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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 17:08 GMT
Too turned off to turn out

Cyril Smith aboard the 1974 Liberal battle-hovercraft
The 1997 election campaign was, voters and commentators agreed by the end of it, the most boring anyone could remember.

All protested that it was too long, having been kicked off by John Major a full six weeks before polling day. And it soon became achingly dull, with both the main parties' campaigns largely consisting of themes familiar for years beforehand.

John Major: Brought the soapbox back to national politics
It was a turn-off for the electorate in the most literal sense as well.

Complaints flooded in to broadcasting networks about the election's dominance of the programme schedules, while viewing figures plummeted for extended campaign coverage in news bulletins. Voter apathy turned to active antipathy.

The eventual irony was that a campaign widely judged to have been deeply uninspiring delivered a record-breaking parliamentary landslide for Labour - on the back of the lowest turnout of the electorate since before the Second World War.

Time for a cuppa

How to convey to voters the importance of choosing them while not driving the electorate into the arms of the stay-at-home party is the question to which, with varying degrees of success, politicians have been seeking an answer for years.

Of course, there are the election broadcasts allotted to the political parties - and usually used by the television audience as the perfect moment to put the kettle on.

Billboard posters, photo-opportunity stunts and rallies packed with over-excited party supporters are other staples of any election campaign.

So too are the parties' battle-buses, from which the main party leaders leap into action to mount their soapboxes - literally in the case of John Major's 1992 and 1997 campaigns.

John Prescott on board his 1997 Prescott Express
Unless party coffers are really stretched, battle-jets and helicopters usually make an appearance too.

Never before, however, had a party hit the campaign trail with the groundbreaking gizmo proudly unveiled by the Liberal Party at the 1974 campaign: the battle-hovercraft.

What must have seemed an outstanding wheeze when the party was drawing up its battleplans quickly became an embarrassment when the hovercraft - a positively glamorous way to get about in the 1970s - broke down while bearing the full bulk of that literal political heavyweight Cyril Smith.

Desperate measures

But in these days of heightened media awareness and with the public mistrustful of increasingly spin-doctored, air-brushed and blow-dried politicians, resurrecting campaigning aids from yesteryear can win points for novelty and innovation.

Mr Major's soapbox, which he took to in the middle of a 1992 campaign everyone else thought was due to end in Tory defeat, was seen as the desperate act of a desperate man.

That view was revised after his surprise victory on polling day, becoming instead a illustration of his down-to-earth, dogged and non-flashy approach - a welcome relief to many voters following the high-octane premiership of Margaret Thatcher.

Celebrity status

Celebrity endorsement - or failing that, being seen in the company of famous talents - is a politicians' ploy of old which has gathered pace with each election.

Noel Gallagher at Number Ten - but the Oasis star later attacked Tony Blair
Harold Wilson started the trend off in the 1960s when he was happy to bask in the populist limelight of the Beatles.

But using celebs to explicitly back a political party began to really come into its own in the 1980s.

It was from the 1983 election that the Tories began parading the likes of comedian Kenny Everett, snooker-player Steve Davies, Jimmy Tarbuck and Cilla Black as signed-up supporters.

Arbiters of taste nevertheless noted that they were not the trendiest of celebrities. They were, it was unkindly suggested, plain naff.

Cautionary tale

The Liberal-SDP Alliance boasted John Cleese, Sir Richard Attenborough and Rabbi Julia Neuberger.

Labour has preferred to associate itself with the trendier professions of acting and pop music, with Neil Kinnock even starring in a Tracey Ullman pop video at one stage.

By 1997 the party had cornered much of the cool end of the market, with the likes of Alan McGee, Blur and Oasis firmly identified as backing New Labour.

All three, however, went on to illustrate the hazards of relying on non-politicians to carry forth your message.

Just as a celebrity's appeal refreshes those parts of the electorate that dry politicians cannot reach, so too does their disenchantment when they fall out with the party that previously trumpeted their backing.


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