The Bermondsey by-election was 40 years ago this Friday
London, UK – 22 February 2023
Peter Tatchell was the gay Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by-election which took place on 24 February 1983.
The Bermondsey by-election has been described as the dirtiest, most violent and homophobic election in British history.
It was said by some commentators to be the most sustained vilification of a gay public figure since Oscar Wilde.
In the run up to, and during, the by-election, I was subjected to over 100 violent assaults, 30 attacks on my flat, a bullet through the letterbox, 30 death threats and hundreds of hate letters and late-night threatening phone calls. It felt like living in a war zone. I suffered from PTSD and night terrors.
The anonymous “Which Queen will you vote for?” leaflet, distributed across the constituency in the dead of night, used a photo that was altered to give the appearance that I had plucked eyebrows and was wearing lipstick. It listed my phone number and home address, urging voters to visit me and give me a piece of their minds. Some did.
Despite the violence and threats that ensued, I was refused police protection. Media reports at the time that I was given a 24-hour police armed guard are not true.
During this period, I struggled to maintain and keep secret my relationship with Premier League footballer Justin Fashanu, who was not out at the time. In those days, if he had been known to be gay, it would have been the end of his career.
Despite being with Justin, I had to fend off repeated propositions by the retiring Labour MP, Bob Mellish. He hypocritically backed the homophobic campaign against me, despite his own bisexuality.
Not a single national newspaper supported my candidacy. Nearly all the media railed against me almost non-stop for the 15 months leading up to the by-election, especially the tabloids. They printed fabricated claims and doctored photos to make it look like I was wearing make-up. The Press Council refused to intervene.
My campaign policies, which were then reviled as extremist, have since become mainstream: a national minimum wage to combat low pay, a negotiated peace settlement to end the war in the north of Ireland, LGBT+ equality and comprehensive laws to protect everyone against discrimination.
I fought against the property developers taking over the Bermondsey riverside and forcing out local people to make way for corporate office blocks and luxury flats for the rich. My campaign was dismissed as scaremongering at the time. But these warnings turned out to be true.
I had an alternative green socialist vision of redeveloping Bermondsey as an ‘urban garden city’ – replacing derelict sites and brutalist multi-storey housing estates with houses with gardens for local people, tree-lined streets and pocket parks. It is a vision that is still relevant today for inner-city Britain.
Ranged against me were a record 15 other candidates, including four fascist / far right contenders.
I lost the election to Simon Hughes of the Liberal/Alliance, after they ran a homophobic campaign against me, despite Simon’s own bisexuality. He did not come out until more than two decades later.
The Liberal victory was the biggest swing in UK election history.
Despite all these horrors, the Bermondsey by-election had three positive outcomes. First, my advocacy put LGBT+ rights on the mainstream political agenda for the first time ever. Second, after the election was over, many journalists and much of the wider public felt embarrassed and ashamed by the homophobic campaign against me. Their guilt meant that subsequent gay candidates and MPs had a much easier ride. And third, for the same reasons, political parties became wary of exploiting homophobia during elections.
Bermondsey was a loss for me but a win for others. Bravo!
- The Bermondsey by-election features in the Netflix film, Hating Peter Tatchell