An edited version of this piece about the 1983 Bermondsey by-election appears this week in Time Out.
[UPDATE: The edited, published version is here.]
Nearly twenty-five years ago, in late February 1983, Tariq Ali devoted his ‘Frontlines’ column in Time Out to the by-election campaign then taking place in Bermondsey. Beneath the headline ‘Bigotry and the Bermondsey by-election’, Ali declared his support for the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell.
For most of that campaign, Tatchell had been the target of personal attacks unmatched in their viciousness either before or since in British politics – attacks mounted in both the local and national press and on the doorsteps of Bermondsey. It would be a welcome ‘slap in the face for his detractors’, Ali wrote, if Tatchell were to win – though the fact that he merely ‘hoped’ that Tatchell would prevail in this previously secure working-class seat was a sign of just how much damage to the Labour vote had already been done.
Tatchell had first come to national attention in November 1981, when he was originally selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate after the sitting MP in Bermondsey, Bob Mellish, announced that he wouldn’t be contesting the next General Election. 1981 had been a traumatic year for the Labour Party, and leader Michael Foot had spent most of it fighting a far-left insurgency led by Trotskyite ‘entryists’ who now saw Labour, rather than revolutionary groupuscules such as the Socialists Workers Party, as the best hope for the renewal of a ‘mass socialist consciousness’.
Tatchell had no formal links with any of the entryist groups, but he had, the previous May, written a piece for London Labour Briefing in which he argued the merits of ‘militant extra-parliamentary opposition’ to the Thatcher government.
Foot was tipped off about the article, and on December 3 1981, the Labour leader stood up in the House of Commons and announced that Tatchell would never be accepted as a parliamentary candidate. The decision not to endorse Tatchell’s candidature was formally ratified by Labour’s National Executive Committee the following week.
Tatchell has described that decision as ‘perhaps the opening shot in the train of events that eventually led to the defeat of the left and the rise of New Labour and Blairism.’ That may be an exaggeration; but it was certainly a significant episode in a much more parochial political struggle.
A few days before repudiating Tatchell, Foot had been visited by Bob Mellish and John O’Grady. O’Grady was leader of Southwark council and Mellish’s lieutenant in what was sometimes called the ‘Bermondsey Mafia’, an Old Labour cabal that had run the local party for decades. Tatchell recalls what the Bermondsey party was like when he joined it in 1978. ‘It was run by a handful of ruling families who monopolized all the key party and council positions. It was Tammany Hall politics at its worst.’
Mellish was first elected in 1946 as MP for Rotherhithe, which was later absorbed into the new seat of Bermondsey. Though he liked to present himself as the authentic voice of working-class dockland London, he’d never actually been a docker himself (he was a career trade union bureaucrat) and had never lived in the constituency.
When Labour returned to government in 1964, Mellish was appointed Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Housing and later Government Chief Whip. And he was always ready to use his influence locally. Simon Hughes, who would fight and win the ’83 by-election for the Liberal-SDP Alliance, remembers how Mellish protected his baronial rights in Bermondsey. ‘If things got done, they got done because somebody asked and it was done as a favour to them. You went to see Bob Mellish at surgery and he’d say, “Leave it to me.” And Mellish always backed O’Grady. The day before the 1982 council elections, which the old Labour Party feared they might lose to us, literally the day before, they did a major land deal with the Kuwaiti royal family’s property company. It was signed the day before the election. It was very much about trying to fix everything.’
One thing Mellish couldn’t fix, however, was the selection of candidates for the local elections. Early in 1982, a crony of his named Coral Newell failed to be selected as a Labour candidate in the Riverside ward. She ran as an independent instead, with the backing of the MP, who used the local paper, the South London Press, to drum up support. Newell won Riverside in the borough elections that May and was subsequently expelled from the Labour Party for standing against one of its candidates.
