The doctor and green activist: attacked by the alt-right and challenging Labour on its own turf

Armitage at an XR rally. Pic: Alex Armitage

Alex Armitage is often photographed in his scrubs and his image fits the image of a young earnest doctor. But this paediatric physician is also an aspirant politician and a radical climate activist who has even attracted criticism from right-wing site Breitbart. 

In his professional role as an NHS pediatric physician, Armitage, who lives in Dalston and has worked for Lewisham and Greenwich Hospital Trust, is currently working at Southampton General Hospital. Describing his path to medicine he told Eastlondonlines: “I always wanted to improve society, alleviate suffering.”

Many would be content with the vital job of healing sick children, but Armitage has other goals. For Armitage, his responsibilities as a doctor extend to an active struggle with climate change.

In March 2019, he featured prominently in a 10-day occupation of Marble Arch with a band of climate activists and has become a core member of Hackney’s Extinction Rebellion group. 

During an interview with Ben Gelblum of the London Economic, Armitage explained why he participated in an XR event with other medical professionals saying: “Climate and ecological breakdown is the biggest threat to public health and the government is failing to take action to protect us. Extinction Rebellion’s non-violent civil disobedience is an evidence-based, public health intervention that works.” 

While non-violent, the vocal call for direct action earned the doctor some critics. Breitbart, the right wing news site, dubbed participants at the Marble Arch action, “Enviro Loons” and Armitage an “insect overlord,” adding: “Here is a doctor so buoyed up with his virtue as a National Health Worker that he simply has no idea that without a functioning economy there’d be no one to pay for his generous salary.”  

Asked about his position on disruptive direct action and the competing priorities of economy and climate, he doesn’t fall neatly into any camp. He is neither balaclava-wearing window smasher of Tory nightmares nor the heedless utopian, naive to the realities of government. 

“Electoral politics can’t deliver transformational change alone, but it’s not fraudulent either. We need to act on every single level, from local direct action to democracy,” Armitage told ELL.

“Community” was a word repeated throughout the interview and it’s helpful for explaining his outlook on political strategy. The diversity of tactics aims to shake a fragmented population out of passivity, mobilise average people, but critically, bring them together in the process. “Human connection is a physiological need…All of the solutions we need can be found in our neighbourhoods, in our communities.”

He argued that “Jet-set holidays, fast fashion, and consumerism,” aren’t just unsustainable, but at a psychological level they’re not actually what people want. Each are “symptoms of an underlying malaise[;] the Thatcherite consensus that we no longer need to live in communities or care for each other.”   

‘Our culture of building is against the people’

Back in Hackney, Armitage is better known for his involvement in local politics and outspoken resistance to gentrification. 

“Capitalist development is high-level corruption. Everything about our culture of building is against the people and for the privatization of our community’s resources,” Armitage said.

To underscore his point, he looked out his window and pointed to a luxury apartment complex erected a few hundred meters away, where, he said, a prominent local Labour politician lived in a penthouse apartment. But, he said, despite his antipathy towards them, he would not say who the person was, because of it might affect their personal security.

Fighting for windows:
Armitage secured considerable media attention last year when a landlord sold off the walls of a 17-unit apartment complex in Kingsland Road to use as a giant iPhone advertisement that subsequently sealed off tenants’ windows. As Eastlondonlines reported at the time, tenants, who claimed they were already being neglected to live in squalor, were left with few options after Hackney Council backed the decision. But pressure brought by Armitage through the Hackney Greens in conjunction with other local advocacy groups managed to get the billboard removed.

Leveraging his local backing, Armitage has been making ambitious attempts at a position in Hackney politics, in an otherwise Labour stronghold. In the 2018 local council elections, he ran for the Hackney Greens to unseat Labour councillor Peter Snell, narrowly losing in a recount by a margin of 21 votes.

A year ago in the General Election, he made a less competitive stab at Diane Abbott’s impregnable Labour seat in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, winning just under 5,000 votes to come in third place, but above the Liberal Democrat candidate.

Armitage concluded the interview reminiscing on the virtues of 20th-century British council estates like the one he lives in: utilitarian, modest, tight-nit, and increasingly imperiled by the boom in private development. 

Though Armitage and his wife, also a doctor are “lucky to make enough money to feel secure,” they chose to live in a Dalston estate rather than, as many do, a Victorian terrace. That would be missing something, Armitage felt: community. 

“Though we come from different social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, the environmental architecture of our housing estate facilitates the development of a strong community, which mitigates our individual vulnerabilities and provides for many of our needs.” 

Armitage added: “We also have a community hall, football pitch and play equipment for children. There are no cars, so parents can let their children out to play knowing that the environment is safe. Because our children play together, so we as adults get to know each other.” 

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