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Interview ‘No individual can change history. It is we, the people, who change history’

PETER TATCHELL speaks to Angus Reid about LGBT+ rights, gender politics and the urgent need to campaign to democratise the economy

PETER TATCHELL is one of Britain’s best known political activists and human rights campaigners, and the recent film Hating Peter Tatchell on Netflix celebrates more than half a century of commitment to activism. “My aim,” he says, “was to show that social change is possible and how it can be done. I hope the film will inspire a new generation of change-makers.”

He grew up in a tough working-class family in Australia, poor even by working-class standards. Their income went to pay medical bills for his severely asthmatic mother. “I can remember coming home and there was no food in the house,” he says. “It gave me a strong sense of injustice. Why should we have to suffer just because our mother was ill?”

His political awakening was sparked in 1963 by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing — in Birmingham, Alabama — that left four young girls dead at the hands of white racists. This ignited his interest in and support for the black civil rights movement. 

“That was the model of how to do activism, and those techniques of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience have been the lode-star of my campaigning ever since.”

Emigrating to Britain in 1971 he found his vocation as a human and civil rights campaigner, first with the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s, and later with the direct action movement OutRage! in the 1990s. The LBGT+ movement is, he says, “probably the most successful social movement in Britain in the last half century.”

Up until 1999 the UK had, by volume, the largest number of anti-LGBT laws of any country; by 2013 they had all been repealed and replaced by some of the most progressive legislation anywhere in the world.

It was brought about by a combination of direct action by groups like OutRage!, coalitions and alliances involving trade unions, the Labour Party and others, along with insider parliamentary lobbying groups like Stonewall. 

Yet this collective achievement has been co-opted by the right, and the history is often told as though individuals changed history. Mark Ashton, the co-founder of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) in 1984, was celebrated in the BBC film Pride, but his political thinking and identity as leader of the Young Communist League was entirely over-looked. 

Is such history being rewritten to erase the presence of the radical left?

“I’ve been to LGBT+ conferences,” says Tatchell, “that include on the voices of the trade unions, of leftwing activists and BAME people. But they rarely feature in mainstream LGBT+ history books. And they should.”

But what is always lost, he adds, is the fact that both GLF and OutRage! were LGBT+ social movements that were wedded to social transformation. Both argued that the status quo was flawed and unjust, and needed to change. 

They both sought alliances with other social movements that shared the radical vision. They were in stark contrast to mainstream groups like the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in the 1970s or Stonewall today who are committed to what he calls “the limited horizons of equal rights within society as it exists.”

Unlike many LGBT+ groups, he says, OutRage! and the GLF were “… not ‘gayist’ organisations.” Rather, they saw LGBT+ rights as part of a spectrum of human rights, and acted in solidarity with the struggles to secure rights for women, BAME people, those with disabilities, and workers.

“My view is that society as it exists is the problem,’ says Tatchell. “We need to change it. And that change will benefit not just LGBT+ people, but everyone. That’s a much broader perspective for social justice that goes beyond mere sexual orientation and gender identity.”

But “identity politics” have been co-opted by the right to eclipse class politics, and to shatter unity on the left. Why not use the term “class” to encompass those that experience oppression? 

“Class struggle is very important,” he agrees, “but alone it doesn’t address all the injustices that people face in society today. Until the 1970s much of the left in the UK was very homophobic and described the struggle for LGBT+ rights as a bourgeois perversion and a symbol of degenerate capitalism. That is why we needed a separate LGBT movement. The left had aligned with the right to persecute us. We had to come together to affirm our identities because that was the basis on which we were being oppressed, whether that be misogynistic, racist or homophobic oppression.”

So, the masses were not intolerant, but the leadership was? 

Tatchell is no stranger to the difficulty of proposing socially transformative policies from within the Labour Party. When he stood as candidate for Bermondsey in the 1983 by-election he didn’t stand as an LGBT+ candidate but as a radical socialist. 

He was denounced as an extremist for supporting a national minimum wage, a comprehensive equality Act to protect everyone against discrimination, and a negotiated political settlement in Northern Ireland. All these policies are now mainstream but, at the time, “…as everyone knows,” he says with a wry smile, “I was roasted for it.”

And still today, his campaigns for social transformation and social justice are far beyond existing Labour Party policy.

“We all expect political democracy,” he says. “Why can’t we have an economic democracy as well? Britain is an economic dictatorship.”

The campaign for “economic democracy” borrows from the ideas of the Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, who advocated the structural transformation of capitalism to rebalance the economic system in favour of labour rather than capital.

“Is it not astonishing,” he says, “that in a country that talks about democracy, we have no democracy in the workplace or in the economy? Why tolerate a situation where the major share-holders have all the votes and the people who work have no votes at all?”

This is an urgent appeal to the left to rally round an economically transformative agenda instead of a narrow reformist one. 

Economic democracy proposes, as a minimum, that every public and private institution be required by law to have one-third of its directors elected by employees, with additional directors to represent consumers. Just imagine what would happen to the secret world of corporate malpractice if trade union directors could blow the whistle.

It proposes that every company by law should be required to pay over a proportion of any increase in profits to a trade union-controlled fund, so that workers, as well as directors and owners, take their share of profits.  

As part of the same vision, during seminars hosted by John McDonnell MP, he developed proposals for a one-off “wealth tax” on the assets of people with more than £5 million, which could raise up to £800 billion. That could cover the entire cost of the Covid pandemic, and fund the restoration of decimated public services.

“It’s all doable,” he says, “but I haven’t seen many on the left champion these ideas. While it could and should have been the centerpiece of Labour Party policy in 2019, the idea of economic democracy didn’t make it onto Corbyn’s agenda.

“All the same, he would have been the best prime minister since Clement Attlee. But he didn’t get elected. Which is a tragedy.”

But Tatchell remains committed to the need for an inspiring, practical and socially transformative vision on the left that offers more than mere tinkering and “welfare-stateism.” “We have to change the way the economy is organised. The public utilities are run top-down like private corporations. We need industrial democracy too,” he urges.

Where will the leadership come from?

“I’ve spoken at trade union conferences and received a very enthusiastic reception, but nothing happened. And,” he adds, “I’m just a minnow. It would be great if MPs and union chiefs could lead on these policy ideas. But the driving force has to come from within the organised labour movement, perhaps from a new dedicated pressure group within Labour. No individual can change history. It is we, the people, who change history. We need to build the movement.”

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