Last week, the comedian Rufus Hound announced his intention to stand as a candidate for the 2014 European Parliamentary elections under the banner of the National Health Action Party. In doing so, he immediately became his new party's most visible campaigner, and he will be hoping that his recognisability gives him a sufficiently strong platform to become one of London's 8 elected Members of the European Parliament.
The omens, however, are not all good. Entertainment industry celebrities have a habit of popping up and declaring their political ambitions at various stages in the electoral cycle. Often it is a sincerely held belief about a set of issues, occasionally ego, that drives them, though perhaps it could be a desire to gain publicity for other ventures.
Image Credit: the_eggwhite, CC BY-SA 2.0
Whatever the motivation (and in Hound's case, it appears to be that he passionately believes that the current Government's health policy is misguided), celebrity candidates have a very mixed record in getting as far as the ballot paper, much less prospering upon arrival.
The Oscar winning actress and one-time star of the Muppets show is now the long-serving Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Kilburn, a one-time Minister in the previous Labour government's first term, and a posthumous scourge of Mrs Thatcher. She first won her seat in 1992, and retained it relatively comfortably in 1997, 2001, 2005, before eking out a victory 2010 by 42 votes over the Conservative candidate after boundary changes came into effect. She was also an unsuccessful candidate for the Labour nomination for the London mayoralty in 2000. She has announced that retire as an MP at the next election.
The Royle Family, Mike Bassett: England Manager, and one-time Brookside star Ricky Tomlinson was so perplexed by the decision of the Labour Party to nominate well-connected Londoner Luciana Berger that he decided to take matters into his own hands, and sought the illustrious Socialist Labour Party nomination for the Liverpool Wavertree constituency. His resolution to challenge Berger was born of her seeming lack of knowledge about Liverpool FC's famous manager Bill Shankly. Unfortunately, Tomlinson was unable to stand due to what were described as personal and contractual commitments.
The former Coronation Street star and one-time musician Adam Rickitt declared in 2005 that he was endorsing the Conservatives, and had been approved as a member of their "A-List" of potential Parliamentary candidates. Despite appearing at a number of high profile Conservative Party fundraisers and events, he was unable to make any real progress with his political career. In 2007, he returned to the world of soap operas, and joined the regular cast of New Zealand's Shortland Street. During this period, he was arrested for shoplifting a block of cheese, some HP sauce, and a jar of coffee from an Auckland supermarket. Rickitt hasn't announced whether he is interested in becoming a Police and Crime Commissioner, but in view of his transgressions, he may be ineligible to stand.
It is difficult to remember a time when Boris Johnson was not a fixture in the national political mind, but it was only in 2001 that Boris Johnson entered the world of Conservative electoral politics. Prior to this, he was a high profile newspaper columnist and editor who relied on the TV panel programme 'Have I Got News for You' to boost his profile, with the programme probably accounting for his fame more than any other single factor.
Indeed, Johnson appeared twice on 'HIGNFY' before he was even selected as an MP. He was the Member of Parliament for Henley, before defeating Ken Livingstone for the London Mayoralty, and successfully defending it in 2012.These achievements make him possibly the most successful celebrity politician in Britain.
Periodically, speculation mounts that he could be even the next Leader of the Conservative Party. There are also rumours that he may eventually be replaced as Mayor of London by the comedian Eddie Izzard, who has declared his intention to seek the Labour nomination for the mayoralty in 2020.
The Childline Founder and former TV show host Esther Rantzen stood at the 2010 General Election as an independent because of the previous MP Margaret Moran's dubious expenses claims. Despite running a spirited campaign, Rantzen ended up finishing fourth in the seat at the 2010 General Election, behind the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat candidates, mustering a mere 4% of the vote, losing her a £500 electoral deposit in the process. She can, however, take comfort from finishing ahead of the three other independent candidates in the race.
H'Angus the Monkey
Although certainly not a national celebrity, Hartlepool FC's club mascot H'Angus (named as a tribute to an apocryphal tale regarding a lynch mob, a boat, suspicion of the French, and a monkey) aka Stuart Drummond, stood for Mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 and surprisingly emerged victorious on the strength, presumably, of his pledge to give free bananas to all of the town's school children (a tuition fees like pledge that was dropped shortly after his election). Drummond successfully stood for re-election in 2005 and 2009 and managed to increase his majority, before the town voted to abolish the position of Mayor, making him the first, last and only Mayor of Hartlepool.
Being a substantially larger country (and one with a larger number of elected politicians), it shouldn't be surprising that the US leads the way when it comes to celebrity politicians. Jesse 'the Body' Ventura (erstwhile nemesis of Hulk Hogan), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, and Clint Eastwood have all successfully stood for elected office across the Atlantic, with some achieving considerable success after gaining power.
The 2012 Presidential Election cycle saw Roseanne Barr and Stephen Colbert declare their candidacies. Donald Trump announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for President, but ultimately succeeded only in making something of a fool out of himself, before withdrawing. 2010 saw Wyclef Jean denied in his bid to become the President of Haiti due to a failure to meet the country's residency requirements.
The 2010 UK General Election
Our most recent General Election saw a plethora of very (very) minor celebrity candidates seeking office, and in many cases succeeding. TV historian Tristram Hunt is now Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, former TV presenter Esther McVey now represents Wirrall West and is a Work and Pensions Minister, and Gloria De Piero, a former GMTV presenter, is Labour's Shadow Women and Equalities Minister and the MP for Ashfield. Unfortunately, they weren't joined by the Blur drummerDave Rowntree, who unsuccessfully stood for the safe Tory seat of Cities of London and Westminster.
What makes a successful celebrity candidate?
Celebrities have a very mixed record, with some (Boris Johnson and Ester McVey) successfully translating the skills gained in their previous lives into successful political careers. They tend to do this by playing by the established rules of the political game; courting activists, and putting in the necessary work to prove that they are neither dilettante nor liability. Success tends to follow those who hitch themselves to the main political parties, or who tap into a deep-seated desire for change.
Others, however, fall at the first hurdle, by either not realising their ineligibility, or the scale of the challenge at hand. Often, these are candidates who run as independents, who lack the basic party infrastructure to effectively campaign and get their message across. Occasionally, they run for smaller parties and run up against some of the same obstacles.
Whether Rufus Hound can buck the trend, and gain a first elected representative for the embryonic National Health Action Party remains to be seen.
For (slightly more serious) analysis of UK democracy, have a look at the Democratic Audit blog.