"We are here to save ourselves"

"We are here to save ourselves"
Longstanding Green Party activist Penny Kemp shares memories with her friend and colleague, Jennifer Nadel, including how she came to write a UN resolution on environmental effects of the Gulf War and being charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage against the nuclear trade with a coat hanger

First of all, thank you, Penny, for doing this interview. It’s great to speak to you again! So, you joined the party in 1979 – and I remember meeting you 10 years later for the first time! Can you tell me what motivated you to join the party? 

Funnily enough, it was my friend Jim Tidy [then South East Ecology Party treasurer] actually. I knew there had to be something else other than just socialism combining social justice, economic justice, and ecological justice. I’d read books about ecology and then I came across the Ecology Party, as it was then – it was the missing link! Jim Tidy was a member and it was all down to him really. He was an activist and he felt like I did. 

What was your role when you first joined and how did that change over time?

Well I had young children, so I didn’t really do anything. I went on campaigns and stuff like that, but it wasn’t really until the ’80s that I got involved nationally, when the children were a bit older. 

I became the rep for the South East and in the mid-’80s, I also organised the Green and Socialists Conference with Peter Tatchell and Robin Cook. And I also started working with Caroline [Lucas] at that point. In fact, I was there at her interview for press officer! 

Ah, that makes sense, that’s when I first met you both, helping in the press office! Can you tell me about some of the high points of your involvement in the Green Party?

The real high point was when I did a symposium on the First Gulf War in 1991, and that was just sheer luck, sometimes these things happen! King Hussein of Jordan sent Abdullah Toucan, his chief scientific advisor, to the symposium. I’d phoned up the Jordanian palace, because I knew they’d lost 37 per cent of their GDP, and were in a real crisis over the Gulf War, and I said I wanted to have a symposium to look at the environmental effects of the war, and we got loads of people there, including the Iraqi ambassador in London and the Chair of Shell. 

We took the symposium to New York, and loads of people got on board, including Paul Crutzen [of the Max-Planck-Institut] and Carl Sagan [the acclaimed cosmologist and author]. And I went with Aubrey Meyer and others to New York and went to the UN and I ended up writing a new resolution for the UN on the environmental effects of the Gulf War. It was taken up by Canada, Sweden and Jordan, I believe. 

Very impressive. That must have been very gratifying. 

One more thing, actually! This isn’t really a high point, but it was certainly memorable – I was charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage against the nuclear trade with a coathanger! We were tracking a nuclear train – because Britain used to buy everybody else’s nuclear waste and it used to go to Sellafield, the reprocessing plant, and come through Tunbridge Wells and Ashford on the way up. We wanted to track the train, but we had an undercover police officer who infiltrated the group, and we all got stopped before we did anything. The police raided my car and found a coathanger and tried to use that as evidence of conspiracy to commit criminal damage. I didn’t get charged in the end, but I wanted to go to court – I would have loved to go and ask how I was supposed to damage a nuclear train with a coat hanger! 

That’s a fantastic anecdote! And can you tell me: what were some of your low points in the party?

I think the lowest point was when we did really well in 1989, but on a false premise, I think. I was co-chair of the Green Party Council, and the other co-chairs and I didn’t always agree, as is natural. The thing was, one of my co-chairs said we should be wary of coming across too forcefully, so they took out the stuff about animal rights and anything to do with NATO, even though they were in our manifesto and had been voted for at conference. 

To a degree, of course, it worked! We got 15 per cent of the vote. But what happened was that people voted for us under false pretences and The Telegraph put down all our policies and called our manifesto dangerous and consequently we lost loads of votes at the next election. 

There were also calls for a single leader, which led to a constitutional conference on the decision to have a single leader, which nearly brought the party to breaking point. I guess we have come full circle now that we have co-leaders again, but it wasn’t a good time for the party. 

Obviously we’ve just had a disappointing election result. What advice do you have for the party to recover in the aftermath of the election result?

I think it’ll be alright in the end. I think we made some mistakes. I believe in the progressive alliance – I think it’ll come about anyway, but it was a very difficult issue to message around. 

The minute Corbyn and the Labour Party wouldn’t play ball, we should have changed tack. 

Furthermore, the party should understand people’s concerns that we are in a very dangerous space in the world at the moment. Justice is the driving thing and if you have a just and more equal society, you have a happier and healthier society. So social justice must remain a central part of Green Party policy. I’m not one of those who is just here to save the planet – I think the planet will save itself quite happily without us on it. I think we are here to save ourselves, really. 

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the party that wants to make the same difference that you have? 

Well, I don’t know how much of a difference I’ve made! But honestly, keep with it and follow your principles. I was offered a safe Labour seat at one point – I didn’t take it, obviously! Because I didn’t believe in it. I felt strongly that the Green Party was the right party and I still think it is the right party. You must have those three tenets of economic, social and ecological justice. They must be part of a whole. You can’t just add on environmental policy; it just doesn’t work like that. It must be central. 

 

Now taking a backseat for health reasons, Penny served as External Communications Co-ordinator in the National Executive and as Co-Chair of the Green Party Council in 1989 and various times through the 1990s and 2000s. The Green World Editorial Board thanks Penny for her significant contribution to the Green Party and wishes her well for the future.