Stars on parade as the model army bids to hold ranks

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The Independent Online
Even if the clouds parted to reveal a celestial "New Labour, New Life for Britain" pledge card, most voters are likely to glance up only briefly and press on, mumbling "Not today, thank you".

In this sceptical age, it takes an endorsement from a role model of real influence to make the average voter think twice before reverting to the Tory fold when the pollsters aren't looking.

The hard-nosed officials around Tony Blair are much more interested in cultivating leaders in the business, football and pop worlds than in the churches.

Business stars come first, which is why the Labour leader's aides invest so much time in Richard Branson, the Virgin boss who has his own reasons for hoping a Labour government would give him the National Lottery or back his airline against British Airways.

So far, Mr Branson has said polite things about Mr Blair, but many suspect that he is saving his formal backing for the election campaign. The same goes for the former Liberal Democrat Anita Roddick, the only woman business leader many people have heard of.

Endorsements already in from corporate bosses include: David Sainsbury, Sir Terence Conran, George Soros (the Man Who Broke Sterling), John Moores (a family director of Littlewoods) and Alec Reed of Reed Personnel Services, who hasn't voted Labour since 1964.

The company bosses that matter most to Labour are of course those who own media organisations, and Mr Blair has had stunning successes in wooing Rupert Murdoch - now poised to expand his empire to take in the Financial Times - and Lord Rothermere (the Mail and London Evening Standard). Lord Hollick, owner of the Express, is already on board.

After business, a historic Labour weakness, Mr Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell, a Burnley supporter, gets most excited by Labour-voting footballers. This has always been one of Labour's strongholds, and a useful way to earn street cred among young males. In the case of Ryan Giggs, who donated his FA Cup-winning shirt to a Labour fund-raising auction, it could work for young females too. Eric Cantona may not have a vote in the general election, but if he can sell Eurostar tickets maybe he can sell New Labour. He too donated his shirt, and his manager, Alex Ferguson, has also backed Mr Blair.

Matthew Harding, co-owner of the Prime Minister's team, Chelsea, gave pounds 1m, and Kevin Keegan, manager of the would-be Prime Minister's team, Newcastle United, won't say how he will vote, but Mr Blair is a "breath of fresh air".

Popular music is a trickier kettle of worms, as Mr Blair's awkward appearance at the Brit awards earlier this year demonstrated.

Noel Gallagher of Oasis, whose brother insulted the pounds 1,000-a-table audience, tells next month's Labour Party magazine that Mr Blair's conference speech "brought tears to my eyes".

Alan McGee, boss of Oasis's record label, Creation Records, added at the weekend: "Both Creation and Oasis are keen to support Labour in any way they can."

Damon Albarn, lead singer of Oasis' rivals Blur, also wants to get Tony in. But a joint Oasis-Blur concert to raise funds for Labour? "Pure speculation."

The Sun last week devoted a whole page to the political thoughts of Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. "I'm not one of those luvvies who will jump on stage and say `Vote Labour'," he said. He just takes up his word processor and writes it.

The trouble with prominent supporters, luvvies or not, is that they tend to pronounce on policy. "I would be quite happy for people in my earnings bracket to pay 10 per cent more tax," he went on. "Another 10 per cent of what I earn is a hell of a lot of money, but I would feel that under Labour it would be spent on improving the country I love."

Mr Blair's press secretary is officially against luvvies in any case, but that hasn't stopped Jeremy Irons, Sinead Cusack, George Baker (Inspector Wexford), Ruth Rendell (Wexford's author), Richard Wilson (One Foot In the Grave) and Clive Dunn (Dad's Army) from signing up for the cause.

Then there are the endorsements from lifelong Tories who happen to be famous. Alan Howarth, the only MP to defect from Tory to Labour, Leo Blair, Tony's ex-Thatcherite father, and Toby Graham, Clare Short's long lost "One Nation Tory" son.

Do endorsements by celebrities make a difference? "No," said one weary Labour official. "But we'd look really sad if we didn't have any."