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British Democracy in Action: Remembering the 1983 Bermondsey By-election

I’m not much of a political animal. Sure, I take an interest in what our rulers and their fawning creatures are up to, usually through the lenses of the BBC website or Private Eye. The recent general election got me hooked, in slightly the same way that the World Cup does every four years. However, I’ve never belonged to a party and have voted for all the major ones (except one) at one time or another. Not for me, though, the cut-and-thrust of the committee room, the whispered conversations in corridors or the feverish plotting: this last activity appears, from what one reads, to be the main requirement of political activism and probably the one that yields the most tangible results.

Above all, it’s the factions that got me. Back in the 80s, several of us used to frequent a pub in Brixton Road which was the favoured haunt of a number of left-wing groups. My friends Patrick, Paul and Mark, all of them journalists, used to play ‘spot the leftie’ there. This involved eavesdropping on a conversation at a neighbouring table, guessing which group the people belonged to and then putting it to the test by asking them. To me it was a blur. I liked the beer and my friends but I couldn’t keep up with the conversation. I’d have been much happier talking about football or how to write the perfect middle-eight for a song.

On one occasion, at the height of a particularly savage period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the conclusion of one round of spot the leftie resulted in the leader of the challenged group – almost inevitably, a middle-aged man with a beard – saying they were from Troops Out. Patrick, Paul and Mark nodded sagely. Perhaps because I wasn’t nodding, the leader fixed me with a searchlight gaze. I felt that I should say something but the phrase meant nothing to me. ‘Troops out of where?’ I asked dumbly.

I did, however, experience at first-hand one of the major political moments of that turbulent and very political decade. This was the Bermondsey by-election, held on the 24th of February 1983. Many folk of my generation would need no reminding about this event. As democratic processes go it was a spectacular and vitriolic spectacle. I think that this, more than anything else, put me off organised politics for life. Politicians whimper now about the ‘loss of faith’ in our political process. My own dates back to this election, which took place before many of them were born.

To anyone who wasn’t around in the 1980s, it’s hard to over-stress how polarised life was. Thatcher v Foot and the government v the unions were the main acts but there were plenty of side-shows. One of these was being waged within the Labour Party itself which was – then as now – hopelessly split between, on the one hand, pragmatic moderates who didn’t believe that the market economy had been created by Satan with a hangover and, on the other, a hard-left leadership headed by a grey-haired man with a dodgy dress sense and an unshakeable belief that life’s inequalities could only be remedied by dogmatic government intervention on a colossal scale. The difference between Corbyn and Michael Foot was that Foot was a man of genuine academic and intellectual accomplishments whereas Corbyn appears to be little more than a slightly unreal product of the political system: as, in a very different way, was the hapless David Cameron. Certainly both Foot and Corbyn were equally out of their depth when dealing with Maggie and Boris (as, in the latter case, was Cameron), probably the two most opinionated, populist, divisive and un-ignorable politicians this country has produced since Churchill.

The by-election was triggered when the incumbent, Bob Mellish, who had been elected with a huge majority in ’79 – staggeringly, his 11th consecutive victory, the first being in 1946 – professed himself disenchanted with Labour’s lurch to the left. He jumped ship to take up a lucrative post with the London Docklands Development Corporation, which was about to transform many parts of east London, including that part, into something utterly unrecognisable to its long-time inhabitants. The grotesque political pantomime that followed was amply to justify all Mellish’s fears about the troubles in his party.

In Bermondsey, Labour’s leftwards drift was demonstrated by its choice of candidate. Peter Tatchell was radical, young, Australian and gay, any one of which would have made him unelectable in most seats at that time (including, as events were to prove, this one). This defect was obvious even to the Labour’s leadership which tried to block his nomination: the local party, in a move which showed just how unruly Labour had become, paid no attention to this and selected him. One of Mellish’s cronies, John O’Grady, was persuaded to stand as the ‘real Bermondsey Labour’ candidate. The split in the Labour Party was made public for the first time: a nasty, visceral, tribal division which went to the heart of our national life and which has not been healed to this day.

