Tatchell’s Testament

Anne Sofer

  • The Battle for Bermondsey by Peter Tatchell
    Heretic Books, 170 pp, £7.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 946097 11 9

On the front cover of The Battle for Bermondsey there is a photograph of Peter Tatchell as, I imagine, he would like to be seen: a steady innocent gaze, a determined tilt to the chin, a youthful crusading air. He looks fragile but brave. In the background, slightly out of focus, is an older comrade looking decidedly askance, not to say horrified. Before we have read so much as a word of this publication by Heretic Books, both images are there. Which one is the heretic?

Tatchell’s own voice, as he tells his story, is like the photograph. It rings clear and true, if somewhat monotonously: a single high chime, as it were – sincere, pure, plaintive and (surprisingly) very nostalgic. The nostalgia is for a golden age of Bermondsey socialism which Tatchell himself, of course, never knew, but which he discovered as part of the local folk memory when he moved there in 1978. These were the great days of the Twenties and Thirties when Dr Alfred Salter, conscientious objector and fierce fighter for the relief of poverty, was Bermondsey’s MP, and his wife Ada was its mayor. Under their leadership the Labour Party in Bermondsey did all the things that Peter Tatchell clearly feels a true socialist party should do: as well as building houses, parks, swimming-baths and health centres, it flew the red flag over the Town Hall, refused to hold a civic reception for the Silver Jubilee, and, during the General Strike, barricaded Bermondsey off, creating a ‘no-go’ area for the Police and Army. ‘For nine days, the working class administered all of Bermondsey.’ It was under workers’ control!

It is clearly a stirring history and it is easy to see its appeal for the young Australian left-wing idealist. Alienated from his own country, both because of his homosexuality (then illegal in Australia) and because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, and arriving in London at the age of 19 ‘with a single suitcase’, he led a somewhat transient existence, catching up with his education in various parts of London, before coming to rest in a ‘hard-to-let’ flat on the Rockingham Estate. Although he doesn’t say so in as many words, the Salters seem to have been the heroes he was searching for, and restoring what he saw (rather romantically) to be their vision of Bermondsey became the task to which he gave all his fervent energy. His book is dedicated to their memory, and one of the passages that will stay with me is the description of how, a few days after the by-election, he went to Southwark Park ‘to pay homage at the Tree of Heaven dedicated to Ada Salter in memory of her devotion to the socialist cause and the working-class people of Bermondsey’. His spirits, he says, ‘were uplifted’.

Although my sympathy with him is similar to what one feels for the hero of Equus, I have been predisposed to like Peter Tatchell ever since his courageous runner-up’s speech on the night of the by-election, and that predisposition has survived reading his book. (I am aware, of course, that he would be unlikely to reciprocate the feeling were we ever to meet: indeed I doubt if we could fall into easy conversation. His views on members of the Labour Party who have left to join the SDP are severe.) But I am even more sure than I was that as an MP he would have been a disaster. His vision of human nature is utterly two-dimensional and black-and-white, and his political opinions are dogmatically prescriptive – with an arrogance that only the wholly immature or innocent ever dare show.

His world is full of goodies and baddies. The goodies spend all their time in the ‘forefront of community struggles’: the baddies have their power base among the ‘right-wing Catholic dockers’ and are intent on ‘selling the local community down the river’. They are a ‘handful of right-wingers’ who ‘ruthlessly manipulate the rules’, ‘turn their backs on socialist principles’ and operate a ‘politically corrupt regime’. Such monsters colluded with the treacherous governments of Wilson and Callaghan and their ‘attacks on the living standard of working-class people’. Most of these descriptions are generalised and ritualistic, though there is some more detailed comment on Bob Mellish’s business connections from which he certainly does not emerge smelling of roses. Bob Mellish apparently denies it all – but is too fed up with it to sue.

All such enemies are, of course, in the Labour Party. Those outside are apparently only playing bit-parts in the story, and this includes the victor of the by-election, Simon Hughes, who makes his one-line appearance on page 148. ‘Simon Hughes is an average Liberal candidate with all the political deficiencies this implies.’ For most of Tatchell’s anticipated audience his will appear adequate coverage. The fact that Simon Hughes went on to win the General Election equally convincingly is used as an argument for the wrong-headedness of the local party in subsequently ditching Tatchell, rather than as a possible indication that there might be in Hughes, or the Liberal Party, or the Alliance, something Bermondsey voters liked.

