London is possibly already past saving.
First came Russell Brand with his messianic locks and born-again radicalism, crusading for families on an east London estate facing eviction by US investors.
Now it is the turn of Eddie Izzard, sporting a pink manicure and Cuban heels, to set down his comedian’s microphone for a tilt at politics.
Like Brand, the 53-year old stand-up has decided to take on Britain’s affordable housing crisis. With trademark whimsy and a steely conviction that he hopes will see him enter parliament or become London mayor by 2020, he has broken off from a world tour to confront a landlord over its plans to rebuild the William Sutton Estate social housing estate in Chelsea with 144 fewer low-rent homes. Affinity Sutton wants to replace some of them with more than 100 luxury apartments expected to sell for millions.
Izzard has thrown his weight behind the opponents of the plans which have divided residents amid claims of “social cleansing”. When the Guardian joined him to meet tenants, some of whom face eviction, he showed little patience with the landlord’s representatives.
“Just on the vibe everything you are saying is wrong,” he told Lisa Louis, a spokeswoman for Affinity Sutton. “All your responses are wrong. You’re doing a PR frontage, you’re going on and on. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Louis tried to explain: “One of the things we are really struggling with is there is no government funding for social housing. We are working on providing the minimum private housing that we absolutely have to, to be able to re-provide the social housing. Otherwise it could not happen at all.”
Izzard, was having none of it: “That’s not fact. That’s your facts. That’s how you feel it is.”
The transformation of the estate in one of the richest areas of London is part of what Izzard describes as a new “moneyocracy” dividing society. As an Ed Miliband loyalist who has cleared his diary to campaign in next month’s general election campaign, he believes the plans highlight growing division in society – a key theme as he steps up his bid for a career in British politics.
“The separation of the rich and the poor … does feel like it is happening here and it can be stopped with the right legislation and encouragement for people to keep social housing and not squeeze people out on low incomes,” he told the Guardian. “We will lose our vibrancy. The city is going to be emptying out and lots of houses will be empty.”
Affinity Sutton strongly denies allegations of profiteering and social cleansing and has attacked “celebrities that are passing comment, [who] appear to have spoken only to opponents of the scheme”. But Izzard is undeterred.
A lot of what he thinks is going wrong with inequality in cities like London is summed up for him in the stonework of the Sutton estate mansion blocks. They were built in 1913 according to the last will and testament of William Sutton who set up a trust to provide “model dwellings and houses for use and occupation by the poor”. The word “trust” has at some point been hacked off the stonework leaving a blank between “Sutton” and “dwellings”. It is a metaphor for a wider pattern that worries Izzard.
“If you look at the super-rich in America, in the UK and around the world, that is a dangerous thing: the separation of people who have learned to make a tonne of money and everyone else struggling around,” he said. “If people don’t have parents who can help you’ve got no chance. Social housing is the lifeblood of London, London will be losing its lifeblood. Social cleansing should not be happening in 2015 and it looks like Affinity Sutton are trying to do social cleansing.”
Again, Affinity Sutton, has hit back. This week it posted a rebuttal of the opposition’s campaign’s claims.
“The main objectors are in fact not our tenants and we are concerned that they are causing distress through a campaign of deliberate misinformation and speculation,” a spokesman said. “We reject outright the allegation that redevelopment of the scheme is motivated by creating large profits.”
Izzard plans to run as London mayor or for parliament in 2020, putting “into hibernation” a comedy career that he loves. While Brand’s iconoclastic politics, urging people not to vote and to abandon conventional party politics, emerge naturally from his subversive comedy, the spirit of Izzard’s surreal improvisations are harder to find in his pursuit of a conventional political career.
Asked what matters most to him in the coming election, he replies with Labour’s core message: “I suppose it is that the financial recovery is for the few and not the many and we need to get it working for the many.”
Asked for another, he sighs and produces another core message: the National Health Service.
He describes himself as a “radical centrist”. Miliband is “doing fine” and polls showing some people consider him weird are “just nonsense” and “Tory spinning”. Brand’s anti-voting position is plain wrong, he said.
“We have to make decisions,” he said. “Politicians are needed and we want to get it as open as possible … We need voting otherwise you have one person running the country and you get into kings and dictators saying ‘I’ll just be here for ever’. I don’t think Russell is saying that, but I don’t see how anything gets done without voting. Russell is coming from a positive heart point of view but I disagree on how he’s going about getting it done.”
Izzard reckons more comedians are poised to make the leap to political leadership. He references Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live performer, who became a US senator in 2009, and Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian whose Five Star movement became the largest party in Italy’s chamber of deputies in 2013.
“It’s weird that comedians haven’t gone in [to politics] before,” he said. “But comedy is an attack weapon. If your upfront message is attack all you are doing is tearing things down. I am quite positive on humanity, politics, people, life, building things. If you use comedy straight in there it doesn’t work. If you look at Senator Al Franken, he came from a comedy background. It can be done. I think more people will come in from that world in the future. Talking is our job. Comedians at least have articulation.”
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