”Even many Labour people do not know what a Labour Government would actually do,” Peter Tatchell says.
The veteran human rights campaigner, who has fought for almost every progressive cause of his adult lifetime, says Jeremy Corbyn “is very good at expressing his commitment to equality, social justice and human rights but he’s not very good at spelling out what that would mean”.
Corbyn shouldn’t struggle to impress Tatchell. He is anti-Trident, anti-austerity and fighting for the same causes as the Labour leader did during his 32 years on the backbenches. After decades as a progressive warrior, Tatchell should be thrilled someone like Corbyn is leading the party. But the way he talks about him, it’s clear Tatchell fears a crucial opportunity is being lost. Sixteen months after Corbyn’s election, Tatchell remains “broadly supportive” of him but is frustrated Corbyn is not spelling out his agenda, without which, “Labour isn’t going to win hearts and minds”.
A few years younger than Corbyn, Tatchell has lived in a small Elephant & Castle council flat for nearly 40 years, refusing to buy it at a discount because he wants to preserve social housing so it can benefit others the way it benefitted him.
Australian-born, he came to prominence in the UK fighting for gay rights in the 1980s, a time of appalling homophobia. He became an icon of the British Left but quit Labour under Tony Blair and later joined the Green Party because it was more radical. He backed Corbyn for Labour leader in 2015, saying the Left Winger was “head and shoulders” above his rivals.
And yet he is a critical friend, emphasis on the “critical”. He believes Corbyn’s Labour reflects the problems of the wider Left, which has become “primarily a negative, oppositionist movement,” he says. Tatchell believes this is part of the reason for the setbacks it suffered in 2016 in the face of the Populist Right.
It pains Tatchell that Labour isn’t embracing policies he thinks would save hundreds of billions and be a plausible alternative to austerity.
The stereotype that the Left lacks specific ideas on the economy doesn’t apply to Tatchell. He calls for us to scrap Trident and HS2, end pension tax relief for people earning more than £100,000 and introduce a tiny financial transaction tax on currencies, bonds and commodities. “Clearly, it’s doable but sadly Labour, so far, is not embracing those ideas.”
He has known Corbyn for more than three decades and, for most of that time, had a bigger profile than the Islington North MP. The main room in Tatchell’s flat is a monument to his decades of high-profile activism. A batch of small LGBT flags adorn shelves. The floorspace is taken up with posters and papers. Two bikes are pressed against the wall. Yet Tatchell says he is a “minimalist” at heart and having so much clutter is a “headfuck”.
Some of the posters are for battles past, like the one calling former BNP leader Nick Griffin a homophobe. Others, like the one calling for Saudi Arabia to free blogger Raif Badawi, are for battles not yet won. Tatchell has bean beaten up by Russian neo-Nazis and Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards as he tried to make a citizen’s arrest. On the day Donald Trump was inaugurated, he was protesting on London’s bridges, shouting “build bridges not walls”.
Tatchell turned 65 this week but says retirement would be “boring” and besides, “there are still so many human rights abuses that need to be stopped”.
Tatchell thinks Labour and the Left have failed on Syria, which he calls “one of the biggest human rights crises of our time”. He is angry that Syrian activists - “natural allies” of Corbyn and the Left - have had their pleas for aid drops and no fly zones largely ignored. Tatchell made headlines in December when he and other protesters interrupted a speech by Corbyn on live TV to demonstrate against his inaction.
“Our complaint was that Labour was ‘talk, talk talk’, but not ‘action, action, action’,” Tatchell says. He held a poster demanding “action not words” amid the massacre in Aleppo, after years of the West doing little to stop it. Corbyn stood behind the podium and pleaded for Tatchell to wait until the Q&A.
Our complaint was that Labour was ‘talk, talk talk’, but not ‘action, action, action’
It earned Tatchell a wave of scorn from Corbyn supporters, some of whom said he shouldn’t have interrupted a speech about human rights. He is unrepentant and unimpressed. He calls the protest “a last desperate measure” to get Labour to do more than “pay lip service” to humanitarian intervention. Before she was murdered, the MP Jo Cox pushed for a debate in parliament on aid drops, Tatchell notes.
“We gave [Corbyn] a golden opportunity,” he says of the protest. “He could have turned around and said ‘I hear your concerns. Yes. I will go to parliament next week and we’ll demand, as the Labour Party, that there be a debate and vote on humanitarian aid drops’.
“He didn’t do that. It surprised me. I thought we were giving him a chance to come out of this looking like a hero. But instead, he just told me to sit down, keep quiet and wait for question time.”
