Bermondsey by-election 1983: homophobia, hatred, smears and xenophobia

The poll held 30 years ago today was said to be the nastiest in 100 years. Here the main candidates recall the fight that changed politics, and Britain, for good

The Labour candidate: Peter Tatchell

The Eastleigh by-election may be getting a bit nasty, but it's nothing compared to the nastiness of the Bermondsey by-election, which took place 30 years ago today. In terms of political dirty tricks and tabloid smears, it holds the unofficial title of the most muck-racking British election of the last 100 years.

I should know. I was the Labour candidate, and on the receiving end of an unprecedented level of demonisation; much of it because of my homosexuality and my support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality. Indeed, some commentators described what happened to me as the most sustained homophobic vilification of any public figure since Oscar Wilde.

Before me, no by-election candidate had advocated LGBT rights. It was deemed extremist and political suicide. But as a gay person who'd suffered discrimination, I could not remain silent. In response, the tabloids stirred a homophobic frenzy, which had a huge impact in a constituency where most people were tabloid readers.

The Sun, under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie, published a fake story that I had abandoned constituents to attend the Gay Olympics in San Francisco (it sounds fun, I wish I had gone). After discovering that I had staged the first gay rights protest in a Communist country – in East Germany in 1973 – his paper rewrote the incident to falsely depict me as a simpering, feeble queen who fled from the Stasi in tears.

The other red tops were no better. The News of the World carried a photo that looked retouched to give me plucked eyebrows, lipstick and eye-liner. The sneers and sniggers were endless. I was pilloried as a "self-confessed" gay rights supporter.

My mainstream Labour policies on housing, jobs and pensions were ignored by most journalists. Also passed over were my ideas for the green redevelopment of Bermondsey as an urban garden city. I was a left-winger, which led to me being demonised as "Red Pete" – a Marxist ogre who must be stopped. Much of the press portrayed me as endorsing the Trotskyite Militant Tendency. I didn't.

The Daily Star falsely claimed my selection as the Labour candidate had been fraudulent; while the Daily Mail misleadingly captioned a photo of a local supporter with the warning that I was getting a hostile reception from voters.

Xenophobia was stirred and my Australian heritage condemned. According to the Daily Express, I was a "rather exotic Australian canary who sings some odd songs". In other words: Tatchell is a foreigner and queer. These slurs on my nationality and sexuality were also spread by the Liberals to boost support for their candidate, Simon Hughes.

I was deluged with hate mail, death threats, attacks on my flat and more than 100 physical bashings. I went to sleep at night with a fire extinguisher, carving knife and large stick by my bed. I was vulnerable, yet the police refused me protection. I felt powerless to get media redress. The Press Council was useless. It sat on my complaints for months. At the start of the campaign, polls put me on 47 per cent, with the eventual victor, Simon Hughes, on less than 20 per cent. By election day, after weeks of media abuse, the levels had almost reversed. Simon romped home.

On the positive side: the public backlash against the homophobic smears made it easier for subsequent gay MPs, such as Chris Smith, to come out. Mainstream parties became more wary of exploiting homophobia during elections. My candidature helped, to some extent, to put gay rights on the mainstream political agenda. After the election I refocused my human rights campaigning on LGBT equality, spending two decades doing feisty radical protests with the LGBT rights group OutRage!

I also became an advocate of redress for the victims of media misrepresentation. If I could choose any recompense for what happened to me in Bermondsey it would be for Parliament to implement the recommendations of the Leveson report. I don't want anyone to go through what I went through in 1983.

The Liberal Alliance candidate: Simon Hughes

The 1983 Bermondsey by-election gave me the honour and privilege to stand for Parliament for the first time – and to win my first election as the most recent of many Liberal MPs for this historic and proud seat.

Helped by the split at the top of national Labour with the formation of the Social Democratic Party, and Michael Foot's leadership, Liberalism had rapidly picked up local momentum and support once we really got going with community politics. After moving into second place across the constituency in the 1981 Greater London Council election, we then took a quarter of the votes in the 1982 borough-wide elections. My selection as parliamentary candidate in September 1982 was after some national polls had gone up towards 50 per cent.

When Labour's Bob Mellish resigned the seat in November, there was civil war among local Labour supporters as well as a national crisis of Labour identity. In late January 1983, when Peter Tatchell was finally selected, Bob Mellish and John O'Grady (then leader of Southwark council) formed "Real Labour" to stand against him, and 13 other candidates (including two more socialists) joined us in the fray. By now, our respected community politics work had built a credible and local Liberal campaigning alternative.

There had been huge national Labour and media vilification of Peter Tatchell for a year and more by then; but only once he was approved and the four-week campaign started was he, as opposed to Labour generally, really in the local political sights too. Peter devotes only about 10 pages out of more than 160 in his book The Battle for Bermondsey to criticism of our campaign.

But even though we were not the main culprits, anything that my colleagues or I added to growing homophobia was unarguably wrong and cannot be justified. With hindsight, the "straight choice" phrase should not have been used, although at the time it was one of the most common phrases wherever we or others were trying to make an election contest the proverbial "two-horse race". I have never heard anybody suggest, then or later, that the "two Queens" leaflet had anything to do with any part of the Alliance campaign. I assumed it came from right-wing Labour or another extremely bigoted group.

I did make some protests at the attacks on Peter, but I was not clear enough or strong enough in doing so then, and accept I said too little, too late. I have apologised to Peter privately and publicly on several occasions, and have tried doubly hard to speak out on bigotry, prejudice and discrimination ever since. Peter Tatchell has also been generous enough to commend my positions and work on these subjects – and we have together worked to challenge homophobia, racism and sexism in many places and on many platforms over the years.

When the Conservatives promoted their dangerous Clause 28 anti-gay legislation in 1987 and the Labour frontbench sat on its hands, it was Liberals who led the parliamentary opposition. Following my successful campaign to stop a Labour Home Secretary from extraditing to Iran the gay student Mehdi Kazemi, I was one of those who insisted that it should be a policy of Liberal Democrats, and now part of the coalition agreement, that we do not send gay asylum-seekers back to face punishment, torture or death for their sexuality.

Since 1983, Peter has left Labour and joined the Greens, but has increasingly spent his time bravely campaigning across and outside parties at home and particularly abroad against discrimination, lack of equality and tyranny in places such as the Soviet Union, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

I commend his energy, determination and integrity. No one knows what would have happened if the by-election result had been different. But I hope that the seven further elections I have won as a Liberal in my seat is testimony to the campaigning I continue to do for a more equal society, a goal that I and my main opponent of 30 years ago share.

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