Fights Bermondsey By-election
“Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream about what the world could be – then help us make it happen.’
Peter Tatchell is a British human rights campaigner, originally from Australia. Tatchell moved to London in 1971. He was a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front. With others he helped organise Britain’s first Gay Pride march in 1972. He is known for his support for LGBT+ rights and freedom of expression. He is the Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a human rights organisation.
In 1978 Tatchell joined the Labour Party and moved to social housing in Bermondsey, south-east London. The local Labour MP retired in 1981. The Bermondsey by-election was held in February 1983. Tatchell was chosen as the Labour Party’s candidate in. He was 31 years old.
The election campaign was called the Battle for Bermondsey. It was one of the most unpleasant and violent in modern British history. No by-election candidate had supported LGB rights before. The Labour Party wanted Tatchell to keep quiet about his sexual orientation. People thought his views were extremist and he was going to lose. He was seen as a ‘devil’.
Sometimes Tatchell thought he would be killed. He received hate mail. He was attacked more than a hundred times in the street and when he was talking to voters. There were thirty attacks on his home and two attempts by car drivers to run him down. A bullet was put through his letter box in the middle of the night. The police refused to protect him.
Tatchell experienced more public and press abuse than any parliamentary candidate for over a hundred years. A lot of graffiti around Bermondsey attacked him. Windows displaying his campaign posters were smashed. On the last weekend of the campaign, a leaflet was sent around saying “Which Queen will you vote for?” The leaflet gave Tatchell’s home address and telephone number. No one knew who printed it.
Tatchell believes the newspapers didn’t like his socialism. Most journalists ignored his Labour policies on housing, jobs and pensions. They focussed on his sexual orientation to damage his politics. Newspaper reporters were sent to look for ‘scandal’. They even went to Australia. When they couldn’t find any they just made some up. For over a year journalists troubled his family, neighbours and colleagues at work. He couldn’t afford the legal costs to defend himself.
The Liberal Party used this anti-homosexual atmosphere. A Liberal Party leaflet said the election was ‘a straight choice’ between Liberal and Labour. Eventually, Liberal candidate Simon Hughes (himself closeted) won the election. Tatchell told the story of the election in his book, ‘The Battle for Bermondsey’.
Tatchell was a left-wing, gay rights Labour candidate. He was attacked for policies that are now mainstream. In the end the public reacted against the anti-gay messages. The election helped to make gay rights important. Tatchell has celebrated: ‘Openly gay and pro-LGBT rights candidates can now be selected and win elections. Bravo!’