Penny Kemp (1949-2021)
Penny Kemp, who died on 12 June after a battle with Parkinsons Disease, was a long standing Green Party member and a pioneering ecosocialist, writes Derek Wall..
I have found it difficult to sit down and write her obituary. There was a period in the 1980s when she was the closest political associate I had. We wrote a book together and went through all sorts of often rather dramatic events in the Green Party. It is difficult to think that she has gone. She had a dry sense of humour, an intelligent grasp of events, and was able to focus her considerable passion for social justice into effective practical work.
My feeling is that she was active in a particular conjuncture during the 1980s that was extremely important to the development of green politics, but might easily be forgotten. However her political activism covered many decades and many situations.
Her commitments politically were enduring, from the early 1980s to recent years she remained one of the most prominent members of what was first the Ecology Party and later the Green Party.
Ross Greer, another ecosocialist, and a Member of the Scottish Green Party, noted of her, ‘You can’t write the history of Green politics on these islands without mentioning Penny. Her friendship and support meant so much to me personally and I know there are hundreds of others who’ll feel the same.’
Penny fulfilled this role as a key shaper of green politics ‘in these islands’, in a number of ways.
When we worked together most closely during the 1980s, a series of internal battles shaped the trajectory of the party. Paralleling in some respects conflicts in the Labour Party, modernisers wanted to reshape the party to make it a little more disciplined, managed, and centralised. Their vision, broadly, was to see the Ecology and later the Green Party as a conventional electoral political party. One component of the modernising project was ‘Green 2000’, which in the late 1980s argued that their proposals would put the party in government by the year 2000. Oh the irony.
Their opponents on the decentralist wing of the party, were sceptical, viewing modernisation as an attempt to reduce the radicalism of the party. They believed that the party should be rooted in social movements, and combine electoral politics with cultural change and non-violent direct action.
Penny was a proponent of this more radical approach. While the modernisers won many victories, her work contributed to maintaining a relatively healthy internal culture in the Green Party over many decades.
She was also an early advocate of ecosocialism. In the 1980s, when the decentralist radicals were more sympathetic to anarchist perspectives and concern with ecological issues was generally weaker on the far left than it is today, she consistently tried to link green politics to the left. She was a founder member of both the Association of Socialist Greens and later the Green Left. In fact the Green Left’s founding statement was titled the Headcorn declaration– because Penny for many years lived in the Kent village of Headcorn.
Penny’s numerous battles in the party to promote a grassroots socialist approach was one side of her activism. Another was her continuous practical work to grow the party. She was pivotal to much of the Party’s press work, again over, several decades. In the 1980s she headed the party’s work for a time and was line manager for Caroline Lucas, when she was employed as the party press officer. Today of course Caroline is the Green Party’s one Member of Parliament at Westminster. Caroline noted on twitter, ‘Penny held numerous post on executive bodies in the party including serving as party chair.
Emily Blyth, who served on GPEX, the Green Party Executive, with Penny remembered a particular anecdote, the illustrated Penny’s approach:
I recall a GPEx meeting where Penny was looking after her toddler grandson. He commandeered my iPad and somehow took dozens of selfies, before getting into my music library and playing some Kate Rusby for the assembled GPEx officers. There was some irritation at this. Penny responded by saying we should always have young children at GPEx meetings, because they are the reason we are there – to make a better world for young people growing up.
Amongst many other contributions, she helped co-ordinate the Green Field at the Glastonbury Festival. She supported numerous green gatherings and festivals.
Another long standing Green Party member, Shane Collins told me, ‘Penny will be well missed at the helm of the Glastonbury speakers forum. In spite of a long illness she remained, stoic, calm and kept some of the political anger and humour alive. Sweet memories of an amazing woman.’
Penny leaves a partner Johann, and two daughters Tracey and Cora. She will be missed by thousands of individuals active in the Ecology/Green Party, ecosocialist activists and a broader green movement.
Derek Wall is a former Green Party International Coordinator. He co-wrote A Green Manifesto for the 1990s (Penguin) with Penny Kemp, published in 1990.
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