Bermondsey was the dirtiest, most violent British election of the 20th century – and we can learn from it today | Peter Tatchell

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  • February 24, 2023
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Bermondsey was the dirtiest, most violent British election of the 20th century – and we can learn from it today | Peter Tatchell thumbnail

The 1983 Bermondsey byelection took place 40 years ago today and was a key moment in modern British political history. It’s widely regarded as one of the dirtiest and most violent elections in 20th-century Britain.

As a leftwing gay Labour candidate, I was subjected to more than 100 assaults while canvassing. There were also nearly three dozen attacks on my flat, including bricks and bottles through the windows and a bullet posted through the letterbox in the middle of the night. I felt hunted and under siege, sometimes fearing for my life.

Bermondsey was without doubt the most homophobic UK election ever. Some commentators suggested that the hate campaign against me was the worst vilification of an LGBT public figure since Oscar Wilde.

Subjected to 15 months of media smears, anti-gay violence and sabotage by the right of the party, I lost what had been a safe Labour seat. Despite the odds stacked against me, I accept responsibility for Labour’s loss, and I apologise.

But looking to Labour’s future, I want to hark back to Bermondsey’s past, before the byelection and before the tabloids and political opponents – inside and outside the party – went to war against us. In those halcyon days, pre-1981, the Bermondsey branch of the party was a huge success, and it offers a model for Labour’s long-term revival in the 2020’s and beyond. Our achievements were rooted in year-round grassroots organising, which is very different from the election-focused and centralised top-down strategy of the Labour leadership.

There is an untold story behind the Bermondsey byelection.

By the 1970s, Bermondsey Labour was a moribund rightwing clique. Only a handful of people attended branch meetings. New members were not encouraged. The party was aloof and disconnected from local people. It never campaigned, and even at election time canvassing was patchy at best. Labour’s vote was in decline. The old guard used to boast they could put up a cocker spaniel as the Labour candidate and it would be a shoo-in.

Peter Tatchell in the background after the Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes wins the Bermondsey byelection in 1983. Photograph: PA

The Labour-run council in Southwark (of which Bermondsey is a part) was in charge of more than 80% of local housing, much of it in bad shape. The centralised housing maintenance and repairs system was slow and inefficient.

Despite these problems, the rightwing Labour council leader, John O’Grady, was determined to build a lavish new town hall. He was also seen as insufficiently robust with property developers who wanted to take over Bermondsey’s Thames riverside and force out working-class people to make way for lucrative office blocks and luxury flats for the rich.

There was huge local anger. A group of us came together in 1979 to revive the local party and pressure the council to implement policies for the benefit of the community. We united the left, centre and some on the centre-right, including older working-class members and a new younger Labour generation. Our common cause was that we wanted to take back control of the party and council for local people.

Our first success was to recruit 400 new members and build links with trade unions, tenant’s associations and community groups. We distributed Labour newsletters to every household, discussing local problems and our proposed solutions, complete with fun cartoons. Street stalls were held in local shopping centres. We did door-to-door canvassing all-year round, not just at election time.

Creative protests were used to raise awareness and press for change. There was a “stop the traffic” rally against the closure of St Olave’s hospital. To oppose property speculators, we occupied HMS Belfast on the Thames and a block of luxury flats on the riverside, hanging gigantic banners: “homes not offices” and “people before profit.”. A march to the Greater London Council successfully won funding to turn the derelict Dickens Square into a neighbourhood park and adventure playground for kids. With the resultant media and newsletter publicity, people saw Labour defending their interests.

I set out a vision of transforming Bermondsey’s grim, multistorey slab housing estates into an“urban garden city” of houses with gardens, tree-lined streets and pocket parks. We also persuaded Southwark council to decentralise its services to local hubs, to make them more accessible and accountable to local people – and to improve the speed and efficiency of council estate maintenance and repairs.

So what does that all mean now? It could mean a lot. For Bermondsey is a template for how Labour could, from the base up and constituency by constituency, solidify its support and long-term revival through grassroots organising.

Right now Labour is riding a wave of anti-Tory sentiment, but that may not last. The key to ensuring sustained voter commitment is rooting the party in communities and serving them all year round. I tried that approach back then but didn’t quite get elected. I commend it to Keir Starmer, in the hope he goes one better.

  • Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner and director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation