Farewell to the greasepaint tendency
Neil glowed in the company of Labour's Luvvies, but Tony is not so sure. Mark Lawson on the rise and fall of the party's showbiz wing
Thursday 13 April 1995
Blair's rejection of celebrity support seems to bring to a close a strange 15-year period in Western election campaigns. The close connection between politics and show business was an Eighties phenomenon. Although thecynical may connect itwith soft politics and campaigns geared to television, the first British party to specialise in thespian endorsements was the far-left Workers' Revolutionary Party, with which Vanessa and Corin Redgrave were associated in the Seventies.
Although the wily Harold Wilson had posed for photos with the Beatles in the Sixties, the mainstream Labour Party had to wait until 1987 - the first election with Kinnock as leader - before receiving organised showbiz support. This delay may seem odd, for it is well known that the artistic professions tend, politically, towards the left. In the Seventies, though, the Parliamentary Labour Party was alienated, for different reasons, from two large groupings in the greasepaint tendency.
High-profile superstars were frightened away by Labour's taxation policies. A regular feature of the Daily Mail in the mid to late Seventies was the article in which a star - Michael Caine, SeanConnery, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Andrew Lloyd-Webber - lamented that they might be forced to live abroad because of the Wilson/ Callaghan assaults on their royalties. At the same time, artists in the lower tax brackets were generally well to the left of the official Labour Party. The "left-wing playwrights" of the period - Hare, Brenton, Griffiths, Barker - were more likely to be writing critiques of Labour's abandonment of socialism than publicly rallying to the party's cause.
For these reasons, it was on the right of British politics that organised show-business support first surfaced, in the 1983 election. The phenomenon of performers backing candidates had become established in America, not least because an actor, Ronald Reagan, had just become president. Reagan had received public support from Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, a tactic that greatly helped a political persona heavily indebted to Westerns. Margaret Thatcher was not an actor, indeed not even a theatre or film- goer, but her PR adviser, Harvey Thomas, was an American and enthusiastically used Reagan-tested methods in selling her. Believing that modern elections would be fought on television, Thomas aimed to surround the Prime Minister with TV faces.
There was a certain pattern to the showbiz stars who came out for Maggie. They tended to be working-class boys made good: particularly, for some reason, Liverpudlians. The comedians Kenny Everett, Jimmy Tarbuck and Ken Dodd came out as Tories, as did the footballers Kevin Keegan and Emlyn Hughes.
At a Wembley rally during the 1983 election, Everett, wearing a pair of giant foam-rubber hands, notoriously yelled: "Let's bomb Russia" and "Let's kick Michael Foot's stick away." This scene was replayed in Everett's obituaries last week and, to some extent, wrote out the death notice for the Tory/showbiz alliance after 1983, although Mrs Thatcher would occasionally pose with stars of Coronation Street and in 1992 Cilla Black and Tim Rice provided the warm-up for a Major rally at Wembley.
Conservative campaigns also continued to have an unusual degree of showbiz involvement behind the scenes. The sometime playwright Ronald Miller wrote gags for both Thatcher and Major, and Andrew Lloyd-Webber composed theme tunes for both.
But the political make-up of the artistic world changed during the Eighties. Labour tax plans became less automatically damaging to entertainment world salaries. A new social breed was emerging: rich thirtysomethings, whose guilt about being raised in middle-class comfort resulted in a well-developed social conscience. This breed was well represented in media circles. If Jimmy Tarbuck - Mersey back-street to Berkshire mansion - was typical of the older British comedian, Ben Elton - Oxbridge-educated son of a professor - was typical of the newer comedian. Elton was as stereotypically New Labour as Tarbuck had been Identikit New Tory.
To the young in the cultural professions in the late Eighties, Labour was the only moralvoting option. This phenomenon is neatly speared in Martin Amis's much-discussed novel The Information, where the central character, a London journalist and novelist reflects that "it often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour, except the Government".
Kinnock's embrace of the theatricals was part natural, part pragmatic. Kinnock was a genuine and enthusiastic theatre-goer - often to be seen with Glenys in obscure fringe theatres - and he had a rather touching fan-like thrill inhanging out with Ian McKellen, Antony Sher, David Hare, Emma Thompson, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry and others. At a "Luvvies' Rally", held on one of the Sundays of the 1992 campaign, the Labour leader looked as star- struck as an autograph hunter. But Kinnock and his aides also understood that this new artistic constituency was a potential solution to the party's historical funding problems, ever-worsening because of the decline in union membership. For the first time, Labour had very high earners and even actual millionaires (Ken Follett, Stephen Fry) on its side. Follett's "1000 Club", which he abandoned this week, raised more than £lm for the party.
The 1992 elections in both Britain and America were the high water mark of this trend. Candidate Bill Clinton was supported in vote-rich California by Barbra Streisand, Kevin Costner and numerous other liberal movie stars. Arnold Schwarzenegger stormed around New Hampshire with President George Bush.
Schwarzenegger couldn't save Bush - and Kinnock lost, despite his showbiz firepower - so celebs do not seem to influence the voting intentions of the wider electorate. Stars have been most useful for their financial contributions and fund-raising skills: certainly that was the main interest of the Clinton team in Hollywood, although Ms Strei- sand apparently sends policy memos to the White House.
So why has Tony Blair abandoned the tactic? First, he is not a lover of the theatre and showbiz in the way that Kinnock was. His main press aide, Alastair Campbell, is also known to take a robust view of people who spend their time putting on mascara and pretending to be other people.
But what finally led to theclosure notices being posted on Labour's theatrical wing was the celebrated sensitivity of Mr Blair and his aides to cultural and social shifts. The word "luvvie" entered common usage in 1992, when Private Eye began a column of that name. Although originally intended to mock actors' pretension and hysteria in interviews - comparing the difficulty of a certain role, say, to "climbing the Himalayas without oxygen" - the word "luvvie" has come to encapsulate a general perception that show-business types were becoming too involved in politics and matters of public controversy; were sounding off in a false or hypocritical fashion.
Blair has been ruthless in dissociating his leadership from unpopular social groups: union leaders, left-wing councillors. So, in this sense, Labour's greasepaint tendency are merely further victims of the new leader's wariness about the company he is seen to keep.
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