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The nastiest by-election ever? And a self-inflicted disaster for Labour

Thirty years ago yesterday. The Bermondsey by-election is certainly a contender for the nastiest by election in Britain. Peter Tatchell refers to it as “the lowest point in modern election campaigning: the most violent and scurrilous election in Britain in the 20th century and the most homophobic election in British history.” Losing a safe Labour seat on a swing of 44.2%, the largest by-election swing in British political history, was also an electoral disaster for Labour but one which was to a large extent self-inflicted.

Homophobia was displayed throughout the campaign:

  • In the anonymous “Which Queen will you vote for?” which a former Liberal Party insider and now Liverpool city councillor, Steve Radford, claims was produced by Liberal activists.
  • In Liberal leaflets which described the election as a “Straight choice“.
  • In the spectacle of former Southwark council leader and “Real Bermondsey Labour” candidate, John O’Grady, touring the constituency on the back of a horse and cart, singing a song which referred to Tatchell “wearing his trousers back to front”:

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

  • In the press coverage.
  • And above all in over 100 physical attacks on Peter Tatchell during the campaign, and the 30 death threats he received.

But it was a deeply racist campaign too. Graffiti reminiscent of Smethwick in 1964 appeared with messages like “Vote Labour for a black Bermondsey” and “Tatchell is a nigger-lover“.

Today, there is much agreement about these facts, not least between Peter Tatchell and Simon Hughes as was displayed on Newsnight on Friday (which you can currently still see here).  Simon Hughes, who says in today’s Independent that he “apologised to Peter privately and publicly on several occasions” was long ago forgiven by Tatchell himself, although others who were aware of Hughes’s own sexuality were often less forgiving. Hughes later came out about his sexuality (after having previously denied it) when The Sun obtained evidence through phone hacking.

Michael Foot, for his part in the disaster, also apologised to Peter Tatchell much later and they became firm friends. Peter forgave him too, issuing a statement on his death that Foot’s “error of judgment, under pressure from SDP turncoats, does not diminish his stature as one of the most outstanding British socialists and democrats of the twentieth century.”

However, whilst Tatchell is generous to others, he is hard on himself. On Newsnight, he said: “I feel very guilty and sad that I lost a safe Labour seat and I have to take responsibility for that.” What has clearly not been properly acknowledged sufficiently within the Labour Party is the extent to which this disaster was self-inflicted, both through the errors of Michael Foot as leader, and through the actions of right-wing trade union fixers who were already engaged in the fightback against ‘Bennism’ that ultimately led to New Labour.

Michael Foot’s public error was to respond at Prime Ministers’ Questions to taunts from an SDP defector (who rejoined Labour under Blair), James Wellbeloved, by declaring that the recently selected Tatchell “is not and as long as I am Leader will not be an endorsed member of the Labour Party“. He meant of course “candidate” rather than “member” which gave rise to the false rumour that Foot was confusing Tatchell with Tariq Ali who had just applied for Labour Party membership. I doubt that anyone would seriously argue that his response was sensible – Dianne Hayter, for example, in Fightback! Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s written from the Right’s perspective, says he acted “unwisely“, and his biographer Kenneth Morgan says “probably unwisely“.

Foot had had plenty of time to prepare his line between Tatchell’s selection as candidate on 8 November 1981 and Wellbeloved’s question on 3 December. It is prety certain that he did what he did because:

  1. Bob Mellish, the sitting MP and former Chief Whip who, according to Tam Dalyell, had backed Michael Foot for the leadership in 1976, was to become vice-chair of the London Docklands Development Corporation. He had offered not to accept a salary for the post which force a by-election if he repudiated Tatchell .
  2. The northern group of Labour MPs at a meeting with Foot on 1 December had insisted he take a firm stand against “extremist” candidates, and some (probably put up to it by Mellish) had threatened to defect to the SDP if he didn’t.

Nor is it possible that Foot thought that Tatchell was a Militant support – another rumour at the time. Jim Mortimer, then party general secretary who by coincidence lived in Bermondsey, was well aware that he wasn’t and undoubtedly advised.

The most disturbing aspect of what Foot is what Ian Aitken reported in the Guardian the day before Wellbeloved’s question:

Michael Foot is under pressure from Labour MPs on the left and the right to make a gesture of defiance to the Labour Party’s ultra-left infiltrators.

He has been warned by several front-bench spokesmen, backbench MPs and trade union leaders that unless he acts firmly action will be taken without his authority.