Mellish too was threatened with expulsion for having endorsed Newell. But before he could be pushed, he jumped. Mellish resigned as MP in August 1982, and a by-election was duly called for the following February. To the dismay of the O’Grady faction in the local party, Tatchell was re-selected as the Labour candidate. And this time Foot endorsed him, albeit reluctantly. O’Grady told the South London Press: ‘I am horrified. Peter Tatchell and his innumerable trendies have very little support among the real Bermondsey people. His campaign will rely on the influx of outsiders.’
If people from outside the constituency did help the Tatchell campaign, that was partly because he was abandoned by the national leadership. ‘I think there were people in the Labour leadership who were happy for me to lose. They saw it as a way of putting the left in its place.’ Sometimes, though, Tatchell and his staff didn’t help themselves. For instance, they chose, with quite sublime political naivety, to have their campaign literature printed by the Cambridge Heath Press, which was owned by the Militant Tendency, an organisation that had recently been proscribed by the Labour Party.
All this was gleefully reported by the tabloid press, who routinely referred to Tatchell as ‘Red Pete, the gay rights campaigner’. The local paper preferred to describe him as an ‘Australian-born, unemployed social worker’. Either way, the insinuations about Tatchell’s patriotism and sexuality began to have an effect on the doorstep. Left-wing journalist David Osler canvassed for Tatchell on a couple of occasions. ‘My abiding memory is just how hostile the reception was on some of the council estates that should have been impregnable Labour territory. One old bloke flew into a hostile rage when we canvassed him. No way was he going to vote for “that fucking communist poofter”.’
Much of this vitriol was fomented by John O’Grady, who by this time had decided to stand against Tatchell as the ‘Real Bermondsey Labour’ candidate. He toured the constituency with Mellish, often in a horse-drawn cart, from which, on one occasion, he sang the following ditty: ‘Tatchell is a poppet, as pretty as can be./But he must be slow if he don’t know that he won’t be your MP./Tatchell is an Aussie, he lives in a council flat./He wears his trousers back to front because he doesn’t know this from that.’
It’s often assumed that O’Grady’s people were also responsible for an anonymous leaflet which appeared in the constituency during the last week of the campaign. Depicting Tatchell wearing pink lipstick next to a sketch of the queen, the leaflet carried the headline ‘Which Queen will you vote for?’ and described the Labour candidate as a ‘traitor to Queen and country’. At the bottom were printed Tatchell’s telephone number and address, and an invitation to ‘question Mr Tatchell more closely about his views.’ Tatchell’s phone was soon ringing off the hook with obscene and threatening calls.
The main beneficiary of this descent from the gutter into the sewer wasn’t O’Grady, however, but the Liberal Simon Hughes, who’d come from nowhere to become the main challenger to Tatchell.
Hughes, who came out as bisexual more than twenty years later, made no comment about the vilification of Tatchell during the campaign, and in the last week put out a leaflet in which the by-election was described as a ‘straight choice’. Hughes denies that the sexual innuendo was intentional. ‘In every election we’ve ever fought, we’ve tried to have a simple message at the end: “it’s a two-horse race” or “it’s a straight choice”. I never thought about the implications of it. But I was uncomfortable about the campaign against Peter and I regret I didn’t say that. I wasn’t brave enough to take on an issue which might have opened up my own position.’
In any event, Hughes’ position was secure and he eventually won an extraordinary victory, with a 44% swing from Labour. At the count, Tatchell blamed his defeat on an ‘unprecedented smear campaign’, while Hughes recognised that he had ‘benefited’ from the ‘allegations’ made against his opponent.
Today, Tatchell regards the Bermondsey by-election as a kind of watershed in British public life. ‘Although I lost, the homophobic campaign against me did, after the event, awaken a debate about gay people in public life.’ And has he forgiven Simon Hughes? ‘I don’t have any hard feelings. It all happened a long time ago. Simon should be judged on his record over the last twenty five years as a MP. Bitterness is a very destructive emotion – it’s far better to forgive and forget.’