Bermondsey by-election, 1983

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A by-election was held in the Bermondsey constituency in South London, on 24 February 1983, following the resignation of Labour MP Robert Mellish. Peter Tatchell stood as the candidate for the Labour Party, and Simon Hughes stood for the Liberal Party. Following a bitter campaign, the Liberals made huge gains and took the seat, with a majority of votes cast. Labour's vote fell from 63.6 per cent in May 1979 to 26.1 per cent as Tatchell came a distant second, while the Conservative candidate, Robert Hughes, managed only fourth place. With a swing of 44.2%, the 1983 Bermondsey by-election remains the largest by-election swing in British political history.

Preliminaries[edit]

Robert Mellish had represented the constituency and its predecessors in the House of Commons since 1946. He was the Labour Chief Whip from 1969 until 1976, but had become disenchanted with the left-wing drift of the Labour Party, and resigned from both the Party and his Parliamentary seat in 1982. He was recruited by the Conservative government to the board of the London Docklands Development Corporation; as he did not wish to be disqualified, the post was made non-salaried until such time as Mellish chose to accept payment. This meant that Mellish had a paid job to go to as soon as he wanted.

On 7 November 1981, Bermondsey Labour Party selected Peter Tatchell, its Secretary, as prospective Parliamentary candidate. Tatchell was a leading member of the left-wing faction that had taken control of the local party the previous year. He was also a contributor to London Labour Briefing, a magazine that circulated among the London left, and had written an article suggesting the use of extra-Parliamentary direct action by the Labour Party. This article came to the attention of James Wellbeloved, a former London Labour MP who had defected to the Social Democratic Party; Wellbeloved then referred to it in a Parliamentary Question to Margaret Thatcher on 3 December.[1]

Labour Party leader Michael Foot denounced the article and declared "the individual concerned is not an endorsed member of the Labour Party and as far as I'm concerned never will be". (It was suggested by some that Foot had confused Peter Tatchell with Peter Taaffe, then the leader of the Trotskyist Militant tendency, and that his denunciation was so strong that he could not later retract it without appearing weak.)[citation needed] Foot later changed "endorsed member" to "endorsed candidate", and at the next meeting of the Labour Party National Executive Committee, Tatchell was narrowly rejected as a candidate. Mellish was not reassured about the future direction of the Labour Party and resigned from it on 2 August 1982, a clear preliminary to resigning his seat, which he did by taking the Chiltern Hundreds on 1 November that year. The left wing of the Labour Party, defending the right of Bermondsey to select a candidate of its own choosing, managed to obtain agreement that Tatchell would be eligible for selection, and Tatchell was duly selected again in January 1983.

Tabloid newspapers opposed to the Labour left had begun researching his background when Michael Foot denounced him, and in particular Tatchell's activities with the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s. Several stories were published which made it clear by implication that he was gay.

Other candidates[edit]

Simon Hughes, on a Bermondsey election leaflet in 1983

At the 1981 Greater London Council election, the Liberal Party had come second in Bermondsey. They chose their GLC candidate Simon Hughes, a barrister who had moved to the constituency earlier that year, to fight the by-election. The Conservatives chose Robert Hughes (no relation), who was a Greater London Council (GLC) Councillor in Croydon. Among those who applied for the Conservative nomination but were not chosen was Sara Keays, then having an as yet unrevealed affair with Cecil Parkinson.

The right-wing former Labour leader of Southwark Borough Council, John O'Grady, who had been a target for the left-wing faction locally, also decided to stand under the banner 'Real Bermondsey Labour' with Robert Mellish's support and encouragement. His campaign was dominated by personal opposition to Tatchell and defence of his leadership of the Council. Twelve other candidates stood, including Screaming Lord Sutch and the Dowager Lady Birdwood.

Esmond Bevan intended to stand as an independent Labour candidate, but erroneously entered his occupation in the section on the nomination papers headed 'description', thus appearing on ballot papers as "Systems Designer".

Start of the campaign[edit]

The Labour campaign started disastrously when it was discovered that the first leaflets had been printed at Cambridge Heath Press, owned by the Militant tendency (then practising entryism in the Labour Party; a group whose five key members were expelled two days before polling day). The leaflets were all pulped and reprinted, but the cost of the first printing still counted against the limit for election spending.

Attacks on Tatchell[edit]

There was much controversy over Tatchell's homosexuality. The Labour Party persuaded Tatchell to keep quiet about his sexual orientation, although he had previously declared himself 'out'. Various campaigners for opposition candidates, as well as many within the Labour Party, made homophobic comments about Tatchell. Widespread graffiti throughout the constituency referred to him in derogatory terms, while some of those putting up posters in his support found their windows attacked. Tatchell received hate mail, including a live cartridge, and was attacked when out in the street.

