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IN DEPTH: Bea Campbell on why we need to wake up

PUBLISHED: 13:05 08 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:53 07 September 2010

Bea Campbell

Bea Campbell

BEA Campbell has one of those voices that makes you want to sleep. It s not that she s boring. On the contrary, it s that her answers are so articulate, intellectually demanding and spoken in such a soothing Northern purr that as she confidently moves fr

BEA Campbell has one of those voices that makes you want to sleep.

It's not that she's boring. On the contrary, it's that her answers are so articulate, intellectually demanding and spoken in such a soothing Northern purr that as she confidently moves from -ism to -ism, it begins to feel like a drowsy afternoon in a lecture theatre.

But when she entered the Hampstead and Kilburn election race four months ago, that soporific voice certainly woke the other candidates up.

The playing field had long been set for a battle between Glenda Jackson, Ed Fordham and Chris Philp. Another runner, even with the Greens relative popularity in Camden, wasn't expected to shake up the field.

Yet her announcement as a candidate, given her name recognition and strong following for her Guardian articles, prompted anxiety in all quarters.

The reaction first came from the left, who criticised her for stealing votes from two strong left of centre candidates.

But it soon emerged she would also be landing some killer blows on the Tories - something her colleagues had singularly failed to do in previous months.

At her first hustings at Rosslyn Hill Chapel her intellectual responses made Conservative Cllr Philp look shaky and inexperienced at her side.

And that is what Ms Campbell wants to do entering this race: give voters a choice but more importantly make sure the debate is framed in terms the Greens are all about.

When asked whether running against a female and left wing incumbent played on her mind, she said: "It undoubtedly did. The answer to it is, and this is why the Greens are fielding as many candidates as we possibly can, that it is now time for people to have the chance to vote for whoever they want. The hope is by doing that, the Green perspective becomes a magnetic field in the election campaign.

"I do understand some voters will feel horribly split in their minds and I would say to that - do what you feel you need to do. If that means voting for a party with which you have disagreements but you'd rather have them than somebody else - do that."

Her honesty is compelling. There is no ducking or diving, no false promises - it comes from conviction, from decades of mulling over grand political theories, rather than a blind desire to win. There will be no rosettes, camera flashes and toothy grins in this campaign.

Ms Campbell grew up in a working class house with a labourer father and nurse mother where Marxism was the tune of the day. Her first political action was at 14 to join the CND march at Aldermaston and she later assumed a strong position in the womens' liberation movement which was the key landmark in her politicisation.

Since then her career as an author and journalist has been about exploring "the relationship between people who have power and those who don't", from child abuse to poverty, domestic violence to female emancipation.

It is surprising that until now she has never been tempted into practical politics but that boils down, she says, to the compelling argument made by the Greens, at this point in time.

"Any sensible person can't argue with the Green project," she says. "We all now know Green politics is where it is at.

"There was for me a sense that the issues had become very urgent. I began to feel somewhat how I had felt in crises during childhood. Like I can remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and I can remember the atmosphere around, people were very frightened and frustrated. It wasn't enough just to be interested and bothered it felt important to sign up.

"If you live anywhere other than in a gated community, you can't be immune to the evidence there are catastrophic levels of inequality and degradation.

"We live in an island that ought to be really rich and it's craggy, abusive, it's just in an awful perilous state and that feels like a complete disgrace. We all have to take responsibility for thinking ourselves out of that. Joining the Green Party felt part of that imperative."

Vocalising a Green agenda doesn't come without its pitfalls but they are some Ms Campbell has learned to step over.

The first is that age old adage that being eco-friendly is a middle class pursuit.

"I think that comes from a smuggy indifference to what its social agenda is and why these things are important to the poor.

"The Green agenda vis a vis pensions, childcare, taxation, health provision - its anti-privatisation strategy - all of these are robust social policy agendas for a more egalitarian society, they matter terribly to the people who've got the least."

Under the eco-banner will she be snooping in our bins and banning us from the odd family holiday? No, she says. "At a level of personal action these things have a limit and all of us need our personal wishes to be organised at the political and institutional level."

In an article published when she was named nominee for Hampstead and Kilburn she said she had voted to avoid the "abject and authoritarian populism" of New Labour and she laments the failures of that political movement thus far.

"We're emerging out of an era of New Labour in the most dreadful mess - they should be throughly ashamed about that," she said. But she is equally as derisive of Cameron's Conservativism.

"A Conservative government would do the country in," she said. "Their response to the economic crisis was completely opportunistic - slagging off New Labour. But it is what they initiated which has come home to roost and their response to that will be to punish us not that system.

"Cameron probably is what he says he is but Tories being Tories they won't stand up for anything. Tories will allow gay men to their dinner table and enjoy risque jokes but they have never stood up for their rights. Tories enjoy the presence of clever, resourced women but they won't ever do anything to empower women. Cameron is never going to be brave about doing the right thing. That was exposed in conversations about Section 28. They didn't own up and apologise for the damned thing until it had become just embarrassing not to. If people vote Tory they'll be voting out of pessimism and a fatalistic sense that it's all crap anyway - let's give someone else a chance of being crap."

Ms Campbell hasn't escaped criticism for being inconsistent herself. Her decision to accept an OBE for services to equality despite her views about institutions based on inherited privilege sparked widescale opposition.

The article she wrote defending it prompted so many comments it won thread of the year on the Guardian website and it's a row that still makes her laugh and cringe in equal measure.

"I have both sides in my head and they do a tango endlessly," she says.

She wants politicians who are inspiring, who understand the "art of politics" and don't claim their hands are tied at every turn.

"If you honour the spirit that put you there, you should feel empowered by it rather than done in by institutional processes," she says. "It is difficult in there, but we all know how refreshed we feel by those politicians who are creative in their use of parliamentary instruments. People love those energetic, independent politicians whether they are Labour or Tory."

So much of her work and politics is framed by feminism, though much like the work of MPs, Ms Campbell doesn't feel feminists should be paralysed by partial failures. Addressing the arrival of wag culture she is saddened but not defeated.

"It is mega boobs with daggers coming out," she says. "The wag isn't wet, but her assertiveness I find offensive. The pinnacle of your ambition will be pleasing men, winning men and kidnapping men - it's ugly.

"But all of this is contested. The nation's women speak with one voice to Cheryl Cole to say leave him - certain things are not tolerated, men cheating on women, being violent towards women. What I now feel is we need a new gender quake."

If Bea Campbell is to be elected for Hampstead and Kilburn, it will need a major shift in the constituency's tectonic plates. But as one of the first really credible green nominees for this seat, she seems just as happy to start the slower process of getting the ground moving.


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