Carpetbagging in Bermondsey

Nicholas Murray

A little over four years ago I joined the Labour Party. I was recruited on my doorstep by a member of the local branch, a quick, wiry, energetic man in his fifties who appeared just at the right moment. After a nomadic wandering across London from bedsit to bedsit, flatshare to flatshare, my cardboard boxes and suitcases eventually necessitating some form of transportation larger than a taxi, my wife and I had finally come to rest next door to a pub in North Southwark.

Catapulted into local politics at a critical time for the Labour Party both locally and nationally, I was to learn a great deal in a very short time about politics in general and the Labour Party in particular, about the relation of the strange theatre of local party politics to the larger world and community outside it, and about the fascinating dynamics of the political meeting. Not really knowing what to expect, and with Auden’s line about the ‘flat, ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting’ hovering disturbingly at the back of my mind, I was gradually drawn into the strenuous world of local activism. After that initial coyness – which is not unusual and which the recruiting sergeants of all parties rarely make allowance for – I moved steadily from a dedicated armchair socialism to a deep involvement in practical politics. Very nearly abandoning a part-time postgraduate thesis on a minor Late Victorian novelist, I found myself in what seemed like a matter of months branch secretary of my local ward and assistant secretary of my constituency party in a period of exceptional turbulence. It was a rapid and brusque introduction to some of the realities of modern British party politics, a crash course I have not regretted in spite of the frustrations – even the sheer exhaustion – it has entailed.

The party I joined was in Bermondsey, a traditional working-class Labour stronghold – one of the safest seats in the country – represented in Parliament by Bob Mellish, whose blunt and bombastic populism was exactly what that sort of seat, that sort of politics, had always considered it needed. But things were changing. The docks which had given employment to the Bermondsey people had gone into an accelerated decline. Mellish’s Canute-like declaration that the docks would be closed ‘over my dead body’ had gone to that special repository where the categorical assertions of politicians are decently laid to rest and forgotten. The visible signs of decay and decline were everywhere apparent and the economic paralysis was paralleled by the ossification of the local political culture. The heroic tale of the old Red Bermondsey has been told in Fenner Brockway’s worthy hagiography of the constituency’s first MP, Alfred Salter. Bermondsey Story is a remarkable account of early municipal socialism, of the high idealism and dedication of the pioneers of Labourism which brought so much tangible benefit to the grimly disadvantaged people of this Thameside backwater at once so near and so far from the prosperous centre of pre-war English society.

One of the major planks of Sailer’s Bermondsey socialism was pacifism and it was his doomed opposition to the war which led to the collapse of his socialist dream and to the installation after the war of the altogether different Labour regime personified by Bob Mellish, then a young employee of the dockworkers’ union. Mellish was to rule this dockland constituency throughout the entire post – war period, fashioning his peculiar political style out of a ruthless control overlaid by a chirpy populism exquisitely tailored to the emotional temper of ‘the people of Bermondsey’ – one of his favourite rhetorical tropes. A sequel to Bermondsey Story is desperately needed. It would explain so much about the distinctive processes of Labour politics, both then and now, and go a long way to explain some of the deep roots of Labour’s present crisis.

It was probably in the early Seventies that the first stirrings of opposition to the rule of what came to be known as ‘the Bermondsey Mafia’ were visible. The tiny – and immensely powerful – oligarchy which was then running the borough of Southwark (with an occasional sentimental watering of its electoral roots but with no active incorporation of party or people into its processes) was faced with the need to do something about the decline of the dockland acres, the rotting wharves and empty warehouses which stood as a gaunt memorial to the bustling activity of the Port of London’s commercial heyday. This was the epoch of the property speculator, and slowly the local political establishment – ruled in Southwark by John O’Grady and his hand-picked ‘mafia’ of loyal Bermondsey councillors – began to listen to the siren songs of the speculators whose seductive promises of high rate income, ‘planning gain’, and glamorous architectural gigantisme, led them inexorably into alliances with those very crude forces of get-rich-quick capitalist enterprise which the Labour Party was instituted to abhor.

It was at this point that ‘the people of Bermondsey’ rebelled. For the first time local people spoke out and organised in defence of their community’s survival. No longer were they the docile Cockney sparrows that Mellish had so effectively patronised. They formed groups opposed to speculative office development which were both powerfully rooted in local community feeling and increasingly sophisticated in their methods of opposition. Much of that opposition came from what are known in Bermondsey as ‘outsiders’. Some of these were newcomers in the ordinary way. Others were community workers working side by side with or subordinate to indigenous working-class activists – the old university-settlement habits of enlightened patronage ceding to a radically different collaborative ethos – people like Bob Colenutt, co-author of The Property Machine, an exposé of the speculators’ game drawing partly on evidence from North Southwark where he worked in a community planning centre until its grant was cut by a council no longer prepared to go on funding a thorn in its side. Nothing is resented more bitterly amongst the traditionalist old guard of Bermondsey than the fact that the new oppositionists were ‘outsiders’ and even in some cases actually ‘middle-class’. This mattered far more than the fact that they were left-wing. But the strength and effectiveness of the new opposition owed everything to its rootedness in working-class experience and to the working-class representatives who emerged as its leaders. Men like Ted Bowman, who recruited me on the doorstep – a local print worker who emerged as a vocal figure in the planning ‘battles’ (a term he deploys with relish) of the Seventies along the North Southwark riverside. Ted and others like him galvanised opposition to the now embattled old guard. The interaction between the Bowmans and the Colenutts is a fascinating human as well as political and cultural study.