Two ‘Labour’ candidates would have been confusing enough. In fact there were to be four, with an Independent Labour and a National Labour Party, whatever they were, also deciding to stand. There would have been five but the fifth one got into a muddle with his nomination form and wrote his occupation in the box that was meant for his party. As a result, in addition to the other uncertainties the ballot paper posed there was a candidate standing under the surreal banner of  ‘Systems Analyst’. If any of these people weren’t left-wing enough, there was also a Communist and – cranking the dial up still further – a Revolutionary Communist.

I don’t want to give the impression that this was all dominated by the left: far from it. The National Front was out in force in every sense of the phrase: so too was New Britain, whose candidate was a self-professed racist, fundamentalist Christian and supporter of capital punishment for a wide range of offences. New Britain had a few years before merged with the United Country Party which had been run by the astronomer Patrick Moore. You might want to bear that in mind the next time you watch a re-run of The Sky at Night (if such things exist).

Oddest of all, though, was the Independent Patriot Lady Birdwood, a woman whose views on class, race and sexuality would have made the other right-wingers seem positively mainstream. Deluded to the point of incoherence and notable mainly for a collection of spectacles that Elton John would have envied, she had left first the Conservative Party and later the National Front because she felt each had become too working class. She was involved in some of Mary Whitehouse’s famous blasphemy actions. She was a member of many virulent anti-communist groups, ‘communist’ in her case probably covering anyone under 60 who didn’t have their own pack of foxhounds. Most extraordinarily, she devoted much energy over several years in attempting to persuade the government to enforce King Edward I’s Edit of Expulsion of the Jews of 1290 which, she claimed, had never been repealed. During the campaign she accused the National Front candidate of being a socialist, a slur which must have confused him as much as it did all the voters. What she was hoping to accomplish in a constituency like Bermondsey can only be guessed at.

We’re not finished yet, not by a long chalk. Way ahead of his time in some ways was a man standing under the banner of Anti-Common Market and Free Trade: one can’t help thinking that the 15 votes he polled (which, amazingly, didn’t put him in last place) would have been increased were he to have been around in 2016. There was a candidate for the Ecology Party, which I think later morphed into the Greens. Of course, this being the ’80s, we had Screaming Lord Sutch in all his top-hatted and self-serving wackiness. There was also a United Democratic Party Candidate, the UDP being some sad and confusing offshoot of the Conservatives.

Oh, I almost forgot: there was a Conservative candidate as well, Robert Hughes, who survived this debacle and rose to become a government whip before being forced to resign after an affair with a constituency worker. Finally there was the Liberal candidate, Simon Hughes (no relation), another man who later became embroiled in a sexual controversy to the detriment of his career. (No Lib Dems in those days: that change, involving a merger with the breakaway SDP, was another result of Labour’s troubles).

This, then, was the galaxy of political talent, the carnival of rage, hypocrisy and ambition, that was laid out for our choice and consumption. The candidates spanned the entire British political spectrum; indeed, went some way beyond it at both ends. There were 16 of them which I think was then a record. It would have been 17 but the Democratic Monarchist, White Resident and Road Safety candidate Lieutenant Commander Bill Boaks (a man whose achievements included having roller-skated from London to Paris) was unable to participate after being knocked down by a taxi shortly before the nominations closed. Like so many aspects of this by-election, truth was a good deal stranger than fiction and often just as difficult to believe.

The main actor in the drama was, of course, Tatchell, whose campaign was (so the experts judged afterwards) stunningly inept but also not helped by a barrage of abuse from every quarter. In fact, he was the one unifying factor in a particularly divisive battle. All the other candidates loathed him and strove to outdo each other in the way they put this loathing into words. There were then few laws against hate crime: were there to have been, it’s unlikely many of the candidates would have been at liberty come polling day. He was publicly assaulted and threatened with death. His homosexuality was a particularly big target and even Simon Hughes – who much later came out as bisexual – was not averse to cashing in. An anonymous leaflet featured a picture of Elizabeth II alongside one of Tatchell and asked ‘which Queen will you vote for?’ O’Grady publicly accused him of ‘wearing his trousers back to front.’ One national newspaper offered £3,000 to anyone who could produce a sex-scandal story about him. Another re-touched a photo to make him look like a drag queen. The gay-loony-left card was played for all it was worth.

