Peter Tatchell recalls the dirtiest, most violent and anti-gay by-election in modern British history
Today is the 32nd anniversary of the notorious 1983 Bermondsey by-election.
I was the left-wing pro-LGBT rights Labour candidate. Described by many commentators as the dirtiest, most violent and homophobic by-election in modern British history, I went down to a crushing defeat at the hands of the Liberal candidate, Simon Hughes.
The Liberals (since renamed the Liberal Democrats) pitched for the homophobic vote. They published leaflets which stated there was a “straight choice” between myself and Simon Hughes.
Less well known was the tactic of some male Liberal canvassers to knock on doors wearing lapel stickers emblazoned with the words “I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell”. They constantly reminded voters that I was gay and supported gay rights, in an apparent appeal to homophobic electors.
There was also an infamous leaflet, distributed during the election campaign, headed: “Which queen will you vote for?”. Some ashamed Liberal insiders have since claimed that it was produced by a Liberal undercover dirty tricks unit.
The leaflet featured an image of the Queen and myself and denounced me as a left-wing traitor. Assumed at the time to have been circulated by the far-right National Front, it listed my home address and phone number and invited local people to have a go at me.
The result was a deluge of threats and attacks on my flat. I had to board up my home and sleep with a fire extinguisher and rope ladder beside my bed; plus an assortment of carving knives and sticks for self-defence.
I’m not one to hold grudges. I forgave Simon and the Liberals – and moved on. Within a few years I was working with Simon to defend the human rights of people with HIV and on many subsequent campaigns.
The general consensus is that the Bermondsey by-election was the lowest point in post-1945 British election campaigning; perhaps the most scurrilous election in Britain in the 20th century and certainly the most homophobic election in British history.
I was subjected to the most sustained press and public vilification experienced by any parliamentary candidate for 100 years.
It was a pivotal moment in Labour Party history. I was a left-wing Labour candidate, condemned for policies that are now mainstream: a national minimum wage, comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, LGBT equality, a negotiated political settlement in Northern Ireland and much more.
I was pilloried for my defence of the local working class communities, in particular my opposition to the carve up by property developers of the North Southwark, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe riversides, to make way for office blocks and luxury flats for the rich.
When I warned about the rip-off redevelopment of the riverside back in 1983 I was called a scaremonger and liar, but all of my predictions later came true – most local working class people lost out. Many were priced out of their own community.
This gentrification at the expense of local people is still continuing with the plans to redevelop the mega Heygate Estate site at the Elephant and Castle, adjacent to where I still live in the same one bedroom council flat as in 1983.
At the time of the by-election, I became a symbol of struggle between the left and the right in the battle for Labour’s soul. My defeat was a symbolic defeat for the whole left.
I told the inside story in my book, The Battle for Bermondsey (Heretic Books, 1983).
The public revulsion against the homophobic abuse that I suffered ensured that when Chris Smith MP came out the following year few people dared attack him. He received a mostly sympathetic public response.
After Bermondsey, mainstream parties dared not use homophobia as a campaign weapon.
Likewise, the backlash against the tabloid smears, intrusions and outright fabrications resulted in a diminution in the use of such tactics against later parliamentary candidates, at least by some journalists and editors.
For me, the run-up to 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.
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.
The Press Complaints Council was useless. They sat on my complaints for weeks and months. I never got one iota of redress. Proof that victims of press misrepresentation and smears need some kind of statutory legal remedy, along the lines proposed in the Leveson report.
Peter Tatchell is a human rights activist who campaigns with OutRage! He is a regular contributor to petertatchellfoundation.org
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