Peter Tatchell is best known today as a high profile and very courageous campaigner for LGBT rights and human rights generally. But he first came to national prominence as the Labour candidate in a by-election held in Bermondsey, south London, in 1983. Why? Largely because he was gay. Simply by being out and proud, he was a problem to the party. And whatever people say today – there was a heck of a lot of bigotry across the political spectrum in the 1980s. And a perception that being gay meant you were a liability as a candidate and even toxic to working-class voters. I’m convinced there were socialists back in that decade who thought gays only existed in the middle class.
An old Labour stalwart moves aside
The reason for the by-election was the decision in 1981 of old Labour stalwart Bob Mellish not to run again for the seat. On the plus side, Mellish was a son of the London docks, had grown up in the slums, and done service in the Second World War. He was rooted in the working class history of his constituency and the people of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. But over time, he had become a hammer of the left in the party. Particularly in his role as Chief Whip. A bruiser let loose on rebellious MPs.
Like many MPs on the right of the Labour Party, Melish had fallen out with his constituency. This was a time when the Labour grass roots were moving leftwards after the defeat of Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979. There was a growing belief that the Wilson/Callaghan Labour government of 1974-79 had ‘betrayed’ working people and even foreshadowed many of the economic polices of the Thatcher government. Constituencies increasingly wanted a clean break with the past and a sharp move to the left.
Mellish found the party moving away from him. On issues such as race and immigration, his own views may have chimed with some in the London docklands – basically, don’t let them in – but he could sometimes sound like he should have been on the National Front ticket. Here’s some comments he made during a debate about admitting Malawi Asians to the UK who were being thrown out by the government of that country. Similar to what had happened earlier in the 1970s to the Ugandan Asians. Mellish didn’t want them admitted. His comments in one parliamentary debate indicated he didn’t much want anybody from anywhere admitted to the UK.
“People born and bred in their own constituencies have been on the housing waiting list for as long as six years. But, on the points system, one must give immigrants preference…I am not talking about black, white or yellow. With 53 million of us, we cannot go on without strict control of immigration. People cannot come here just because they have a British passport—full stop…I certainly believe that the Southern Irish should be barred now. With a population of over 50 million this country cannot go on admitting everyone. It is as straight as that…Are Greeks and Italians—I do not care who they are—allowed to stay on? Does anybody care what happens?”
His comments got full throated support from…Enoch Powell.
Mellish eventually left the Labour Party and after a brief period sitting as an independent MP, joined the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP), founded by other Labour right-wingers. His actions forced a by-election in his Bermondsey constituency.
Labour right-wing turns on Thatchell
The Bermondsey Labour Party selected Australian-born Peter Tatchell to run as the candidate to replace Mellish. This should normally have been a shoe-in for Labour. But what followed was one of the filthiest elections in British political history. As secretary of the local Labour Party, Tatchell had boosted the membership of what he later described as a “corrupt and moribund” organisation where people interested in joining had previously been told that the party was “full up”.
Tatchell was adamantly opposed to the glitzy redevelopment of the docklands, which had once been the heart of the British Empire. Goods from every colony and protectorate had streamed into the Pool of London and the vast docks. But that was over. Now the question was what should happen to this vast area by the river. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), set up in 1981, was charged with redeveloping the area. It was immediately resented as an undemocratic body riding roughshod over local councils and community organisations.
Even though Mellish was from a working class docklands background, he became deputy chairman of the LDDC. It stood accused of displacing the area’s traditional working class communities with new, glossy office block developments and shopping malls that had no benefit for local people. The process described as “yuppiefication” in the 1980s and we call gentrification now. But Mellish was unfazed. Tatchell however, represented the Labour London left view that the LDDC was a Thatcherite project to be roundly opposed.
In other policy areas, Tatchell was very much in line with the increasingly dominant left in London politics. He was anti-nuclear, pro-equality (race, gender, sexuality) and argued for “extra-parliamentary” action against the Thatcher government. His stance on Northern Ireland – a call for negotiations – was construed as placating the Irish Republican Army. And he was anti-NATO. All of this was in line with left-wing positions within Labour in the early 1980s.
But the party was at war with itself. Michael Foot and Dennis Healey had taken the leader and deputy leader positions in the party in 1981 against the left-wing challenge from Tony Benn for the deputy leadership. That defeat for Benn emboldened the right-wing within Labour to begin pushing back against the left. Tatchell became a bogeyman for the right-wing. And there’s no doubt that his sexuality was used to tarnish his image.
In his diaries, Tony Benn posits the alarming thought that the reason Michael Foot – the ageing and slightly doddery leader of the party – turned against Tatchell was because he mistook him for Peter Taaffe, editor of the Marxist newspaper Militant. Whether this is true, Foot’s hostility to Tatchell did take many by surprise at the time.
FIND OUT MORE: The turbulent Labour Party of the 1980s
Liberal dirty campaign
Tatchell found himself running against every conceivable shade of political opinion. On the left, the Communist Party fielded a candidate. As did the strangest of ultra-left sects, the Revolutionary Communist Party. On the extreme right, the National Front stood no doubt hoping to make hay but ended up trailing the Tories on election day coming fifth. Other extreme right candidates included Baroness Birdwood running as an Independent Patriot but in reality a notorious racist and anti-Semite. Posing more of an electoral threat to Tatchell was John O’Grady, former leader of Southwark borough council who ran as Real Bermondsey Labour with the support of Mellish.
O’Grady odiously rode around the constituency in a horse and cart singing a music-hall style 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
But it was the Liberals who emerged as Tatchell’s main opponent with their candidate Simon Hughes. The Liberals were in an alliance with the newly formed Social Democratic Party and had polled nearly the same number of votes as Labour nationally in the general election that year. They were feeling very bullish. But to bring victory that much closer, they indulged in appalling homophobia on the doorstep. The leaflet above was created by Liberal activists and shamefully not only played on anti-gay feeling among the general public but included Tatchell’s address – a clear example of analog-era doxxing. And this led to an avalanche of hate mail and death threats directed at the embattle Labour candidate.
Male Liberal canvassers went round wearing badges saying “I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell” – a disgusting but not atypical example of Liberal campaigning in that era.
Back in those days, by-elections were routinely contested by musician David Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party. He ran under the name Screaming Lord Sutch. After the by-election he claimed that Tatchell had been a poor candidate and hadn’t canvassed enough during the campaign. What he failed to mention was that Tatchell was attacked some hundred times including punches and kicking by voters when turned up to knock at their doors. Decades later, Tatchell said:
“When I went out canvassing, I was terrified.”
Simon Hughes ended up winning the by-election and represented the constituency for quarter of a century. Two decades later, he admitted to having same sex relationships. But hardly in a celebratory way:
“Nobody has a perfect life … People make mistakes and have to go public sometimes on things they may have wished to keep private.”
In an even more astonishing revelation, Tatchell opened up about Bob Mellish’s sexual advances towards him:
“Although I was always polite and gracious in turning him down, my rejection of his sexual advances contributed to the animosity he felt towards me. Bob was quite persistent. He didn’t take no for an answer. I had no objection the first couple of times he asked me. It was his repeated approaches that became very wearing and tiresome. Mellish’s subsequent hostility was not just political. As well as hating my grassroots left politics, he also seemed unable to accept that I didn’t fancy him. At the time, I was in my late 20s and he was in his 60s.
Needless to say, Mellish didn’t become a campaigner for LGBT rights or apologise for the homophobia he encouraged towards Tatchell.