Tatchell: sex harassment by Labour MP Bob Mellish

Bermondsey by-election 20th anniversary revelation

BBC Radio 4, Wesminster Hour – They Fought and Lost

Sunday 2 February 2002, 10.45pm


LONDON  – Peter Tatchell reveals for the first time the sexual harassment he experienced in the early 1980s at the hands of Bob Mellish – the then sitting Labour MP and former government Chief Whip. The persistent propositions occurred in the three years prior to the Bermondsey by-election in 1983, when Tatchell was local Labour secretary and Labour parliamentary candidate.

Peter Tatchell makes these revelations this Sunday on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour slot, They Fought and Lost, which profiles people who were defeated in famous by-elections.

Commenting on his interview, Peter Tatchell said:

“Although I was always polite and gracious in turning him down, my rejection of his sexual advances contributed to the animosity he felt towards me. Bob was quite persistent. He didn’t take no for an answer. I had no objection the first couple of times he asked me. It was his repeated approaches that became very wearing and tiresome.

“Mellish’s subsequent hostility was not just political. As well as hating my grassroots left politics, he also seemed unable to accept that I didn’t fancy him. At the time, I was in my late 20s and he was in his 60s.

“I defend his right to ask me but also my right to say no.” said Tatchell.

24 February 2002 is the 20th anniversary of the Bermondsey by-election, described by many commentators as probably the dirtiest and most violent election in the twentieth century Britain. It was certainly the most homophobic in British history.

Tatchell replaced Mellish as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey, after Mellish retired as MP to become Vice-Chair of the London Docklands Development Corporation. The LDDC was set up by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her deputy Michael Heseltine to oversee the carve-up and speculative redevelopment of inner-city working class south and east London.

Tatchell, who opposed the LDDC carve-up, was defeated by the Liberal candidate Simon Hughes. The by-election was marred by death threats, hate mail and over 30 violent attacks on Tatchell and his Bermondsey flat. Walls and hoardings throughout the constituency were daubed in three-foot high slogans, such as “Tatchell is queer”, “Tatchell is a nigger-lover” and “Tatchell is a communist poof.”

Speaking about his revelations in this Sunday’s interview, Peter Tatchell said:

“After Bob revealed to me that he had a secret gay life, I tried to be supportive. I was, however, uncomfortable with the way he was cheating on his wife and not being honest with her and his children.

“He did not seem to have any close gay friends, apart from a couple of other MPs. Most of his sexual encounters with men were brief and furtive. I felt sorry for him. Despite his marriage, he seemed quite lonely. He was, it appears, the classic case of a repressed married man.

“Several times, I asked Bob to table legislation for gay equality in parliament. But he was only interested in having sex with men, not in supporting the gay community.

“Mellish was two-faced. He later supported the rival independent ‘Real Labour’ candidate, John O’Grady, who ran an overtly homophobic campaign against me during the Bermondsey by-election. O’Grady toured the constituency on a horse and cart singing songs that ridiculed my sexuality.

“Mellish was a bit of a hypocrite. He was having gay sex, but backed O’Grady, despite the anti-gay election campaign. Although I was tempted to out him, I decided not to stoop to his level.

“I did not plan to reveal this sexual harassment when the interview was first arranged. But in response to the flow of the interviewer’s questions it seemed natural and right to tell the full story for the first time.

“These revelations are just one small part of a much larger interview. I discuss them matter-of-factly and, I hope, tastefully and with sensitivity”, said Peter Tatchell.

For an advance transcript of Peter Tatchell’s interview, contact Paul Rasmussen at the BBC Press Office on 020 8576 7749 or 07711 415 102. If you have any problems, speak to the programme maker, Jane Ashley at the BBC, on 07802 213 014 or 020 8997 7452 or 020 7973 6046.

Further information: Peter Tatchell 020 7403 1790