Peter Tatchell recalls: The dirtiest, most violent & homophobic election in Britain

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Most commentators agree that the south London Bermondsey by-election in 1983 was the lowest point in modern election campaigning: the most violent and scurrilous election in Britain in the 20th century and the most homophobic election ever held in Britain. Indeed, I was subjected to more sustained press and public vilification than any parliamentary candidate for over 100 years.

The Bermondsey by-election was 30 years ago this Sunday. It was a pivotal moment in Labour Party and LGBT history.

I was a left-wing, pro-gay rights Labour candidate, condemned for policies that are now mainstream: LGBT equality, a national minimum wage, comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, a negotiated political settlement in northern Ireland and much more.

My advocacy of gay rights and my past record of LGBT campaigning were used against me by much of the media and by some rival candidates. They sneered and sniggered. I was condemned and ridiculed. Urging LGBT rights was not acceptable in those days.

Nevertheless, I helped raise the public profile of LGBT issues by standing on the most radical pro-gay platform of any parliamentary candidate.

I told the inside story in my book, The Battle for Bermondsey (Heretic Books, 1983).

For me, the by-election was like living through a low-level civil war. I was assaulted over 100 times in the street and while canvassing. There were 30 attacks on my flat, two attempts by car drivers to run me down and a bullet was posted through my letterbox in the middle of the night. I received hundreds of hate letters, including 30 threats to kill me or petrol bomb my flat. There were many moments when I feared for my life.

Anti-Tatchell slogans were painted throughout the constituency, on dozens of walls, hoardings and bridges, including:

“Tatchell is queer”, “Tatchell is a communist poof” and “Tatchell is a n*gger-lover”.

Tabloid reporters rifled through my rubbish bins, put my flat under 24-hour long lens surveillance, sent young boys to my door and posed as a cousin of mine to win the confidence of neighbours and pry information from them.

The Sun published a fabricated story that I had deserted local constituents to attend the Gay Olympics in San Francisco (it sounds fun, I wish I had gone!). A photo of me was published by the News of the World which made me look like I had plucked eyebrows and was wearing lipstick.

It was an atmosphere of unbridled homophobia in an era when my support of LGBT rights was mostly deemed extremist, shocking and downright wrong. Thankfully, media and public attitudes have moved on over the last 30 years. Openly gay and pro-LGBT rights candidates can now be selected and win elections. Bravo!

Peter Tatchell is a human rights activist who campaigns with OutRage! He is a regular contributor to and The Guardian. To help the work of his foundation please visit