What MPs can learn from Eddie Izzard

Author/s: Jackie Ashley
Issue: Dec 10, 2001

For a Westminster hack who moonlights as a TV and radio presenter of political shows, life doesn't usually get more exciting than cross-questioning Michael Howard or Geoff Hoon. But I've been living. I've hit the big time. I have been interviewing Eddie Izzard. In case you don't know, Eddie Izzard is a successful and much-loved comedian who has described himself as a transvestite lesbian and likes to shock. Women's dresses, loadsa make-up, rudejokes-you get the picture.

However, on this occasion (a Sunday current affairs show for London Weekend Television), there were no jokes-just loads of passion. We were talking about the euro. Izzard wasn't interested in the usual political knockabout. He brushed aside the "five economic tests" and couldn't care less about the briefings and counter-briefings about Brown or Blair blowing hot or cold on the subject. Izzard's arguments encompassed idealism-closer European unity is essential to maintain peace in our continent -- and realism -- as British people use the euro abroad and find that they can use it in many shops, pubs and restaurants at home (even the Dixons chain of electrical shops, whose chairman, Sir Stanley Kalms, is the Tory party treasurer, will be adapting its tills to accept the euro), we will get used to the new currency. In other words, according to Izzard, it's gonna happen, and it's good.

He was a brilliant political interviewee. It made me wonder why the professional politicians can't sound as good. Something quite profound is going wrong with our political language in this country; and it took Eddie Izzard, who would rather like to be an MEP, to make me see it. With five million fewer people voting in this year's general election than in 1997, it's an issue that is troubling the broadcasters -- faced with declining audiences for political programmes -- and the politicians themselves.

But bringing on the comedians isn't the answer. For a start, there aren't enough of them to go round. And they have a living to earn on the comedy circuit, without having to interrupt their performances for a quick dash to the Newsnight studio. Nor is it very sensible to give up on politics altogether. Yes, we could flop on the sofa to watch omnibus editions of East-Enders, and leave it to others to run the country.

But unless we all keep a close eye on those "others", democracy could soon find itself in peril. It is a participation sport or it's a sham. The right answer is to find out what might enthuse these hordes of non-voters into the business of choosing our government and running our country. Now, at last, there is some decent research into what might help. In a report just out, the Hansard Society, the influential parliamentary think-tank, has collaborated with MORI to find out why people didn't vote, and what might make them do so next time.

The report makes surprising reading. First, we have all assumed that the main reason for not voting was that the result was a foregone conclusion. Wrong.

Most respondents said they had decided not to vote as a positive abstention. Worryingly for the politicians, many of these abstainers believed that it wasn't worth voting because MPs are in it for themselves. "The politicians are interested in money and power," says a female serial non-voter from Plymouth. "The majority of MPs are toffs who haven't got a clue what is going on in an inner city," complains a male non-voter from Stockport. (It is thus very foolish of MPs, given these suspicions, to try to get rid of their present commissioner for parliamentary standards, Elizabeth Filkin -- but that is only a small part of the problem.)

The main complaint of our abstainers is that politics seems to bear no relevance to their own lives, and that their vote can't change anything. A very similar conclusion, I gather, was reached by major research by the BBC into why its political coverage is not more widely followed.

Broadcasters, no doubt, have some rethinking to do, preferably about how to cover politics better rather than less. But this is not, first and foremost, a media problem. It is deeply rooted in politics, and my fear, having talked to a lot of MPs about it, is that politicians dangerously underestimate how general the switch-off is. They are carrying on as if nothing has happened -- as if that 59 per cent turnout was really a 79 per cent turnout.

I hope the Hansard Society report gets MPs talking about the possible solutions. First, politicians have to be communicators. Once, they spent hours rewriting and learning speeches. Now they have to learn to sound like human beings on television. That means unlearning all those new tricks about being constantly "on-message" and simply repeating bland mantras. We've all evolved mental off-buttons. It is time to junk the jargon--"my right honourable friend" and so on -- stop talking like extras in a Trollope novel and take some risks. It didn't do Mo Mowlam any harm with the punters.

But speaking human is not enough. People are disconnected from politics because they think, with good reason, that politics has failed to make a difference to their local schools, hospitals and transport systems. It may be unglamorous, but the minute people look around their town's health centre or secondary school and think, yes, this is suddenly a lot better, they will start to talk politically, and then to vote again. We can argue about Labour's delivery programme. But delivery is at the heart of the political crisis gripping the country. Our democracy is dying on its feet -- or rather, with all those sofas and TVs, on its bottom.

MPs should be very scared indeed. And then, remembering Eddie Izzard, they should learn to speak as if they aren't.