Probably wrong to call it a standard-bearer, but the yardstick by which all subsequent by-elections have been judged on the grounds of unpleasantness is undoubtedly the unedifying little rumpus that took place in South London way back in February 1983. A Labour seat held by the same sitting member since 1946 (whatever name the constituency went under), Bermondsey came to be regarded as a microcosm of the death of the post-war consensus in British politics when it was suddenly up for grabs via the resignation of Bob Mellish, whose disillusionment with the way his Party was going in the wake of the SDP defection and Labour’s capitulation to the hard-left embodied the familiar recurring crisis in Labour ranks when out of office. Labour nominated a leading light in what Fleet Street used to call ‘the Loony Left’ as its candidate, the openly gay Peter Tatchell, a man who had risen to local prominence as a militant member of the left-wing faction that had taken control of the constituency party; his main opponent in the contest was the Liberal Simon Hughes, a barrister parachuted in when the Liberals smelt blood in a seat that was hardly going to fall into Conservative hands.
The Bermondsey by-election may have marked the public debut of Screaming Lord Sutch and the Monster Raving Loony Party as a regular fixture of 80s political events, but it also highlighted prejudices indicative of the time that seem unimaginable in today’s climate. An undeniable strain of blatant homophobia permeated the promotional material of Tatchell’s opponents, including that of Simon Hughes. Leaflets bearing Tatchell’s home address and telephone number, along with graffiti and numerous reported derogatory remarks made by other candidates on the doorstep, all contributed to an unprecedented smear campaign. Whilst Tatchell’s association with Militant Tendency (the hardcore group of activists serving to make Labour unelectable in the eyes of the electorate) certainly worked against him, it’s impossible to avoid his previous connections to the Gay Liberation Front as not exactly endearing him to many of Bermondsey’s socially-conservative constituents. We may now live in a society in which the rainbow flag is more conspicuous than the Union Jack, but even in a period as relatively recent as the early 80s being gay was still largely regarded as subversive and suspect; and this was even before AIDS ramped up the tabloid paranoia.
In the end, Bermondsey experienced a staggering swing of 44.2% to the Liberals (who had yet to become Democrats) – a result that still stands as the largest swing in a British by-election…ever. Moreover, Simon Hughes also bucked the usual trend by remaining an MP for a seat won in a contentious by-election for the best part of three decades. Many years later, he and Tatchell were reunited on ‘Newsnight’ and, to his credit, Hughes personally apologised to his one-time Labour opponent for some of the dirty tricks used during that notorious campaign; and to his own credit Tatchell accepted the apology without a trace of rancour or bitterness. Both had come a long way since 1983. One would like to think society as a whole has also advanced in the intervening decades, though the Batley & Spen by-election of 2021 has perhaps shown we may well have gone backwards. Being gay is rightly no longer an impediment to being elected an MP, but other prejudices and fresh strains of bigotry have simply superseded the old ones.
With its large Muslim community, there has been considerable pandering by all interested parties to a demographic the Labour Party has long assumed with a degree of complacent arrogance will always lean to the left. Turning a shameful blind eye to the plight of the local teacher still in hiding from hardline Islamist bigots, everyone competing for the constituency instead sought to court the Muslim vote without once challenging the prevalent prejudices within it; what Labour MP Navendu Mishra called ‘dog-whistle racism’ was in full flow during the campaign as routine and deliberately divisive anti-Hindu and anti-Semitic sentiments reflected the Identity Politics agenda all political parties with a stake in the constituency decided to go with. Labour didn’t bank on one of its former sons exploiting dissatisfaction with the current leadership by storming into town and capitalising on the ugly climate with hackneyed pro-Palestine sloganeering, but George Galloway has a track record of this. His performance as Workers Party candidate resulted in him slashing the Labour vote, but also probably did as much damage to the Tories, who undoubtedly fancied their chances with national Labour support in freefall.
The far-right were also present on the hustings by all accounts; stories of Labour workers being pelted with eggs and physically assaulted were abundant throughout a campaign that has seemed as nasty as any since Bermondsey in 1983. Labour’s insistence on sticking to the Identitarian approach – patronising ethnic ‘victims’ and demonising ethnic groups to have transcended such limiting labels through no-nonsense hard work – appeared to pay off in the end, though it’s difficult to see how one can celebrate such a narrow victory when one’s main opponents enjoyed a record swing (for a governing party) of 2.9 and the winning party experienced its lowest-ever majority and lowest-ever percentage of the vote. Labour’s victor was Kim Leadbeater, a political novice whose connection to a tragedy that put the constituency on the map five years ago (she’s Jo Cox’s sister) must have figured as a selling point; but it still didn’t produce anything other than a stay of execution for both Keir Starmer and the Labour Party itself.
A majority of 323 was the slimmest of margins for Labour in Batley & Spen last night; Leadbeater’s tally of 13,296 votes gave her a hair’s breadth lead over the Tories at 12,973; Galloway was third with 8,264. Leadbeater could lay claim to 35% of the vote, which is the smallest share of the vote any victorious candidate in the constituency could boast since its creation in the somewhat, ah, ‘memorable’ year of 1983 – down from the 42.7 % Tracy Brabin won it by in 2019. In terms of votes cast, the new Mayor of West Yorkshire & Neverland managed 22,594 at the last General Election, and it’s due to Brabin’s appetite for superficial power that this by-election had to be fought in the first place – and at the worst possible time for Labour. Yes, Galloway’s intervention undeniably enabled Labour to scrape through by the skin of its teeth, but if the Tories hadn’t sat back in the hope the bolshie maverick’s efforts would do all the work for them in the wake of negative publicity courtesy of Matt Hancock, perhaps this ‘Red Wall’ seat would now be added to the long list in blue hands. But the truth is none of them would have been worthy winners, all having played their part in what has been yet one more nadir in recent British political history.
If Batley & Spen had fallen to the Conservative Party – or even the Workers Party – the accusations that could legitimately be levelled at Labour during the by-election campaign would be equally valid. Just as the Bermondsey by-election of 1983 exploited contemporary paranoia over gay issues and militancy on the far-left fringes of the Labour party, this by-election in oh-so sophisticated 2021 has seen similarly bigoted and divisive tactics applied. All played the Identitarian card in one way or another; all deserve condemnation for sinking to lowest common denominator politics. Rather than seeking to genuinely unite – too much like hard work? – all sought to capitalise on divisions already present by widening them just that little bit further. The only unifying element of this ghastly exercise in democracy was the communal pot all the participants pissed in.
© The Editor