Attention has centred on the ultra-left candidate Peter Tatchell, who was recently adopted in the old-fashioned Labour stronghold of Bermondsey as the replacement for Mr Bob Melish, the former Chief Whip. Mr Foot is being pressed to repudiate him on the ground that he is clearly unacceptable as a Labour Parliamentary candidate.

A group of Labour MPs… believe that his extraordinary combination of far-Left political opinion and militant association with gay liberation (our emphasis), together with the fact that he has only been a member of the party for a few years, should disqualify him.”

It is clear from this that Peter Tatchell’s sexuality was a reason for the opposition of at least a section of the Labour establishment to his candidature. However neither that, nor his Vietnam “draft dodging” could be used as grounds for stopping him. Nor had there been any procedural irregularity in his selection.

In recognition of that, Foot’s official biographer, Mervyn Jones, his colleague and friend of many years’ standing, reveals that the “pretext chosen” to disqualify Tatchell was an article he had written in London Labour Briefing in May 1981 which proposed various forms of extra-parliamentary action not terribly different from things Foot had supported in the past. And yet, miraculously, SDP defector James Wellbeloved managed to ask a question about that very article.

Who had tipped him off? Within two weeks, Labour’s national executive had decided, albeit by a majority of only one one, to refuse Tatchell endorsement as a candidate and start a new selection.

However, the self inflicted damage had started even earlier. Bob Mellish was the leader of what was widely referred to as a “Bermondsey Catholic Mafia” which ran both the party and the council from when he had first been selected in 1946.  In 1980 a broad alliance of left and centre-right disillusioned with the ruling clique elected a new set of constituency party officers including Peter Tatchell as Secretary.

Efforts by the right to protect Mellish and O’Grady in Bermondsey started later that year when the electricians union (EETPU) flooded the constituency general committee with new delegates having changed their own rules so that their head office could over-rule local union branches. These delegates included two right wing Southwark councillors: Charles Sawyer, who, far from being a plumber or electrician was a Lewisham housing officer as well as Chair of Housing, who was later barred as a member by the SDP;  and the other was Joe Lees who was nominally delegate from the London Central branch which opposed his nomination, and was later closed down as a result. John Spellar, now MP for Warley but then a national officer of the EETPU and also a contender for the Bermondsey nomination in 1981, was responsible for coordinating this operation.

Spellar and a group of right-wing trade union fixers known as the St Ermines group then continued to promote the interests of O’Grady and Mellish. When the constituency party resolved to bar 7 councillors (including O”Grady) out of 40 seeking re-selection from standing again in 1982 (in some cases because they refused to undertake not to defect to the SDP, they leap to their defence. Eventually, after Tatchell had been removed as parliamentary candidate, they succeeded in overturning that decision. However, most of them were not reselected by the members of their wards.

In May 1982, Labour went into the borough elections facing a challenge from a 15 strong SDP group all but one of whom had defected from Labour in alliance with the Liberals. One deselected Labour councillor also stood with two others as independents in Riverside ward. All the SDP defectors lost (although the independents were returned) so it was a triumph for Tatchell’s Labour Party in Southwark. Bob Mellish, having been expelled from Labour for backing the independent candidates then announced that he would, after all, force a by-election.

Who is to say what would have happened to Tatchell if he had not been effectively condemned and briefed against by leading Labour MPs for over a year before he stood in the by-election, having been selected as candidate for the second time. Had he received the support he deserved from the party leadership, would the press have run the same homophobic campaign against him? A year after Tatchell lost, Chris Smith became the first MP to come out as gay. He went on to win Islington South again.


  1. John P reid says:

    Michael foot supported the same sort of extra parlaimentary activicty as Tatchell, I didn;t know foot supported the storming of parliament,

    the comments on John spellar were liablalous too,

  2. Gerry says:

    Good and important history lesson, Jon…I am amazed that Peter Tatchell has forgiven Simon Hughes for his vicious gay-hatred …proof, if any is needed, of how dirty and corrupt the Liberals always play in elections!

    And fast forward to today, and we see that their heirs the Lib Dems are still at it – with Chris Rennard joining the list of:

    David Laws (millionaire who gave £40K in taxpayer funded expenses to his male live in lover)
    Mark Oaten (services to rent-boys)
    Cyril Smith, Jeremy Thorpe (no comment!)
    Mike Hancock – all round sexual sleazebag
    Chris Huhne/Vicky Pryce (serial liars)
    Paddy Ashdown – “pantsdown”
    Charles Kennedy (alcohol issue kept secret by his party)
    Nick Clegg (tuition fees lies, for one…)

    As in 1982, in 2013 is there a more sleaze-ridden, hypocritical, deviant and corrupt political entity than the Lib Dems? Is that a question?

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