Monday, April 14, 2008

Peter Tatchell: "Boris Johnson? A big mistake"

Speaking to Hagley Road to Ladywood, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has his say on the London elections, Ken Livingstone vs Boris Johnson, celebrity culture, and George Galloway's recent nonsense. Interview by Claude Carpentieri

Gordon Brown may have said that he’s "losing patience" with Robert Mugabe, but if only the world had been listening in due time. For years, Peter Tatchell and a number of fellow human rights activists were amongst the very few who tried to open the world’s eyes on Mugabe’s genocidal policies. In 1999, Tatchell ambushed Mugabe’s car during an official state visit in London and performed a citizen’s arrest. But when the police were called, the one who was let free to go was Mugabe ("sorry-for-any-inconvenience") while the human rights activists were jailed.

Now 56, Peter Tatchell is possibly the most unrelenting human rights campaigner in the UK. If Britain finally managed to turn over a new leaf and left Soviet-style anti-gay policies behind, part of the credit goes to him. From the 1990 "Kiss-in" at Piccadilly Circus to protest against arrests of gay men for kissing in public, to the stoical campaigning against Section 28 (one of the most shameful pieces of legislation in the history of Britain), Peter Tatchell has been at the forefront of the fight against religious fundamentalism and bigotry.

Tatchell never gave a shit about trends and media popularity. He may have recently been praised as a "national treasure" or "a hero of our time", but when for decades he risked his own skin and got himself arrested or beaten to stand for human rights in Britain as well as the Eastern bloc, Zimbabwe or the Middle East, most of the left opted for blinkers instead. I must say I couldn’t believe my luck when I was offered the chance to speak to him. Amongst the topics we discussed, the fact that London may be at danger of capitulating to a bigot.

The debate on the London elections is heating up. Do you find it disturbing that the media can spend so much time on the fact that "Ken Livingstone has five children by three different women"? How on earth does that affect Londoners and their daily lives???

PT: Ken’s personal life is totally irrelevant. It’s no one else’s business. The same goes for Boris Johnson’s extra-marital affairs and Brian Paddick’s same-sex partner. Judge the candidates on their integrity and their policies.

As a critic of Ken Livingstone over his courting of al-Qaradawi, do you actually support him in the mayoral election?

PT: I will give my first preference to Sian Berry, the Green Party candidate. She is the most progressive, with the best policies on housing, transport, jobs, crime, equal opportunities and the environment. Moreover, she is not sectarian. Sian is open, inclusive, fair, honest, accessible and democratic. In addition, it would be brilliant to have a woman Mayor - and someone young to lead what is a youthful city.

My second preference will go to Ken Livingstone. Boris Johnson would be a big mistake. He is clownish, disorganised, not well informed, has little grasp of policy detail and is on record as saying some very bigoted things about various minority communities.

Based on existing polls, Ken is the only candidate who can stop Boris. In any case, Ken's policies as Mayor have been mostly positive and benefited Londoners. All in all, he has been a good Mayor. He should be judged in the round. Despite his flaws and policy misjudgements (such his fondness for high-rise office blocks, closeness to big business, promotion of bendy buses etc), he is way better than Boris.

I don't hold personal grudges. I would never base my voting intentions on what bad things Ken may have done to me personally (he unjustly denounced me as an Islamophobe in 2004 because I criticised the fundamentalist cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi). The interests of all Londoners must come first.

I do, however, hope that Ken will listen to the valid criticisms that I and other friends and allies have made and, if he is re-elected, that he will reform his administration to end the favouritism, personal vendettas, sectarianism, control freakery and unsavory alliances that have sometimes characterised City Hall.

Opinion polls suggest Boris Johnson's ahead. Is this the official signal for the country's swing to the right that many analysts have forecast? Given that in terms of policies, instead, polls suggest a majority of pro-Ken views, how can someone become Mayor of London purely for the jokes they tell?

PT: A victory for Boris would be a big boost for the Tories. It might give them momentum to win the next general election. Mind you, although I don’t want the Conservatives back in power, Labour doesn’t deserve to win either. Gordon Brown is pursuing Tony Blair’s disastrous policies and piling on disasters of his own: the Iraq war, abolition of the 10p rate of tax for low earners, ID cards, expanded nuclear power, post office closures, the renewal of Trident nuclear missiles and plans to extend the detention of terror suspects to 42 days. These are reactionary policies. That’s why I no longer support Labour. I am backing the Greens and standing as their parliamentary candidate for Oxford East at the next general election.

Heat magazine is officially more popular than The Independent. How do you view Britain's so-called celebrity culture?

PT: Celebrity culture is the bane of modern Britain. It epitomises the greedy, me-first, fame-driven, consumerist lifestyle that is promoted by, and pandered to, by the media. True achievement comes through talent and hard work. They are no easy routes to doing things that are truly individually rewarding and socially valuable.

