Rod Liddle

Forget Eastleigh, Tatchell vs. Hughes was a real by-election

23 February 2013

I got a text message the other day, inviting me to a party. This is a nice thing to happen, and not an everyday event. I have become used to all modern forms of communication bringing nothing but trouble; the more modern they are, the more unpleasant will be the message. If it arrives via Twitter, it will usually be a condensed ball of noisome vomit, perhaps containing within it the vestige of a threat. In a sense, we are all Mary Beard these days. The nastiness rains down upon all of our heads, the nastiness from other people. Never mind.

But this was different; not merely an invitation to some sort of agreeable shindig where other people buy the drinks, and perhaps also festive finger food, but one which carried with it the soft thrill of nostalgia, taking me back to a time when I was young and terribly sure of myself, neither of which is true today. It was an invitation to attend the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Bermondsey by-election.

Do you remember it? I remember it well. The invitation came from the offices of the winner back then, Simon Hughes, now still the MP for the same constituency and the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Back in early 1983 I was, as now, a member of the Labour party and absolutely chuffed to bits that my party had selected Peter Tatchell to fight the seat for us. I had some connection with Bermondsey — it’s where my mum was brought up, it was the home of the football club I supported, and I’d lived a mile or two distant for the first eight years of my life. So I was particularly pleased that Labour had eschewed the selection of one of those awful, fat, antediluvian working-class people who, like the resigning MP Bob Mellish, had represented the constituency from time immemorial. Instead they had chosen a young, radical poof. Good, I thought. That should bring some modernity to the area. And some progressive values. Exactly the sort of person Labour should be selecting in these working-class redoubts, regardless of what the local people might think, mired in their ignorance and conservatism.

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Simon Hughes won the seat with the biggest swing in election history, an astounding, staggering 44.2 per cent. I was terribly depressed by this. I cleaved to the allegation — largely true, as it turned out — that the Liberal candidate had sat aloft a homophobic campaign: Liberal canvassers were seen wearing badges stating ‘I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell’. Hughes — irony of ironies — was bisexual, a fact he decided not to share with the electorate or the press at the time. He has since apologised for this, and also apologised (a bit) to Tatchell for the homophobia of the campaign, although denying he was directly responsible for it. In any case, there was plenty of homophobia coming from elsewhere, not least from the gruff whispers of Bob Mellish, who did not wish to see Tatchell selected.

Hughes has since represented Bermondsey with great diligence; he has been a fine constituency MP. And it was the start of the Liberal revival which later saw the party make inroads into the Labour vote in the inner cities of the north, where a complacent and arrogant Labour machine had for too long taken the votes of the working class for granted. The Bermondsey by-election proved Labour could be defeated even in its strongest seats, if it pushed the electorate too far.

I think it is a shame that Tatchell has not served as an MP, because he strikes me as a hugely decent, brave and principled chap; there are few people in public life I admire more. Further, elements of the campaign against him in Bermondsey were cruel and grotesque. It is at least partly down to Tatchell’s campaigning that such unrelieved bigotry simply could not happen now in the UK. That, I think, is a very good thing.

But still, all that being said, what smug and epic arrogance on behalf of me, and people like me, in the Labour party at that time. That we knew better what the working class wanted in its representatives, that the Labour party was not primarily about the minimum wage and job creation and better conditions for the very people who set up the party, but was there as a wedge for progressive values which were not remotely shared by the people we were purporting to represent.

Doubly so in the case of Bermondsey; it is often remarked that Hughes won his seat partly as a consequence of his dishonesty about his sexuality. Perhaps that is true. But it is also the case that the voters of Bermondsey were objecting less to Tatchell’s own homosexuality than to his unapologetic espousal of homosexuality; if they had heard that Hughes was himself gay (and rumours abounded even then), it would not have stuck in the craw in quite the same as Tatchell’s campaigning gay zeal. It was the hard left which ensured Tatchell got the chance to fight in Bermondsey, but times have changed; Labour still parachutes ‘progressive’ and politically correct candidates into supposedly safe seats where the new MP, if he is lucky enough to be elected, shares nothing whatsoever in common with the people who elected him, or her.