Tatchell calls on Corbyn to distance himself from Stop The War (STW), the group the Labour leader used to chair and that Tatchell accuses of double standards for opposing Western interventions, but being silent on Russia’s bloody war in Syria.
“It’s very difficult to justify how any Left Wing person can support [STW] while it maintains its current double standards,” Tatchell says. “I think he needs to recognise STW is a deeply flawed organisation with deeply flawed politics.”
Tatchell still thinks Corbyn would make the best prime minister of any party leader. “He’s not a natural leader or public speaker,” Tatchell says, but Corbyn’s position on fighting austerity, re-nationalising the railways and defending the NHS all please him.
“My disappointment is: some of those policies have not been firmed up into concrete policies. So he’s committed to affordable housing. Well, how much more and how it’s going to be paid for? We have to have concrete, specific information in order to sell the public to the wider public.”
Tatchell also warns Corbyn is making “a huge mistake” with the press. “For the first year and a bit of [Corbyn’s] leadership, I heard repeated complaints by media outlets that they invited Jeremy to be interviewed and he turned it down...
“The mainstream media, love them or loathe them, are the main means of communication. That’s the way politicians get their message out to a wider public. It’s great that Jeremy Corbyn speaks at public meetings to maybe one or two thousand people. But that’s a drop in the ocean. He needs to be in the mainstream media and speaking to millions.”
To be outflanked on the Left by a Conservative Prime Minister was, I think, appalling and shows the problems Labour has got.
A cause Tatchell aggressively supports is putting workers on the boards of companies and public institutions. He was dismayed when it was Theresa May, not Corbyn, who proposed this. Tatchell thinks May’s proposal either won’t happen on a large scale or won’t happen at all. He was “astonished” at Corbyn’s failure to follow up on it.
“To be outflanked on the Left by a Conservative Prime Minister was, I think, appalling and shows the problems Labour has got.” Tatchell thinks at least a third of company directors should represent workers or consumers. He compares these to work councils in Germany, that have helped industrial relations and boosted productivity. Tatchell believes worker representatives on the boards of RBS and Northern Rock would have blown the whistle before the financial crash. “Sadly,” he sighs. “I don’t see Labour championing it.”
6 ideas Tatchell thinks Labour could embrace as an alternative to austerity - and his disappointment they don’t
He adds: “Labour have not articulated a clear, concrete, radical alternative to what the Tories are proposing and, very significantly, they haven’t adequately explained, how they’re going to fund it.
“My sympathies are with Corbyn and Labour but much greater emphasis needs to be put on what they are going to do instead. Opposition to the dire situation in the Health Service is not good enough. There needs to be an alternative.”
He fears Labour face “decimation” at the next election, with boundary changes and polls giving the Tories double digit leads. “That’s got to be a wake up call. What’s being done now isn’t working,” he says.
Opposition to the dire situation in the Health Service, is not good enough, there needs to be an alternative.
“It’s no good saying, ‘It’s fine we’ve got three years to turn things around’. That will not work. People have heard what Labour is standing for right now and they’re not buying it.”
For decades, he has called for a Progressive Alliance - an idea beloved by Corbyn’s backers who are, like Tatchell, outside Labour. Many mooted the idea that parties like the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and Labour should band together to outnumber the Tories in 2015, right before the Tories won a majority.
But Tatchell thinks electoral pacts between Labour and smaller parties are its best way to power. It’s “almost inconceivable” Labour will win on its own in 2020, he says.
Ever the old Lefty, Tatchell calls 2016 “1968 in reverse”. “The Left, Green, Progressive movement has to answer the charge that it has failed to connect with voters. The Left’s very good at saying what it’s against but relatively poor at saying what it’s for.”
He is sanguine about the setbacks the Left has suffered. Its job now is to rally to ensure those who won in 2016 are “defeated as quickly as possible” but the Populist Right’s rise is “blip”, he says. Trump will be “moderated by his own contradictory and volatile outbursts” and opposed by other parts of the US Government, he hopes.
“I take the long view that the overall trajectory of history is towards greater equality, democracy and social justice... I don’t know how long this blip is going to last but I’m certain that Right Wing Populism is not here to stay.”
Tatchell’s radical agenda will be a hard sell in a country where, polls show, more people identify as Right Wing than Left Wing. But Tatchell draws a parallel between this and his fight for gay rights.
“When I began campaigning decades ago there was hardly any support. I, together with my others, stuck at it. We made the case for LGBT equality and eventually, by the 1990s, we won majority public support,” he says.
“I think Labour has to go into the same mind frame - set out its agenda and argue for it.”