The final phase in the Bermondsey story was the gradual recognition on the part of the community activists that ‘changing the council’ was a necessary prerequisite for achieving the desired changes in planning and community development. The frail, moribund structure of the local party crumbled like cheese as people simply joined – or, since most were already members, took the business of attending seriously – and gradually councillors were replaced by new ones more alert to the changed conditions and aspirations of local people. It is undoubtedly true that amongst these new oppositionists in the Labour Party were ‘middle-class outsiders’ like myself, but they were never in a majority, although their bureaucratic skills meant that they tended to occupy a disproportionate number of secretarial posts. Together with a growing use of the media, at which they were often equally skilled, this shot some of them into disproportionate prominence. Its also worth making the point that the ‘middle-class’ involved here were of a very particular kind. They tended to be – I am a throughly typical example – children of working-class or lower-middle-class parents educated (as a result of their parents’ electoral support for greater educational opportunity) at grammar school and redbrick university, and, while living a middle-class life-style, not as estranged from working-class experience as the traditional Labour Party patrician intelligentsia have been. In spite of defensive gibes directed at the cultural preferences of their middle-class comrades, many of the working-class activists prefer to work alongside them rather than with the grumbling and bitter right-wing old guard whom they have fought for so many years.

No account of the recent history of the Labour Party in Bermondsey could be considered complete without a reference to its controversial prospective Parliamentary candidate, Peter Tatchell. The extraordinary renunciation of Tatchell by Michael Foot on the floor of the House of Commons last November was one of the most striking episodes in the recent progress of the Labour Party. Foot’s late laying down of arms in the War of Tatchell’s Candidacy – he has indicated that if another reselection process is undergone and Tatchell is once again selected, then he will withdraw his objections – has been interpreted by some as a sign of Foot’s lack of resolution as Party Leader. But in Bermondsey and elsewhere it was regarded as an honest recognition that his position on Tatchell had become untenable, and we are only too pleased to bury the hatchet.

Peter’s advocacy of ‘extra-Parliamentary action’ has been the ostensible reason for his disfavour with the Labour leadership. Others, however, believe it to have been the need to appease Bob Mellish, who was threatening to resign and cause an unwelcome by-election in Bermondsey at a time when Shirley Williams, riding on the crest of the SDP’s initial wave of popularity, was waiting to surf victoriously through Bermondsey confident of Mellish’s good will (‘I love that woman,’ he has been quoted as saying) and of the amenable Catholic-Irish vote. It has never been made clear what Tatchell’s ‘extra-Parliamentary’ activity means in terms of hard political reality. It has been the focus of much semantic debate and angry polemic, but continues to elude satisfactory definition. My own view – and I have discussed the point with Peter many times – is that it is a description of the entirely legitimate animation of popular protest through peaceful demonstration and lobbying – extending, supplementing, nourishing the work in Parliament – and is not conceived of as a challenge to the constitutional legitimacy of Parliament as the ultimate arbiter of power. As one of Peter Tatchell’s political colleagues, I certainly do not subscribe to that ‘anti-Parliamentary’ view, however much I might regret Parliament’s failure to bring about a more equitable distribution of power and wealth in this country.

Peter is an energetic, likeable young man with a fondness for rhetoric that has very nearly been his undoing. He is attracted to the currently influential ideas on the Left about creating a mass campaigning party and wants Labour to cast its net far wider into local communities. His prodigious enthusiasm and drive demonstrate his practical commitment to that ideal. In recent months he claims to have spoken to 2,500 people on the doorsteps of Bermondsey, canvassing signatures for a petition against the closure of a local general hospital. He has great faith in the power of the spontaneous protests of the defenceless: indeed, his ‘extra-Parliamentary’ activity has far more to do with Gandhian civil disobedience and pacific protest than with insurrection. He believes that MPs should accept no more than the wage of a skilled worker and that an alternative non-nuclear defence policy can be created out of ‘citizens’ armies’ organising passive resistance. If there is a touch of naiveté in some of this, it is a refreshing change from the callous realpolitik that has tended to predominate in many of Labour’s ‘rotten boroughs’, where support for Labour has been ebbing steadily away.

Interestingly, Tatchell has had his critics on the left, who accuse him of isolationism in his ‘people’s plan for Bermondsey’ and a coolness towards the ultra-left Trotskyite sects. A member of the microscopic Militant cell in Bermondsey recently accused him of being ‘a traitor to the working class’. His uncomprom ising support for Solidarity and condemnation of ‘the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe’ has not been well received in some quarters either. There are already signs that some of his more careless rhetorical formulations have been dried out, and with the support of his more sober comrades. Tatchell, who is certainly, as Michael Foot conceded to a Beaconsfield voter, ‘a bright spark’, will finish by making his mark on both the intra – and extra-Parliamentary activity of the Labour Party. As I write. Bob Mellish Is reported to have resigned from the Party, The coming by-election will be bitterly fought, with Mellish sure to back an independent populist challenger to Tatchell. The outcome of that bloody skirmish will have repercussions far wider than in Bermondsey itself.