, Joanne, you raised the topic. Whacking Lord Voldemort looks like a cakewalk next to the dragon's den of welfare policy.
Other well-known authors may not just speak for but work for parties: Melvyn Bragg and Ruth Rendell as Labour members of the House of Lords, Jeffrey Archer – before his downfall – as the Conservatives' cheeky chappie-in-chief. Their readers, I suspect, notice but swiftly discount these commitments if they like the books but not the views. Besides, big-name commercial novelists know better than to deter any sizeable slice of a wide readership with too-didactic messages. The Potter novels voice a cuddly social liberalism that could find a home within any major grouping. One hopes that the vices they plainly detest – delusions of racial purity, or the persecution of insecure and marginal groups – won't be turning up in any manifesto beyond the BNP's.
More interesting, perhaps, are popular authors whose opinions really do cut them adrift from the centrist mainstream. Since the close of the Cold War, the paradox of the bourgeois literary lion who believed in revolutionary upheaval has mostly faded from view. We do still have a few stalwart radicals such as Children's Laureate Michael Rosen, whose tireless writing and performing have probably done more to enrich young people's lives than a hundred Whitehall blueprints. Veteran of many a left gathering, regular in the pages of Socialist Worker and once a candidate for George Galloway's Respect, Rosen keeps up that tradition of inclusive humanist work from an author who – as a citizen – puts a slightly more sectarian spin on world affairs. Such a split between the person and the page will disqualify a writer from landing a cushy retirement berth in the Lords. At least it means that the out-on-a-limb idealist (or fantasist, if you prefer) steers clear of the mire of disputable data into which Rowling has chosen to step.
P.S. Between Thursday 9 and Sunday 12 October, the Woodstock Literary Festival will be offering a long weekend of events both within Blenheim Palace and at other venues in and around the Oxfordshire town. Supported by The Independent, the festival programme this year brings together writers such as PD James and Kate Summerscale (in conversation about crime in fact and fiction), Simon Schama (left), Ann Leslie, Howard Jacobson, Robert Fisk, Adam Nicolson, Ziauddin Sardar and Ben Crystal. David Cameron will be in conversation with Simon Kelner, managing director and editor-in-chief of The Independent and Independent on Sunday. The full programme is now posted online at www.blenheimpalace.com; tickets can be bought in advance from 01865 305305, or at www.ticketsoxford.com, and during the Festival will be available from 07784 060334 or 07788 997114.