Guardian profile – A troublesome MP?

Peter Tatchell hitches wagon to Green Party with promise to make trouble


By Hélène Mulholland

The Guardian – London – 03 September 2009

If Peter Tatchell defies his doctors’ advice, and electoral norms, and makes it to parliament at the next election, he can foresee trouble, pretty much straight away – from himself.

“I suspect I might be quite a troublesome MP, starting with the oath of allegiance,” says the 57-year-old Australian-born activist, who is standing for the Green party in Oxford East. He has no intention of giving away what he plans to do, other than to say he has “something expressive in mind” if the time comes.

“I would be very happy to swear allegiance to democracy, human rights and to my constituents, but I am not very happy about the idea of tugging my forelock to an unelected monarch.”

Tatchell has made his mark as a human rights activist in campaigns stretching back more than 40 years and is an unusual suspect among the candidates selected so far by the Greens. If he wins Oxford East, there is absolutely no chance of him dampening his zealous tendency to stand up and be counted.

While he first shot to public prominence as the Labour candidate in the notorious Bermondsey byelection in 1983, where he was the subject of a bitter political and media campaign, Tatchell admits that he is “not primarily a party activist”. But, as the Greens prepare for their annual conference in Hove, starting today, he hopes that the forthcoming general election will be a breakthrough for the party in Westminster.

“Obviously I believe there is a role for parliament because I am standing for election, but I do not see parliament as the be all and end all. Grassroots extra-parliamentary protests are still important to keep politicians on their toes and bring marginalised issues to the central political stage. As an MP, my hope is to bring the issues of campaigns that I work on outside of parliament into the parliamentary arena. So for me parliament is not a replacement to my human rights campaigning but an addition to it.”

If Tatchell were elected to parliament, he would be making history for the party, which has so far failed to get a seat in the Commons. A recent Guardian/ICM poll, however, showing just 3% of the public intends to vote Green at the next national poll, suggests they will still struggle. In his constituency, the Greens polled 4.3% at the last election, although in this year’s Oxfordshire county council elections the Greens polled highest in East Oxford.

An advocate of proportional representation, Tatchell says that the first-past-the-post system can dissuade the electorate from voting for minority parties. Yet he seems optimistic that, this time around, the public will think seriously about an alternative.

“In the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal it is time for change, for new faces and new ideas in parliament. It is time we had some Green MPs. There are already Labour, Tory and Lib Dems, so what is the point of having more MPs from the big established parties? It won’t make any difference, while electing a Green MP will make history.”

The party still suffers from the perception that it is solely concerned with the environment. “That is a very big problem for us and it is compounded by the fact that political commentators, when they write stories on education, housing, employment and health, very rarely seek quotes from the party spokesman, and that means a lot of people are not aware that we have got policies on these wider issues.”

Tatchell says he has always had a green side, and was busy trying to forge an alliance between socialists and the Greens as far back as the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2004 that he finally signed up to the party, four years after terminating a 22-year relationship with Labour over the 75p rise in the state pension and the attempt to stop Ken Livingstone from becoming the party’s candidate for mayor of London. In between, he stood as an Independent Green Left candidate in the first round of London assembly elections in 2000, where he garnered just 22,000 votes without any party funding to support his campaign.

Of his new party, he says: “I just felt I wanted to support a party that was standing for the kind of values I believe in and the Green party fitted that bill. I was really surprised to see what strong progressive policies they had on a whole range of issues such as housing, education and employment.”

He hopes that the current mood of anger towards mainstream parties will work in his favour, and that his own reputation will stand him in good stead. “I am critical of the political establishment, an outsider and someone who stands up for what they believe in.”

His home is not in Oxford, but in south London, where he lives in a one-bedroom council flat, scratching a living of around £8,000 a year from journalism, research work, speaking engagements, and slim royalties from his books.

For Tatchell, activism means doing whatever it takes to bring injustices to attention. But it is this very passion that could thwart his chances of making it all the way to polling day. The man who cannot bear to see other people suffering doesn’t seem so bothered about his own. In March 2001, in Belgium, he received seven blows at the hands of Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards after attempting a citizen’s arrest of the president of Zimbabwe over human rights abuses, leaving him with lasting injuries.

He was knocked unconscious and left with poor vision in his right eye. Other long-term effects include poor memory, concentration, balance and coordination. These injuries were compounded in 2007, just a month after he was selected as a parliamentary candidate, when he suffered severe concussion following an attack by neo-Nazis at a gay pride event in Moscow. Some of the damage, he says, is “probably permanent”. His physical problems deteriorated further after he was out campaigning for a Cornish parliament in south-west England when the bus he was sitting on swerved and he hit his head on a metal rail.

“The doctor keeps saying I need to radically reduce my workload for a period of up to a year. At the moment I am saying: ‘No, there is a general election.'”

Nevertheless he admits he is struggling on the campaign front, which involves travelling back and forth between London and Oxford. “I am finding it quite stressful at the moment,” he said. “It has not stopped me campaigning but it has made me slower and made campaigning more difficult.”

Might he be forced to pull out? “Not at this stage. I am determined to carry on.” Despite his confident words, his voice betrays traces of doubt.