Vilified by the press and crucified by the other candidates, Tatchell was also unable to make a functional connection with the so-called traditional Labour voters whom, he appeared to believe, would flock to him merely because of the causes he espoused, which he believed to be self-evidently just and true. Mellish had been a very different kind of politician; a hard-nosed local from a family of dockers who had distinguished himself in the war and become a tough and effective whip and minister under Harold Wilson. An effete and militant young antipodean encouraging mass civil disobedience and promoting gay rights was hardly a like-for-like replacement. For decades, the population had voted for Mellish. Now everything had changed. Yuppies were moving in. Immigration was starting to cause concerns. The docks had died and something unimaginable was about to replace them, Militant Tendency, Labour’s strongly left-leaning faction, had taken over the local party. Thatcher and Scargill cast their long shadows over the land. The world was slipping anchor. Who would look after the area in these shifting times? Not, the public decided, Peter Tatchell.

The most telling criticism of his campaign came to me from a story I heard (by someone who claimed to have been there but nothing about that election can be taken as the truth). There was a particularly deprived area of the constituency called, I think, the Sullivan Estate. When addressing a public meeting, Tatchell was, so the story goes, keen to stress his credentials. ‘I live on the Sullivan Estate,’ he told his audience, ‘so I can understand your problems.’

‘Bloody hell,’ one man at the back said to his friend. ‘If he can’t get himself out of the Sullivan Estate, what’s he going to be able to do for us?’

Meanwhile, the other candidates contributed their own hideous background noise. The result was a screeching six-week symphony of hate played in 16 different keys.

All of this was long before the internet and social media so the war of words was conducted through leaflets – hundreds and thousands of them. I could probably have wallpapered every room in my flat with the ones that came through the letterbox (though I only got as far as doing this in the toilet). One I had thrust into my hand in Lower Road by a National Front activist. I said ‘fuck off,’ or something similar: quite mild invective by the standards of the campaign. He snarled back at me. The occasion had made monsters of us all. I was pulled away by my friend before anything worse happened.

The campaign seemed to go on for months. When polling day finally arrived. Labour’s support collapsed and Simon Hughes swept home with nearly 58% of the votes (he retained the seat until 2010). All the other candidates lost their deposits. The confused man who declared himself as standing for ‘Systems Analysts’ got eight votes. Ten other candidates failed to get into double figures. I don’t know if it’s a record that this constituency (allowing for various changes of names and boundaries) had only two MPs in 66 years. If it’s not a record it’s certainly pretty impressive. The voters of Bermondsey are nothing if not loyal.

One day during the height of the campaign, I remember getting off the East London Line (as it was then called) at Surrey Docks station (ditto) and closing my copy of Europe’s Inner Demons by Norman Cohn. This book had as one of its premises the fact that marginal groups in society, including the early Christians, gypsies and, in particular, the Jews, were demonised by being accused of a range of crimes that were almost too horrible to contemplate, cannibalism and infanticide being top of the list. I’d recently finished a medieval history degree and found myself, not for the first time, recoiling from the horrors that we inflicted on each other back then. Life today, in 1983, was surely better, I thought. At least we’ve moved on from that kind of nonsense.

The train pulled away. On the opposite platform, spray-painted in bright pink in letters two feet high across twenty yards of advertisements and notice boards, were the words ‘Peter Tatchell Eats Babies.’

Demonising our enemies isn’t going to go away. Most of the time there’s a thin veneer of civility and respect in our debates but, all too often, the crust breaks. It broke during the Brexit campaign and its protracted aftermath. Sure as hell it broke in Bermondsey in ’83. In a lot of countries it’s the norm. That moment at the tube station taught me a valuable lesson: to hurt your enemy you have to hit low, hit hard and hit often. Politics is meant to be an elegant, though ruthless, alternative to violence, in the way that, in the middle ages, tournaments were an elegant substitute for war. Introduce someone from outside the pack, however, and all bets are off. We pretend to be civilised but we’re only animals with a thesaurus. At times it shows all too clearly. Move on? We should be so lucky.

 

I’d like to dedicate this reminiscence to my dear and late friend Patrick Fitzgerald who spent some time with me in the Bermondsey bear pit and whose wisdom and advice I still miss.

The image at the top of the page has been taken from The Guardian’s article of 18 April 1983 by Peter Tatchell in which he gave his views on the Bermondsey campaign.

Brian Quinn

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