Some of the other by-election candidates joined in: John O'Grady (Southwark Council leader, who was promoted as the 'Real Bermondsey' Labour candidacy by the previous MP, Bob Mellish) was filmed touring the constituency on the back of a horse and cart, singing a song which referred to Tatchell "wearing his trousers back to front". On the last weekend of the campaign, an anonymous leaflet was sent round the constituency headed "Which Queen will you vote for?", contrasting the republican Tatchell, who was pictured looking very effeminate, with Queen Elizabeth II. The leaflet gave Tatchell's home address and telephone number.[2]

An alternative analysis of Tatchell's eventual defeat was given by David Sutch, the Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate, in his 1991 autobiography Life As Sutch (ISBN 0-00-637805-6). When being interviewed on TV at the by-election count, Sutch related to Tatchell how horrified he was at the treatment Tatchell had received, but added that "what I did not tell him was that he had been so bad a candidate that he had largely brought it on himself". Sutch criticised Tatchell's preference for press conferences and press releases rather than traditional meeting-and-greeting, which was generally regarded as the best way to win hearts and minds at a by-election. In a later interview, when the subject of Bermondsey came up, Sutch said that Tatchell "seemed to think all he needed to do to become the MP was turn up at the count."

Homophobia and the Liberal campaign[edit]

During the by-election, members of the Liberal Party were accused of having joined in homophobic attacks on Tatchell.

Male Liberal canvassers were seen wearing badges reading "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell". This was criticised by Roy Hattersley at a Labour news conference.[3] One Liberal campaigner, John Hein (who subsequently refused to join the successor party, the Liberal Democrats, and became a member of the Liberal Party instead), wrote in the usenet newsgroup uk.politics.electoral on 19 May 1997:

As a member of the Liberal Gay Action Group which produced and wore the 'I have been kissed by Peter Tatchell' and 'I haven't been kissed by Peter Tatchell' badges, I think I should explain why the badges were produced and worn. (Although I wasn't there on the day that they were worn and had I been, mine would have read 'I wouldn't want to be kissed by Peter Tatchell').
We were furious at the way in which Peter was attempting to go back into the closet (something which he has since admitted was wrong). This was our protest.

In an interview with Simon Edge of The Independent published on 17 December 1996, the former Liberal Party Chief Executive, Andy Ellis, was asked whether he approved of the activity undertaken by the Liberal Gay Action Group, and replied "Nothing went on in Bermondsey that we were unhappy with."

Though Liberal campaigners criticised Tatchell for being 'in the closet', it emerged during campaigning for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in January 2006 that Hughes had had homosexual relationships himself.[4] Hughes apologised in the interview for not being honest about his sexuality, having denied that he was gay in an interview a week earlier,[5] admitting that he "gave a reply that wasn't untrue but was clearly misleading" as he is in fact bisexual having "had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in the past."

Hughes also apologised for the actions of Liberals in the Bermondsey campaign, saying, "I regret that in a campaign, actually run often by agents and organisers, the candidate does not have nearly as much say as perhaps they should have, but I take responsibility". "I have never been comfortable about the whole of that campaign, as Peter knows, and I said that to him in the past.... Where there were things that were inappropriate or wrong, I apologise for that."

The one controversial issue that was linked to Hughes was a leaflet describing the contest as a "straight choice" between Liberal and Labour. The same slogan is regularly used by candidates from all parties in elections, in an attempt to suggest to the electors that the party was the only credible challenger to the incumbent party,[6][7] as a result of Duverger's Law and to encourage tactical voting. However, when challenged on Newsnight about it in 2006, Hughes admitted that it was "an unacceptable form of language", and "those are the sort of things that shouldn't have happened",[8] appearing to acknowledge that the slogan had acted as an inadvertent slur against Tatchell.

When asked for his opinions on the Liberal Democrat leadership candidates in 2006, Tatchell, by then a member of the Green Party, said that he had forgiven Hughes, saying "Simon benefited from these dirty tricks, but that was 23 years ago—I don't hold a grudge. It's time to forgive and move on."[9] He added that Hughes should be judged on his 23-year record as an MP and that "if I were a Lib Dem member, I would vote for Simon Hughes as party leader." In the 2010 General Election campaign, while still a Green Party member, Tatchell encouraged tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats.

