Peter Tatchell – the prolific human rights campaigner – first came to national prominence as the Labour candidate in a by-election held in Bermondsey, south London, in 1983. If ever an episode in politics revealed the prejudices and bigotries of the age, then it was this one. Even to look back on it now just makes me depressed.
The reason for the by-election was the decision in 1981 of old Labour stalwart Bob Mellish not to run again for the seat. Mellish was a die-hard Harold Wilson loyalist who once announced in 1976 that he was NOT an “anti-racialist” and opposed letting the Malawi Asians in to the UK, in spite of the fact they had UK passports and had been forcibly expelled by the Malawi government. It’s worth noting that 1976 was, in this humble scribe’s view, the high water mark of National Front activity and attacks on Asians in Britain – particularly those who had come from Uganda, fleeing Idi Amin.
Needless to say that Mellish did not appreciate the Bennite and Militant swing to the left within his constituency party in the early 80s. First he announced his intention not to run again, then decided to sit as an Independent MP before finally finding a home with other Labour renegades in the newly formed Social Democrat Party.
Just to stick up a final two fingers to the Bermondsey comrades, he resigned his seat precipitating a by-election in 1983. And several Labour councillors joined his desertion to the SDP.
His constituency party had already selected Australian born Peter Tatchell. It should be noted that contrary to some misinformation, the Militant Tendency did not support Tatchell – they had their own preferred candidate who if my memory serves me right had an impressive 80s mullet.
Tatchell’s opponents would go on to use his place of birth and sexuality as door-to-door campaigning issues. The Liberals – now the Lib Dems – squirmed on this issue for years but if you’ve ever campaigned against a Lib Dem candidate (I have), you won’t be surprised by any tactic they employ. I’m not going to repeat the anti-gay slogans and innuendos – just Google away and you’ll find them.
From his selection in 1981, elements in the Labour Party goaded on by their former colleagues now in the SDP tried to get rid of Tatchell – trying to rule him out as a candidate in Bermondsey. In 1981, Tatchell penned an article on his political views that advocated direct action against the Thatcher government.
The inappropriately named Labour turned SDP MP James Wellbeloved rose to his feet in parliament and asked Margaret Thatcher – and Labour leader Michael Foot – to denounce this call for extra-parliamentary action.
What Tatchell had written was no different to what many MPs and Labour activists advocated at that time but the vehemence towards him was, to my mind, very much tinged with the casual homophobia of the era. There was a sneering vitriol employed towards him – and he’s spoken since of the threats he faced as a candidate.
Michael Foot, in a reaction that even surprised me at the time, denounced Tatchell and said he would never be accepted into the Labour Party, let alone run as a candidate. Needless to say those words and no doubt his hat were force fed to the party leader at a later date as Tatchell did indeed run – though he would be defeated by Liberal Simon Hughes (who subsequently declared his own sexuality decades later).