Obituary: Penny Kemp 1949-2021

Darren Johnson reflects on the rich life of longstanding Green Party activist Penny Kemp, who passed away on 12 June 2021.

Darren Johnson

Penelope Anne Kemp 10 May 1949 – 12th June 2021

I first began working with Penny back in the early 1990s when we were both elected to manage the Green Party’s election campaigns and media operations, respectively. Penny, who had joined the party almost a decade before me and was already a prominent figure at the national level, had quite a formidable reputation by then. We had already found ourselves on opposite sides of some of the heated debates that had raged in the party at the time and a number of people predicted that we would clash. From the moment we began working together, however, we got on like the proverbial house on fire and soon became firm friends. 

With her typical warmth and kindness, Penny invited me down to her home in Headcorn, Kent, so we could talk through some of the key challenges we would both be grappling with over the coming months – a local election campaign, a European election campaign just a few weeks later, as well as asking the party to adopt a new logo. It wasn’t long into that first meeting in Headcorn that we were both literally on the floor in fits of laughter. There was lots of hard work on tiny budgets and not many people to do it, but Penny’s passion, commitment and determination – alongside her warmth and good humour – always saw us through. We worked together on many campaigns after that and it was always an absolute joy to work alongside her, from that first election campaign we worked on back in 1994 to our last one together in 2015.

Penny first joined the Green Party (then the Ecology Party) in 1979. “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,” she told Green World back in 2017.

Although she initially got involved on a local level, it was a few years later, when her two children were a little bit older, that she began playing more of a role in the party nationally. In the mid-1980s she became a regional representative for the party’s South East region and found herself on the interview panel when the party decided to employ its first ever press officer. The successful candidate? One eager young activist by the name of Caroline Lucas. “Back in 1987 we worked together in the Green Party press office and she was a brilliant boss, immensely kind and huge fun – and an utterly tireless champion for climate and nature,” reflected Caroline in her own heartfelt tribute when news of Penny’s passing was announced.

A committed socialist, Penny was also instrumental in facilitating dialogue between the relatively young Green movement and the more established traditional left, organising the first national Greens and Socialists conference in the 1980s and pursuing some of these themes in a well-received book she co-wrote with Derek Wall in 1990, A Green Manifesto for the 1990s, as well as continuing to play a key role in the party’s eco-socialist and Green Left groupings in the decades that followed.

“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.”

Protecting the planet and the people on it was very much at the heart of Penny’s work internationally, too. At this level she had a number of notable successes. Twenty-five years ago she was invited to Taiwan, for example, the start of an important relationship. Writing on the impact of that visit, Dr Dafydd Fell of SOAS wrote recently that Penny’s 1996 visit to Taiwan ‘can be taken as the starting point of Taiwan’s Green diplomacy’. Another area where Penny had a considerable impact was in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Reflecting on the highlights from her long involvement in the Green Party in that 2017 interview with Green World, Penny said: “The real high point was when I did a symposium on the First Gulf War in 1991… We took the symposium to New York, and loads of people got on board, including Paul Crutzen and Carl Sagan. 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.”

Penny’s close friend, fellow Green and fellow Headcorn resident, Sarah Farrow, recalls a favourite anecdote of Penny’s from around that period: “By securing the treaty, Penny gained the ear and gave advice to various governments, including a good solid friendship with Jordan. They would send a diplomatic car to take her to King Hussain’s London residence. The first time he asked what she would like to drink. Penny started to say gin and tonic and quick as a flash she turned that into “the juice of an orange!”

Penny didn’t just stick narrowly to the party political arena either. She had strong roots in the wider green movement that went far beyond Green Party activism, important to her though that was. She was a tireless, long-time organiser at Glastonbury Festival’s Green Futures field, pulling together a diverse set of visionary speakers each year and she also had many wonderful tales to tell about her involvement in various protest movements, one time being charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage en route to a protest about nuclear waste after an undercover police officer found a coat-hanger in her car. It never made it to court in the end: “I would have loved to go and ask how I was supposed to damage a nuclear train with a coat hanger!”

Those socialist and ecological principles were also allied with a clear sense of pragmatism and a strong sense of professionalism. Not for Penny merely speaking in a bubble endlessly preaching to the converted, she wanted as many people as possible to hear the Green message that she was so passionate about. She worked tirelessly to ensure Green Party speakers got their share of publicity, whether it was lining up panellists for Radio 4’s Any Questions or wangling an appearance on a day-time TV chat show. It is also noteworthy that Penny rarely sought roles that put herself in the spotlight, passionate advocate, talented communicator and engaging personality that she was. No, Penny’s efforts were almost always concentrated on using her immense skills to support others and to build the organisation. From the 1980s right through to the past decade, when she stepped down from activism in 2017 on health grounds, Penny had held the posts of Co-Chair, Chair and External Communications Coordinator on numerous occasions. Building the organisation, for Penny, also meant giving practical and moral support to younger members along the way. 

Ross Greer, who joined the Scottish Greens aged 15 and is now in his second term as the Green MSP for West Scotland, is one such member: “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.”

A pivotal figure in Green politics and the wider Green movement, every single member of today’s Green Party owes Penny a huge debt of gratitude. We mourn Penny, we celebrate her achievements and we remember fondly her warmth, wit and humanity. Our sincere condolences to her partner Johann, her daughters Tracy and Cora and her five grandchildren. We feel some of their immense pain at losing Penny but also know that they have every reason to feel very, very proud of her.