Opinion polls[edit]

Bermondsey was one of the first by-elections to be extensively polled. The polls showed, at first, that the Labour vote was substantially down on the 1979 election figures, but that none of the rival candidates were particularly close. As the campaign went on, the Liberal candidate began to move into a clear second position and the other candidates faded. Later in the campaign, there were rumours which claimed that the right-wing of the Labour Party nationally wished to lose the seat, as it would prove that left-wing Labour candidates were unelectable. By the eve of poll, it was clear that large numbers of previously Labour voters were defecting to other parties, and that non-Labour voters were lining up in support of the Liberal candidate as the one most likely to beat Labour.

Results[edit]

The Liberals made huge gains and took the seat, with a majority of votes cast.[10] Labour's vote fell from 63.6 per cent in May 1979 to 26.1 per cent as Tatchell came a distant second,[10] while O'Grady took third. The Conservatives managed only fourth place, for the first time since the Newham South by-election, 1974, and the last in Britain until the Liverpool Walton by-election, 1991. All candidates other than Liberal and Labour lost their deposits.[10]

Bermondsey by-election, 1983
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Simon Hughes 17,017 57.7 +50.9
Labour Peter Tatchell 7,698 26.1 –37.5
Real Bermondsey Labour John O'Grady 2,243 7.6 N/A
Conservative Robert Hughes 1,631 5.5 –19.4
National Front James Sneath 426 1.4 –2.4
Monster Raving Loony David Sutch 97 0.3 N/A
Independent Patriot Dowager Lady Birdwood 69 0.2 N/A
New Britain Michael Keulemans 62 0.2 N/A
Independent Labour Barry Giddings 50 0.2 N/A
Communist Robert Gordon 50 0.2 N/A
Ecology George Hannah 45 0.2 N/A
Revolutionary Communist Fran Eden 38 0.1 N/A
National Labour Party Ann King 25 0.1 N/A
United Democratic Party Alan Baker 15 0.1 N/A
ACMFT David Wedgwood 15 0.1 N/A
Systems Designer Esmond Bevan 8 0.0 N/A
Majority 9,319 27.2
Turnout 29,489 57.7 –1.6
Liberal gain from Labour Swing +44.2

The results for the previous election were:

1979 General Election: Bermondsey
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Labour Robert Mellish 19,338 63.6 –9.8
Conservative Alexander Duma 7,582 24.9 +11.1
Liberal Thomas Taylor 2,072 6.8 –1.3
National Front James Sneath 1,175 3.9 –0.9
Workers Revolutionary Anthony Moore 239 0.8 N/A
Majority 11,756 38.7 –20.9
Turnout 30,406 59.3 –2.9
Labour hold Swing –10.5

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister House of Commons debates, 3 December 1981 TheyWorkForYou.com
  2. ^ Grice, Andrew (27 January 2006). "The 'homophobic' campaign that helped win Bermondsey". The Independent (London). "Mr Tatchell, the openly gay Labour candidate in one of the dirtiest election campaigns in recent memory, said it was "time to move on", despite Mr Hughes's admission yesterday of gay affairs. He said Mr Hughes would make the best leader of the Liberal Democrats." 
  3. ^ O'Grady, Sean (7 January 2006). "Simon Hughes: Saint or winner". The Independent (London). "This extraordinary dedication has protected him in what ought to be, and once was, the solid Labour seat of Southwark Bermondsey. This is the constituency Hughes famously won for the then Liberal-SDP Alliance in a 1983 by-election, a contest described by Gay News as "the dirtiest and most notorious by-election in British political history" because of the slurs on the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell, now better known as the force behind gay rights group Outrage!. During the campaign, some male Liberal workers wore badges reading "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell" and anonymous leaflets were circulating which asked "which Queen do you support?"." 
  4. ^ Kavanagh, Trevor (26 January 2006). "Hughes: I've had gay sex". London: The Sun. Retrieved 18 June 2007. 
  5. ^ "Hughes dismisses gay rumours". ePolitix.com. 16 January 2006. Retrieved 18 June 2007. 
  6. ^ "Richard Livesey". British Election Ephemera Archive. Retrieved 18 June 2007. 
  7. ^ "Nicol Stephen". British Election Ephemera Archive. Retrieved 18 June 2007. 
  8. ^ "Hughes apologises for anti-gay campaign". London: Mail Online. 24 January 2006. Retrieved 18 June 2007. 
  9. ^ "PETER TATCHELL FORGIVES SIMON HUGHES FOR 'GAY SLURS'". Mirror.co.uk. 27 January 2006. Retrieved 18 June 2007. 
  10. ^ a b c McKie, David (1983-02-25). "Liberals romp home with a giant swing". The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-01-08. 

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