June General Election 2017 – do celebrity endorsements matter?

Grime’s big names are backing Jeremy Corbyn. But have endorsements managed to sway election results in the past?

Are we about to have our first Grime Minister? If the likes of JME, Novelist and Stormzy have the final verdict, Jeremy Corbyn could be storming to power on a wave of grime-backed endorsements.

Over the course of several tweets on April 23, JME offered glowing support for Corbyn’s policies. He retweeted fellow MC Novelist’s public praise for the Labour leader (“He has been on the back-bench not seeking power for 30 years: for him, standing up for what’s right is more important than promotion”) while also linking fans to gov.uk’s register to vote page. This follows Stormzy’s praise for the leader last year, telling the Guardian: “My man, Jeremy! Young Jeremy, my guy. I dig what he says. I saw some sick picture of him from back in the day when he was campaigning about anti-apartheid and I thought: yeah, I like your energy.”

Corbyn might be an easy target for criticism and a divisive figure, but it looks like a real movement of artists are getting behind his cause. But how much will this actually impact on June’s general election? And have celebrity endorsements made a difference before?

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On the other side of the pond, if you solely look at the results of last year’s U.S. election, the power of celebrity is complex. For one, an actual celebrity ran on the ticket of being an ‘outsider’ – someone with no actual political experience whose candidacy was centred around being anti-establishment. And he won. But on the other side, dozens of superstars gave their backing for Hillary Clinton. Beyoncé and Jay Z threw a benefit concert. Katy Perry attempted to mobilise the young vote. Bruce Springsteen, Lena Dunham and Scarlett Johansson all got behind the Hillary ticket. But their involvement was accused of being just another strand of the ‘elite bubble’ tied to Clinton’s campaign. Many claimed these people were far removed from reality. They didn’t understand everyday problems. And somehow, the endorsements that would usually boost a campaign seemed like a thorn in the side.

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Katy Perry and Hillary Clinton
Katy Perry and Hillary Clinton

That’s not entirely true. Clinton technically won 2016’s popular vote. Turnout wasn’t what it should have been – dipping from 58.6% to 57.9% – but these two diametrically opposed candidates didn’t do themselves any favours. So it’s hard to say whether voter mobilisation efforts truly worked in the States.

It’s difficult to argue that some potential non-voters might be more likely to turn out if one of their heroes makes a persuasive case. Newly-eligible voters who’ve never paid attention to politics might suddenly gain interest if they see a huge name like Katy Perry stressing the importance of democracy. There’s no way this doesn’t have some impact.

But big-name endorsements can have the opposite effect. Ahead of June’s EU referendum in the UK, several musicians who usually kept quiet about politics began to state their opinion. Acts like alt-J – hardly on the frontline of political activism most of the time – backed the Remain campaign. The response from fans, mostly in the form of irked Facebook comments, was striking. “I follow you because I like your music, not your political views. This whole thing is dividing us. Music is meant to unite us,” one commenter said on alt-J’s page. “Vote for what you want, not what alt-J tell you to,” said another. There seemed to be a general scepticism towards a big name flexing their influence on a divisive issue. And these reactions were solely from people willing to publicly disagree with one of their favourite bands. What about those who prefer to keep their opinions away from social media?

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The truth is, endorsements work when they’re made at the right time and for a candidate that fits. In 2007, Oprah Winfrey offered huge support to a then little-known Illinois senator, Barack Obama. She gave unwavering praise to his ‘Audacity of Hope’ book via The Oprah Winfrey Show, and she hosted a fundraiser at her mansion that raised more than $3 million. This gave Obama the push it needed in the primaries, and the rest is history. Oprah saw someone who truly represented the views she believed in, and she helped him ride a wave to the top.

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Grime’s kinship with Corbyn makes sense, too. For all his publicised flaws, he offers a voice for the youth, and a generation that looks increasingly fucked – especially if the Tories gain to stand another five years in power unopposed. He’s a man who stays true to his core values, and since 1982, he’s staunchly stood up for minorities and opposed the super-rich. He might not seem ‘electable’ in a traditional sense, but he’s a man of his word. And it’s this that’s drawn the likes of Novelist and JME to his campaign. Instead of simply saying “vote Labour” or forcing their fans to think one way over the other, they’re pointing out Corbyn’s strengths and the decency of his beliefs. This is the right way to go about upping turnout and getting more people involved in a crucial election. There’s nothing preachy about this support, which makes it capable of making a difference.

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