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8 November 2022

Eddie Izzard: “Other people have to join the 21st century”

The stand-up comedian and actor on Labour’s trans conflict, immigration and why she’s standing in Sheffield Central.

By Rachel Wearmouth

I meet Eddie Izzard in the Frog and Parrot, a characterful Sheffield pub legendary for its live music. It’s early on a Saturday afternoon but it is already loud and crowded. Izzard, 60, immaculately attired in a purple jacket, black dress and leather boots, grins gamely from one of the pub’s booths and asks if I want a drink.

We both forego alcohol, have a Diet Coke and get down to the business of discussing British politics. She – “I prefer she/her but don’t mind he/him” – is standing to be Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Sheffield Central (where her rivals include the New Statesman columnist Paul Mason).

I suggest her politics could best be described as soft left and within Labour’s mainstream. “I’m a radical moderate,” the stand-up comedian and actor counters, adding that there is “nothing soft” about her journey through politics, which includes setting up a street performers’ union, campaigning for Remain in the EU referendum and fighting for trans rights. “I do radical things with a moderate message,” she says. “I ran 130 marathons, that’s pretty bloody radical. But I raised £4m for charity, that’s a moderate message.”

Izzard was born in Yemen to Dorothy, a nurse, and Harold, an accountant for BP. She had an itinerant childhood, with the family living in Bangor, Northern Ireland, the small village of Skewen, near Swansea, and Eastbourne on the south coast of England. Izzard was sent to a private boarding school in the 1970s after her mother died of cancer. She was the odd one out.

“Everyone was Tory and I couldn’t work it out,” Izzard says. “My dad was the only Labour-voting parent in the school.”

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That was a crash course in what she calls “the Tory mindset”. Izzard had aspirations for a life on stage at just seven years old but arrived at Sheffield University, with straight As, to study accounting and financial management.

“It’s the first city I chose to live in,” she says, and it was where she began her creative career after switching her degree to drama after a year. Despite Sheffield struggling during Margaret Thatcher deindustrialisation – “she liked budget sheets but she didn’t like human beings” – the city was “a beating heart of creative ideas”.

“My early shows were here, playing up at the students’ union,” she says, gesturing out of the pub window. “So the city that supported me when I dropped out and started my early, tentative steps into professional creativity, I wanted to pay back.”

[See also: Revealed: the ministers who could profit from the year of political turmoil]

Izzard, of course, went on to become a star, with a distinctive, surrealist brand of comedy, selling out stadiums in the US and Europe. “These are British-developed skills that I have taken and exported to 45 countries. I’ve performed in four languages. I think that’s a pretty good Sheffield story.”

Asked to name her political heroes, she opts for Abraham Lincoln – the US president who passed legislation that abolished slavery. “He came in as the compromise candidate, kind of a John Major, kind of a Theresa May. People thought this guy is no good. But he was very wise, he had stamina, he had determination. They insulted him, because he had a look that was kind of ungainly and gangly. But if you analyse what he did, it was very hard. He had to work it all out, talk to all the experts he could to get slavery abolished and give people their freedom.”

Izzard’s second choice is Nelson Mandela, perhaps unsurprisingly given she ran 27 marathons in 27 days in 2016 in tribute to the 27 years Mandela spent in prison before becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa. “He came from tribal royalty, but that didn’t mean much to the white supremacists who were running the apartheid regime. And everything he did in his life was just presidential.”

She admires Lincoln and Mandela as “stamina people”. “They played with a straight bat and tried to be straightforward with people and not try to duck and dive. They were the inverse of Boris Johnson.”

How does she view Johnson’s successor, Rishi Sunak? “Boris Johnson was a liar and Liz Truss just seemed to be an empty suit. We have an extreme right Tory party in control. I don’t think it is going to change much.”

Izzard accuses Conservatives whose families came to the country as migrants of having double standards on immigration policy. “There are a number of immigrants in the Tory party who hate immigrants,” she says. “That’s a curious thing. In the dictionary when you look up hypocrisy, surely there is something ringing in their ears.”

Izzard was a passionate Remainer and is standing to represent a seat that opposed Brexit (68 per cent voted for EU membership) but is prepared to respect Labour’s official policy, which is opposed to membership of both the EU and the single market.  

“Everyone knows what I think about Europe,” she says, adding that there is little to be done about “where we are”. “I perform in French, German and Spanish but I am not going to say something that puts me at odds with Keir [Starmer]”.

On electoral reform, Izzard similarly admits her support for proportional representation won’t change. The party leadership opposes the idea, which caused friction at the party conference this year. “I don’t think it will help the Labour Party per se, or the Tory party per se,” Izzard says. “But it’s fairer for people who vote.”

Izzard came out as trans in 1985 and said two years ago that she preferred the pronouns she/her. She has been surprised by the reaction. “I consider myself a trans woman, I’m gender fluid,” she says. “I’ve been out for 37 years. I don’t know what everyone wants. Do they want more notice? 38 years? No one should be surprised.”

She wastes no time fretting about abuse – “37 years of transphobic bullying and it’s water off a duck’s back” – but nor does she want to be “the poster child” for the trans rights movement. “It’s not an overt thing. Obama wasn’t overtly going in to become the black president or a black senator,” she argues.

[See also: What did we do to deserve Matt Hancock?]

Starmer, she says, should avoid Tory culture wars on this and other subjects. “I would just say, don’t take the bait on that.”

If selected Izzard could become Labour’s first trans MP and debate about reforms to gender self-identification are splitting all political parties. Rosie Duffield, a Labour MP sceptical about self-ID, has said she’d rather be arrested than refer to Izzard as a woman when asked whether misgendering someone should be a hate crime; Starmer, however, has backed tougher laws.

Izzard has a stock answer: “Other people have to join the 21st century. I’m already in the 21st century. It’s 2022, so everyone else should just get on board.”

But she would share the Labour benches with Duffield. “It’s like a family I suppose. You have a Christmas family get-together, with your big extended family, and there might be some people you don’t necessarily hang out with. You say ‘hi’ and then move on.”

She remarks that the “very loud arguments” playing out today echo those endured by the LGBTQ community in previous generations. “This might be a thing we have to go through. When I came out in 1985, there were no arguments about being trans. We were like non-people. We were not considered part of society. I knew that was part of my job, to try and get myself and trans people to say we are real human beings and we are here.”

When we move on to discuss how self-ID reforms would affect women-only spaces she becomes impatient at being seen as the spokesperson for the trans movement. “I don’t have all the answers,” she says. “I happen to be trans. All I can do is say how it is for me. I can’t come in and wave a magic wand and solve all the problems, because some people are very entrenched.”

Izzard may not win the vote among Sheffield Central’s Labour activists. Izzard has been on the losing side of many campaigns – euro membership, electoral reform, Remain and Labour’s many doomed election efforts. She knows she can keep going though.

“The wall [you hit during marathons] is psychological,” she says. “The wall is the mind saying I don’t want to play this game anymore. People hit the wall and start staggering but if they see the finish line, they speed up. So they do have gas in the tank, but the mind is saying I don’t want to play this game, I want to go home.

“But I can stay in there beyond the pale because when I came out people tried to fight me in the streets and I kept going and I kept going and going.”

[See also: PMQs: the Gavin Williamson scandal makes Rishi Sunak look weak]

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