Politics and Celebrity: A Growing Overlap

Earlier this week, the loud mouthed ultra-conservative backbencher Nadine Dorries was suspended from the Tory Party for unilaterally leaving parliament for up to 6 weeks to appear on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. For those of you who haven’t heard of the TV programme, or are lucky enough to live in a country which hasn’t discovered the concept yet, I shall cruelly correct the situation. ICGMOH gets a group of so-called celebrities, flies them into a jungle, and gets them to undertake a number of pointless and unpleasant tasks. Every week, a contestant is eliminated until there is one “winner”.

Nadine Dorries deemed appearing on this to be more important than being in Parliament to help her constituents, being present for the Autumn mini-budget (sorry, Statement) or voting on the budget of the European Union, which she is such a vocal critic of. Unsurprisingly, most people both within and outside of the Conservatives have taken a dim view of such casual lack of responsibility. She has been suspended from the party pending a meeting with the Chief Whip, and her constituency party is actively considering withdrawing their support.

The extreme case of Dorries has been condemned harshly by fellow politicians, but are they not all guilty of flirting with celebrity? From the 1980s onwards, a slick media persona has been becoming almost as important, if not more so, than the performance of an MP, leader, or Government.

New Labour marked the completion of this. Harold Wilson talked of the “white heat of scientific revolution” while Tony Blair invited soap opera stars to parties in Number 10. A good government has to be in touch with its people, and the traditional media remain key to this. But to what extent can that continue until the media shape not only our politicians, but also important matters of policy as well?

We’ve lost a crucial aspect of our nation’s political outlook. An MP can be as honest and well-intentioned as they like, but will struggle to retain influence if they get on the wrong side of the media barons.

Is the pragmatic (visionless) and media friendly (Murdoch serving) election model pioneered by the Blair/Campbell machine set to be the future of government for decades to come?

It’s too early to tell. Ed Miliband’s strengths, for example, lie in intelligence rather than offering a handsome grinning face at ease with TV cameras. He has faced a great deal of criticism for being a “nerd” and has has a largely right-leaning media eager to attack him for winning against David. Nevertheless, the public now want substance over style, and Miliband enjoys widespread popularity.

But let us not run away with the idea that Ed is a Michal Foot style quiet, awkward intellectual who is being victimised. As we saw at Conference, (and often at Prime Minister’s Questions) Miliband can be a hard-hitting orator who can do well on television.

In the days of 24-hour news and a new media in which current affairs is often picked apart in a more “tabloid” style, it would seem our political leaders will continue to feel compelled to operate as celebrities. It mayn’t be desirable, but as the electorate it is our role to decide if that is the future.