Why should an 18-year-old guy take an interest in politics today? They were anti-Iraq war en-masse and it happened anyway. They were against tuition fees yet Blair still ploughed ahead and now fees are here to stay. What do you answer to the "what's the point" argument?

PT: If young people walk away from politics, the careerists and self-servers win. Decisions taken by politicians determine our future. That’s why politics matters. The ramifications of politics are too important to be left to the professional political elite.

For a short while some of the press timidly focussed on the scandal of 'non-doms' paying virtually no tax in Britain. Yet most people are still unaware of it, or totally resigned that nothing will ever change. Will it ever?

PT: We, the people, can change Britain and the world for the better. But only if we are determined to see change and get organised. All of us who care need to work together, across generations and politics, around issues like civil liberties, economic justice, fair voting, equality for all, de-militarisation, animal rights, international solidarity, environmental protection and many other big local, national and global issues. The poll tax protests, especially the millions who refused to pay the poll tax or delayed their payments, showed that ordinary people can force governments to abandon crazy policies.

Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?

PT: Obama is better than Clinton. But I would not vote for either of them. The Green anti-corporate candidate Ralph Nader would be my choice. He’s far more radical, and has concrete, practical solutions too.

The recent killing of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, brutally murdered only because she was a "goth", reminded us of the level of brutality in Britain. A petition to extend the definition of "hate crime" to include offences against people based on their appearance was recently submitted to the Government. As a long-time campaigner for the inclusion of homophobia within the definition of "Hate Crime", do you back the idea?

PT: Yes, hate crime legislation should be all-inclusive.

Last month George Galloway said: "All the (British) papers seem to imply that you get executed in Iran for being gay. That's not true" [Watch his dismal performance on The Wright Stuff by clicking here].
An act of political calculation or does he honestly believe what he's saying (that's crap either way, I say)?

PT: I don’t know why George said that nonsense. Whatever his rationale, he is wrong. It looked a bit like he was pushing the Iranian government’s propaganda. He works for Press TV, which is funded by the Iranian regime. Perhaps he’s putting his mouth where his money comes from? I don’t know. All the Iranian and international human rights groups agree that gay people in Iran are arrested, jailed, flogged, tortured and sometimes executed.

I presume you had a look at "What's Left?", the book written last year by Nick Cohen of The Observer and that Hagley Road to Ladywood reviewed. Cohen's argument was largely based on so-called straw-man logic. However, when you watch performances like Galloway's on The Wright Stuff, it does make you think. Why is there still such a chunk of the left that would turn a blind eye or two towards mysoginy, anti-semitism and homophobia? How on earth are you an "Islamophobe" if you simply frown upon gay men being flogged to death in Iran or Saudi Arabia?

PT: Sadly, large chunks of the left have either capitulated to Blairism and Brownism, or they have descended into the crude simplicity of anti-Americanism, which sometimes leads them to back anti-US movements and regimes like Iran and Hezbollah. It is absurd to condemn as anti-Muslim those people, like myself, who defend Muslim women and gays against fundamentalist fanatics.

Let's remain on the Middle East. I don't know if you ever got a chance to get to know Tony Blair. Why do you think he ploughed ahead the way he did with Iraq? Messianic conviction or what?

PT: Blair was always a pro-American Atlanticist. He could never conceive of Britain having an independent foreign policy, or Europe being a bulwark against US hegemony. So he threw his lot with Clinton and Bush. Turning the UK into Washington’s poodle was a huge and very insulting error of judgement. The Iraq debacle destroyed Blair’s credibility and reputation forever.

I wrote my dissertation on Section 28. Even 10 years ago it was unthinkable it would ever be scrapped. And it was 1999 when a nail bomb blew up the Admiral Duncan in Soho. Is Britain really less homophobic today?

PT: Public attitudes are much more accepting and understanding. We really have become a more liberal, tolerant society. There are still backwaters of racism, misogyny and homophobia but they are a minority and getting smaller.

Peter Tatchell will be the Green Party's parliamentary candidate for the Oxford East constituency at the next general elections.

[You can read about Peter Tatchell's work on his website]

Claude Carpentieri


John Wark said...

Galloway is the best example of the worst PR for the anti-war movement. If it's the American enemy then it's his best mate.

Sectarian to the extreme.

Anonymous said...

Tatchell should spend less time demonising his own. He's a media slut.

Steve R. said...

We've already got a Marxist buffoon in, so hands off Boris!!

Anonymous said...

steve r., that's a deep contribution to the debate, isnt it? Boris Johnson may be a laugh, but he's gotta be the most incompetent politican in the UK.

My mate Glynn's incredibly funny, and a nice lad too, but I wouldnt leave him in charge of my own flat for a day, let alone in charge of a city like London.