Peter Tatchell and the 1983 Bermondsey by-election
It‘s 25 years since Peter Tatchell was chosen as a candidate in Bermondsey over his party‘s docker-friendly old guard, only to find himself dubbed a ’poppet‘ and a ’queen‘, his phone number published for every crank to call. Time Out revisits a sordid episode in Labour‘s past
In late February 1983, Tariq Ali devoted his Frontlines column in Time Out to a fractious by-election campaign. Beneath the headline ‘Bigotry and the Bermondsey by-election’, Ali declared his support for 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, were Tatchell 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 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: 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 Socialist Workers Party, as the best hope for the renewal of a ‘mass socialist consciousness’.
Tatchell had no formal links with any such 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 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative 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 significant; it was also an important 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 monopolised 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; he was living in Catford at the time.
When Labour returned to government in 1964, Mellish was appointed parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Housing; later he was the 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 as a favour. You went to see Bob Mellish at surgery and he’d say, “Leave it to me.” It was very much about trying to fix everything. And Mellish always backed O’Grady.’
Mellish resigned as MP in August 1982 and a by-election was duly called for the following February. To the O’Grady faction’s dismay, Tatchell was re-selected. This time, Foot reluctantly endorsed him and was duly slated in the press for his about-face.
O’Grady was equally vitriolic, albeit for different reasons, telling 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 an influx of outsiders.’
If people from outside the constituency did help the Tatchell campaign it 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,’ he recalls. ‘They saw it as a way of putting the left in its place.’ Sometimes, though, Tatchell and his staff didn’t help themselves, choosing with sublime political naivety to have their campaign literature printed by the Cambridge Heath Press, which was owned by the Militant Tendency, a far-left organisation recently proscribed by the Labour Party.
All this was gleefully reported by the tabloids, 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 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 was heard to sing 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 also reckoned that some of O’Grady’s people were 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 Tatchell as a traitor. Tatchell’s number was printed at the bottom and his phone was soon ringing off the hook with obscene and threatening calls.
The main beneficiary of this descent into the sewer was not to be O’Grady, however, but Simon Hughes. The Liberal-SDP candidate, who came out as bisexual more than 20 years later, made no comment about the vilification of Tatchell during the campaign, and in the last week of the contest 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 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. 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, he eventually won an extraordinary victory, with a 44 per cent swing away 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 awaken a debate about gay people in public life.’ Of Hughes, he says, ‘I don’t have any hard feelings. Simon should be judged on his record over the last 25 years as a MP. Bitterness is very destructive – it’s better to forgive and forget.’
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