Why the Time Is Right for a Celebrity Moratorium in British Politics

01/07/2016 12:07 | Updated 01 July 2016

Amid the collective jaw drops that greeted Boris Johnson's decision not to stand for PM, one smaller consequence has been overlooked: TV chef turned healthy eating campaigner Jamie Oliver will not now have to leave the UK. Oliver had signalled his intentions to do so in a rant to his 4.5m followers on Instagram in which he declared Britain "cannot let" the former London Mayor replace David Cameron. Which got me thinking.

Because irrespective of whether you are pro or anti Brexit, whether you think Boris is a hero or the Antichrist, since Sir Bob Geldof's face-off with a flotilla of pro-Brexit fisherman on the Thames ahead of last week's referendum, one thing is clear: Famous personalities have played a disproportionate - and unhealthy - role in Britain's political debate in recent months.

In today's celebrity-obsessed world of opinion and comment, it is hardly surprising that news media looking to pep up coverage of the countdown to the last week's EU referendum would shine the spotlight on selected high profile personalities - some, like Arsene Wenger, with a professional interest in the outcome; others, like Lily Allen, with less of one.

It's only to be expected, too, that media platforms pay well-known personalities such as Jeremy Clarkson, Frankie Boyle and Katie Hopkins to expound their sometimes entertaining, sometimes not personal opinions either to reinforce an audience's opinions or challenge by stirring things up.

One can hardly criticise anyone, well-known or otherwise, for sharing their opinion when asked if they choose to do so either. Nor is there any point in railing against the prevalence of personal comment and opinion that is now shared so much more loudly and widely thanks to the likes of Facebook or Instagram. Why? Because in today's social media-driven world, social comment is a fact of life.

But - and this is a big but, in my view - there is a major difference between celebrities passing comment and actively seeking to use their celebrity to influence politics. In Oliver's case, he used his personal Instagram account to launch #BuggerOffBoris and urged his readers to 'share the hell' out it.

Agreed, Boris Johnson is a very polarising figure right now, but does Oliver's great work in championing initiatives that encourage healthy eating and challenge childhood obesity really give him the right to influence future voters against him?

I'd suggest not.

In a democracy, it goes without saying that everyone is entitled to their opinions. But celebrity involvement in politics is something else. Because this isn't the same as George Clooney endorsing a popular capsule coffee brand. Or Joanna Lumley fronting a campaign working for disadvantaged children in Nepal. Or promoting the Dial watch now available through Three UK.

Let's be clear about it. Clooney is paid; Lumley isn't, but her links with the country are well-known;, meanwhile, was part of the team that created Dial. These celebrities' associations with what they are promoting are simple, obvious and widely understood.

The same cannot be said for Oliver, Geldof and their ilk, however. For their involvement in politics is driven purely by personal agenda. Furthermore, though they appear to argue from the positon of being 'one of the people', in most cases their financial success means that they are anything but.

In short, the stakes are different for most of celebrities. And in our celebrity-obsessed world, the danger lies in the story becoming more about the personality than the issue they are trying to influence - especially when that issue could have long-term and life-changing outcomes.

What's more, when it comes to the highly divided scene that is UK politics, celebrity involvement risks back-firing.

'TBH, if David Cameron, Bob Geldof and David Beckham all told me to do something, I probably wouldn't do it either', one observer commented on Twitter about the Leave vote the morning after. It is a powerful point.

Without a doubt, if you are old enough to vote you are old enough to make up your mind about the facts as presented in a clear and considered debate. To date, discussion around the EU referendum has been anything but. Going forward it's in all our interests to downplay the interest in and media coverage devoted to what the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Ian Botham, Joan Collins or Elizabeth Hurley think.

Personalities such as these should be given no more weight or credence than your next door neighbour, the woman behind you in the queue at Sainsbury's or the man you sit next to when you travel home from work this evening by bus. One person, one vote has long been democracy's rallying cry. But it is also true to say that in a democracy, all votes should be equal so do let's, please, treat them and the people that cast them as such.

By Frances Dickens CEO of Astus Group