A few months after the Bermondsey by-election, I was out canvassing and campaigning for the general election from eight till six on my days off work. I wore ripped jeans and eyeliner and had hair spiked up like a hedgehog on amphetamines. I must have lost us, as I moved from door to door in a solidly working-class area, a good 500 votes or so.

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Show comments
  • Eddie

    ‘I wore ripped jeans and eyeliner and had hair spiked up like a hedgehog on amphetamines.’ Gosh. Any photos available, Rod?

    ‘In a sense, we are all Mary Beard these days.’ OMG. Please don’t give me nightmares..

    ‘these working-class redoubts… mired in their ignorance and conservatism.’ Yes, indeed. In fact, in my experience, the biggest bigots (racists, homophobes, deeply conservative people resisting all change and lacking an ability to do anything but blame others for their plight in life) are always in Labour areas. These days, it is not only that lower class white demographic either; most black and Asian Labour voters are deeply conservative socially speaking and hate gays. They vote Labour for selfish self-interested reasons: most seem to work for the council, or for hospitals and schools!
    I agree: Tatchell is a truly brave and honest man, and even if I don’t agree with all of his views, I admire him for that. He was assaulted by Mugabe’s thugs in London – and yet, no-one was ever arrested or even questioned. Our government, meanwhile, lacked the guts to challenge this Zimbabwean despot and his thugs.
    All this is a bit before my time (I was 13 in 1981) but I studied it in politics A level in 1987. I remember clearly looking at the Liberal leaflets and tabloid articles (really gay-hating and bullying) which showed Tatchell in make-up (and the photos were doctored even then, pre photoshop).

  • Whiskybreath

    This is one of those articles finished at 0400hrs with the scant remains of a gin bottle on the left and no bloody tonic. I can tell.

  • David Lindsay

    Well into the 1990s, the word “straight” had no colloquial meaning beyond “honest”, except perhaps in homosexual subcultures, so that what is now its almost equally familiar use might then have been known to Peter Tatchell and to Simon Hughes, but would not have been known to the general electorate of Bermondsey or anywhere else.

    My London Progressive Journal colleague though he now is, Tatchell would lower the age of consent to 14 and thus legalise almost every act of which any Catholic priest has ever been so much as accused. Furthermore, in The Guardian. on 26th June 1997, Tatchell wrote:

    The positive nature of some child-adult relations is not confined to non-Western cultures. Several of my friends – gay and straight, male and female – had sex with adults from the ages of 9 to 13. None feel they were abused. All say it was their conscious choice and gave them great joy. While it may be impossible to condone paedophilia, it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful.

    In 1981, Michael Foot refused to endorse Tatchell as a candidate for the House of Commons. In 2010, David Cameron offered Tatchell a seat in the House of Lords.

    • RightChuck

      ‘Straight’ was used to mean ‘not gay’, as in ‘not bent’, in the popular culture of the mid-70s to my certain knowldedge. I used to watch Are You Being Served, where Mr Humphries occasionally used it thus, and got a laugh from a grateful nation. At school and out on a weekend night it was absolutely normal use of language. Not sure if you’re pretending otherwise in order to bolster a case against Tatchell or if you’re just genuinely mistaken. But one thing’s for sure – everyone knew exactly what ‘straight’ meant in relation to Tatchell and (wrongly) Hughes in Bermondsey.

  • CraigStrachan

    Do you still think that working-class people are mired in ignorance and conservatism, Rod?

  • maurice12brady

    That cartoon caught me by surprise — ‘helping the police ———‘ Bloody marvellous, I’m still laughing out loud.

  • Andrew Gray

    Well Tatchell would certainly give George Galloway abit of competition for worst gaff of the year award!

  • Swanky Yanky

    Tatchell’s a Green! That’s the real and only ‘scandal’. Might as well call it the Pollyanna Party of Reality Abdication.

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