The political platform on which Tatchell sought selection as the Labour candidate is a fairly standard Far Left check-list, and he reels it off as such: ‘withdrawal from the EEC and Nato, troops out of Ireland, extended public ownership under workers’ control, a 35-hour week and £80 national minimum wage, opposition to nuclear power, abolition of the House of Lords ... unilateral disarmament ...’ There seems to be no flicker of recognition that some of these items are even now not part of Labour’s programme, and that most of them leave the majority of the electorate feeling distinctly uncomfortable. He nowhere comes near to acknowledging that his view of society and the working class is by no means that of the people of Bermondsey. How, for instance, would he fit into his scheme of things the fact that Bermondsey council tenants made a bee-line for the low-cost ‘homes for sale’ being offered by the hated capitalist London Docklands Development Corporation; or that a number of tenants’ associations have actually opened direct negotiations with this boycotted body, in default of a response from the new left-wing socialist council?

But it is the issue of ‘extra-Parliamentary activity’ cited by Michael Foot at the time of his original repudiation of Tatchell’s candidature which is of particular interest to the political theorist. (At the time I subscribed to the theory that Foot, old dodderer that he was, had made a mistake – he thought they were talking about Tariq Ali: I now think, having read this book, that he knew perfectly well what he was talking about.) Tatchell returns again and again to the theme and, in justifying the London Labour Briefing article which started the row, makes it even more clear that he sets a limit to the ‘legitimacy’ of Parliament.

The argument constantly shifts ground. At one moment Tatchell is protesting that marches, strikes, pickets and demos have always been a part of the Labour movement’s activities, and surely no socialist is against them (a fair point, though whether or not all these activities win over the uncommitted voter is another issue). At the next moment he is arguing that Parliament’s procedures – its hours and modes of working – are in drastic need of reform (an even fairer point, and I would go much further than him in this respect). But then, with the appearance of continuing the same line of reasonable argument, he talks of challenging the Conservative Government’s ‘right to rule’, of refusing a ‘legislative carte blanche’ to any government that pursues ‘odious and draconian policies’. The dividing line between ‘opposing’ in every way within the law, and ‘defying the law’ in order to ‘restore the civil and human rights which Parliament has usurped from the citizens it governs’, is either misunderstood (a charitable interpretation) or massaged out of existence.

In all of this, Peter Tatchell’s views are no different from those of dozens of other Labour Parliamentary candidates, and (by now) hundreds of local councillors. Hence Michael Foot’s difficulty in singling out Tatchell. They are views which are enshrined in Labour’s policy by the passage of a resolution at the 1981 Labour Party Conference endorsing Labour councillors’ actions in defying Conservative legislation. ‘Why should the workers obey Tory law?’ thundered Ted Knight to enthusiastic applause. Ever since, Gerald Kaufman, as Environment Spokesman, has been trying to forget it.

The other important contribution the book makes is in describing, from the point of view of the victim, the experience of excessive press harassment. Told with a palpable, and at times justifiably shrill, sense of injury, it is indeed an unsavoury story. Not all the blame for what Peter Tatchell went through, however, lies at Fleet Street’s door. The journalists merely lit the touchpaper of a sulphurous explosion of traditional working-class attitudes towards homosexuality, untouched apparently by the permissive age (the graffiti about Tatchell were already up on Bermondsey walls before the press starting sniffing out what was going on). There are forces at work here which run deeper and darker than libertarians commonly admit.

But The Battle for Bermondsey describes more than Peter Tatchell’s personal martyrdom, more than the state of the press: it is also a snapshot of the Labour Party at a moment in history, and in this respect, it is (unintentionally, perhaps) devastating. It is all there: the Militant thugs (who have since taken over the Constituency Party) sullenly disloyal, Foot havering and shifting about in squirming embarrassment, Kinnock brutally callous, and the party bureaucrats with the heaviest and most obstructionist hand, misinterpreting the rules to their advantage at every turn. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to buy the book for laughs, but I did really fall about when it came to the passage describing how, when five party officials came down to read the Riot Act to the Bermondsey Party, and wanted to retire in order to consider whether or not to allow local party observers to attend, they all (including one woman) had to squeeze into the tiny gents’ lavatory of the party rooms because the media were encamped outside. ‘Oh, dear, what can the matter be ...’

Maybe the atmosphere would have been lightened if everybody present had burst into the obvious comic refrain? But no. It has all been, and will continue to be, a miserable business. To make sure of that, Tony Benn has written a pompous and pretentious preface: ‘This book, in my considered judgment, is one of the most important political documents to have been published about the Labour Party since the war ...’ Well, I doubt whether it is that, much though I enjoyed it. But note: it is about the Labour Party, not about Mrs Thatcher, or the people of Bermondsey, or the state of British politics, or the press, or the ‘anti-Imperialist struggle’, or any of those wider issues. The connoisseur of Labour Party affairs will read and enjoy it: others will probably not bother.