February 24th, 2013

Me with Red Ribbon

The Battle for Bermondsey: 30 years on

Peter Bermondsey
Simon Hughes makes his victory speech in 1983, watched by Peter Tatchell
Photo credit: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/rivals-from-battle-for-bermondsey-relive-the-dirtiest-british-byelection-8472417.html

Today (Sunday 24 February 2013) is the 30th anniversary of the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, where Simon Hughes (Liberal Party) defeated Peter Tatchell (Labour Party) to win the safe Labour seat of Bermondsey, after one of the nastiest and most homophobic campaigns in British political history.

I am re-running the feature I originally posted at the end of January 2013 when I attended an event hosted by the Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Local History Society to commemorate 30 years since the 1983 Bermondsey by-election.

Cut and pasted from the Evening Standard:

Rivals from Battle for Bermondsey relive ‘the dirtiest British by-election’

Thirty years after they clashed in the notoriously dirty Bermondsey by-election, Peter Tatchell and Simon Hughes marked the anniversary by sharing a platform.

In 1983, what became known as the Battle for Bermondsey set a new low in modern British politics for smears, tricks and homophobia.

It also created the biggest by-election swing ever recorded as Labour’s vote collapsed. Liberal Mr Hughes won by an extraordinary landslide, with a record swing of 50.9 per cent and 17,017 votes to Mr Tatchell’s 7,698.

Mr Tatchell recalled:
“There were many moments then when I feared for my life. It was probably the lowest point in modern campaigning — the dirtiest, most violent election in Britain in the 20th century and the most homophobic in UK history.”

Follow the link to the full feature:

Raks's Write-up

First off, I have to say a huge thank you to the Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Local History Society for organising and hosting the event and being the perfect hosts. As I had gone along as Peter's guest, they had reserved a seat for me in the front row. I felt like a VIP!

I am sharing a few highlights of Peter's talk with everyone because I found his talk inspirational. I got a lot out of it and I think it will help others in moments of darkness and self-doubt:

- The 1983 Bermondsey by-election was the most homophobic election in modern British history and Peter himself was subject to the most horrific public vilification during the course of the election campaign
- Peter and other Labour members were trying to break the closed shop of the local Labour party and to open the party up to all who wanted to participate and be a part of it. Prior to that there had been a time when the local Labour Party were telling prospective members that it was "full up"!
- At the time, Peter was denounced as an "extremist" for advocating a minimum wage, comprehensive equality laws, and a peace agreement and political settlement in Ireland; all of which have subsequently come to pass
- Peter became a symbol of the struggle at the time between the Left and the Right of the Labour Party
- During the campaign, Peter endured 500 hate letters, 100 physical assaults/attacks, 30 death threats, 30 attacks on his flat, 2 attempts to run him over, and a bullet posted through his letter box in the middle of the night
- The police refused to offer him any protection, even though Peter had evidence of the threats against him. No protection was given even after his home address and phone number had been published on leaflets
- Peter spoke about how frightened and terrified he was every time he went out campaigning
- He spoke about how he wanted to regain control of the situation but how, as things got worse and spiralled out of control, he was unable to see a way of doing that
- He spoke about the homophobic graffiti which covered the constituency attacking him personally
- He spoke about the many near misses where he could have been seriously hurt and injured
- He spoke about the fact that for a long time after the campaign was over he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) night terrors where he would jump out of his bed in fright because he was reliving actual attacks made against him
- Peter could have fought back by indulging in similar negative tactics and campaigning, and he could have made known Simon Hughes's sexuality. In the end, he and the local Labour party took a decision not to vilify other candidates but to focus on the positive ideas and policies that they were offering
- There was a great deal of tabloid harassment, intrusion and fabrication and the media was positively vitriolic; much of the venom in the media directed against Peter could have been down to vested business interests in the media
- The Press Complaints Commission did nothing to make the situation better; in fact they did nothing until the campaign was over
- Peter did not have the means or the finances to seek redress against the media through the courts
- Peter spoke about how he regretted the fact that the national Labour Party had not done more to support the local candidate and the local party; he had been allocated only a small number of people to help him with his campaign; a mere handful compared to the numbers given to other candidates fighting other by-elections
- The revulsion felt by much of the British public at the homophobic campaign directed against Peter meant that homophobia could no longer be used as a campaign tool in the future
- In terms of his personal feelings, Peter preferred to look forward not back, and he was not bitter or resentful re what had happened
- The motivation behind all of Peter's campaigns and his work was love - whether that was love of equality, love of justice, or love of human rights; he believed passionately that you should be motivated by positive ideas and driven by a vision of how the world could and should be a better place.

I have been volunteering with the Peter Tatchell Foundation for about 6 months now. What came out in Peter's talk were qualities that I have consistently seen in him the whole time that I have known him. Those qualities are personal courage and integrity, inner resilience, and true independence of mind and spirit.

I found listening to his talk inspiring because it made me realise that no matter what adversity life throws at you, and no matter how unfairly and poorly you are treated, it is still possible to be gracious, rise above it, and move on. And that ultimately, you can be a stronger person for that experience, and end up at a better destination than the one you started out for.

I wanted to close by commending Simon Hughes on being gracious enough to do the decent thing and to apologise to Peter for what Peter had had to endure and for the nasty homophobic campaign run by some within the Liberal party to discredit Peter and to enable Simon to win through. I had no expectation of Simon doing this, but he did, and I respect that.

copyright © Rakshita Patel 2013

bermondsey photo
Simon Hughes MP, Fern Tomlinson (chaired the discussion), Peter Tatchell, Michael Daniels (Chairman of the Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Local History Society)
Photo credit: http://s1070.beta.photobucket.com/user/DavidInDeal/library/Bermondsey%20By-Election%20Debate

If you are interested and you want to read more about the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, you can read Peter's own account of it in his book "The Battle for Bermondsey", available on Amazon here: