Unfortunately we didn’t meet her as she had gone to ground! We are saying that she should be properly investigated for not paying capital gains tax after selling one of her homes that was partly funded by parliamentary expenses, as well as calling for her to stand down as an MP. Speaking to Salfordians it is clear they are really pissed off. This is one of the poorest constituencies in the country and there she is turning up with a 13,000 cheque – who has that sort of money hanging around?
In May you wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons calling for an investigation into the expenses scandal. Is there any progress there?
We wrote demanding an independent audit relating to expenses, going back nine years. All those who have mis-claimed should be made to pay it back and any fine or interest should be for the auditors to work out.
We have so far received an interim reply, which is saying that the Parliamentary Prerogative means that the law cannot interfere in such matters. We disagree. The prerogative goes back to 1693 when it was introduced to protect Parliament against a corrupt king and to ensure its freedom in debate and in its legislative role. We are arguing that parliament has failed in its executive function to administer public funds which is totally different.
The point is that an investigation needs to be independent – not done by the House of Commons. But there is no sign of that happening. Instead we have a piecemeal trickling down of information which isn’t good enough. There needs to be a root-and-branch reform of the audit process and if we don’t get it we will take the Speaker to court for a judicial review because we believe there has been a failure in the duty of care to look after public money.
How do you gauge public sentiment towards politics at the moment?
Despite what the media will tell you, people are engaged with politics. They are angry about being betrayed by politicians but not only in terms of the expenses. The political class – obviously not all, but a significant number – is essentially a club which has misused public money and tried to hide it. But the discontent has broader causes. All the things we were told about the market – that it is best, that it meant you had to get a private pension, that you had to get a mortgage and not a council house, that your school had to be funded by private investors and not the state – that stuff went out the window with the financial collapse. We had to speculate on our lives and on our existence and now that system is gone. People are pissed off with all of these so-called certainties we were told about which have shown the fragility and weaknesses of the system. There are many who want to get up and do something about it and this is our opportunity to change things.
Tell us about your current touring show, ‘It’s the Economy Stupid’.
On the tour we are creating ‘The People’s Manifesto’. We ask people to come up with policy ideas for how they would improve the world and their lives. Then we discuss the proposals and vote on them. Unfortunately the one I liked best – that bailiffs should be middle class – didn’t get voted! Other policies have included the nationalisation of Tesco, no state funeral for Thatcher, protection of NHS whistleblowers and replacing organ donor cards with an opt-out scheme.
Can these methods of participatory democracy work in practice?
The show is a thinly disguised political meeting and I do believe such methods can work. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘why don’t you get involved with politics by standing for parliament?’ I am involved with politics at a grassroots level which is the most important. It’s these kinds of actions that change things – the vote, trade union recognition, freedom of speech – these were all fought for by grassroot campaigns. Never did the upper class turn around and say ‘we have a lovely little civil liberty you will enjoy’. I believe this is the most basic and important level of politics.
Right now you are outside the government tax offices just off Deansgate with the civil service trade union PCS in a protest against tax havens and dodgers. Why?
We are calling on the UK government to invade Jersey because it is an offshore tax haven. These places cause the loss of around 100 billion to the UK economy by evasion and avoidance of corporate tax. We need to look at the shadow and offshore banking systems that have allowed people to hide and cheat, to defraud and create structures which contributed to the collapse of the financial system through derivative markets and the securitisation of debts. These things need to be changed. Warren Buffet, the multi-billionaire known as ‘Mr Coca-Cola’ and perhaps the most well-known investor in the world, described derivatives as Weapons of Mass Destruction. He was proven right. We have allowed the rich to get away with robbing us.
What can we do?
This is a prime example [Manchester tax offices at Albert Bridge House]. It is a public building and should not belong to a company. As a result we are paying rent – from the public purse, for a public building – to offshore tax dodgers. Let’s not get involved with them in the first place. We need to get all PFI [Private Finance Initiative] stuff on the books onshore and shut down all the tax havens.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What made you want to do comedy and politics?
Neither really came first – both came together. I declared myself an atheist at the age of eight and decided to be a comic at 16. My biggest inspirations were punk rock and Bertolt Brecht. I went to one of his plays when I was 16 – it was called Caucasian Chalk Circle – and I left the theatre feeling utterly changed by what I had seen. I think it was the defining moment of what I wanted to do.