Me and my vote: Peter Tatchell
'I'm not sure about arresting Blair. You'd have a harder time getting to him than you would to Mugabe.'
‘Sorry if I’m a bit incoherent – I’m still recovering from my beating in Brussels.’
Peter Tatchell, Britain’s best-known and most notorious gay rights activist, still has ‘severe headaches’ from when he was set upon by President Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards after he tried to carry out a citizen’s arrest on the Zimbabwean leader in Brussels in March 2001.
‘I was battered far worse than most people think’, says Tatchell. ‘Thrown to the floor, kicked, punched….I still have a bit of brain damage, and damage to my left eye. It’s not serious now, but I’m a bit slower than normal.’
So can we expect similar sparks to fly during the UK election campaign, or has Tatchell learned his lesson about taking on figures in authority?
‘It’s long overdue that there were strong street protests against Blair’s authoritarian and pro-business policies’, says Tatchell. ‘He will continue to promote a social democratic version of Thatcherism, so long as people let him get away with it.’
So how about a citizen’s arrest, to stop Blair in his tracks? After all, like Mugabe, Blair has been known to ‘break international law’ and show ‘contempt and disregard for human life’ (think Kosovo and Iraq). ‘Yes, but I’m not sure about arresting him’, says Tatchell. ‘I think you’d have a harder time getting to Blair than you would to Mugabe. And I don’t think there’s any comparison to the murders taking place in Zimbabwe.’
But surely Tatchell plans something to stir up the dull election campaign? ‘It’s very important to protest against Labour’s abandonment of civil liberties and social justice’, says Tatchell. ‘I’ll be voting for the Socialist Alliance – and a strong vote for the Socialist Alliance will send a signal to Tony Blair that people are fed up with his right-wing drift. If the Alliance gets a respectable vote, and perhaps even costs Labour some marginal seats, then Blair and Gordon Brown will get the message and be forced to recognise that a lot of people are fed up with Labour’s over-cautious, conservative agenda.’
‘Send a signal’, ‘get the message’, ‘force them to recognise’….Is Tatchell challenging the government’s authority, or merely asking New Labour to feel his pain? The problem, says Tatchell, is that he’s no longer confident that the Labour Party can be forced to change its agenda: ‘It’s very difficult to imagine the Labour Party being a serious force for progressive social change in the foreseeable future – if ever again.’
But he still has a glimmer of hope: ‘There is still the possibility of forcing the Labour leadership against their inclinations and getting them to adopt stronger policies on social justice, environmental protection and human rights. Whether they can be a force for progressive change, I doubt it.’
What about the gay vote? Should that go to New Labour – the party that, after all, has lowered the age of consent for gay men and has openly gay MPs and cabinet ministers? Tatchell is not convinced. ‘The two major gay reforms that Labour boasts of to potential gay voters – the equalisation of the age of consent and the lifting of the ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces – were not voluntary decisions. They were forced on the Labour government against its will by adverse judgements in the European Court of Human Rights.’
And according to Tatchell, New Labour’s seeming openness on gay issues masks what he calls ‘a very moralistic agenda’: ‘They can appear to be better on some of these issues than the Tories were, for example – but they are just as willing to dictate about our sex lives.’
For Tatchell, the gay-friendliness of Blair, Chris Smith and co doesn’t mean there is equality for gays in the rest of New Britain:
‘On a personal level, Blair and the Labour leadership are quite supportive of queer equality. But when it comes to the practical implementation of policies, they’re total cowards. They’d rather appease Middle England than legislate homosexual human rights.’
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
Read more Me and my vote interviews.