Was the “loony left” right?

by Eliot Henderson

While researching the Southwark and Lambeth Labour parties of the 1970s and 1980s, I was struck by the importance of that generation of activists’ contribution to British political history. Dismissed as the ‘loony left’ by the media at the time, today the political priorities of those activists are firmly entrenched as mainstream vote winners: equal rights and representation for women, ethnic minorities, young people and the LGBT community. My findings illuminate how much public attitudes have changed in the last thirty years thanks to the interventions of those activists in the 1970s and 1980s, and help to challenge the assumption that the Labour party needs to warmly embrace neo-liberalism and pander to the popular press to win elections.

The new urban left that emerged in Lambeth and Southwark in the 1970s were political graduates of the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s: CND members, anti-apartheid activists, feminists, Vietnam war protesters and racial equality campaigners. Events in Southwark and Lambeth in the 1980s highlight the beginning of a process that could hold the key to a Labour majority in 2015: the combination of Labour’s traditional politics of class with one of race, gender and sexuality – an old and a new politics of identity – to construct a new, inclusive political base for the party.

In Lambeth, this new urban left coordinated a vibrant local and national opposition to a Conservative cuts agenda under the leadership of the controversial but charismatic council leader, Ted Knight. Policies targeting inequality, poverty, racism and sexism through investment and positive discrimination united the large immigrant communities in the centre of the borough with the predominantly white working-class north, along with some sections of more affluent Norwood and Dulwich to the south. With no support from the Labour party leadership and the intense scrutiny of an antagonistic press to deal with, the rate-capping struggle of the 1980s was a rough and ready affair for the Lambeth left. One council meeting in July 1985 even had to be adjourned for 20 minutes after Conservative councillor “Dicky” Bird put Labour councillor Terry Rich in a headlock. Yet despite the overwhelmingly negative publicity, Lambeth residents nonetheless voted to increase the number of Labour councillors from 32 to 40 in the local elections of 1986, proving that a manifesto based on concepts like social justice, investment in deprived areas and positive action to end discrimination and redress inequality could unite voters in a diverse constituency.

Likewise, in Southwark in the late 1970s, the dynamism of the new urban left transformed the local party, which had grown lifeless in the hands of the so-called ‘Bermondsey Mafia’. The Labour MP for Bermondsey between 1950 and 1982 was Bob Mellish, a former dock worker and trade unionist. Mellish had been Labour Chief Whip between 1969 and 1976 and was firmly on the ‘traditional’, working-class right-wing of the party, governing the constituency like a personal fiefdom, with the help of John O’Grady, who led Southwark Council between 1968 and 1982. Allegations of corruption were widespread, particularly in the allocation of council houses and land earmarked for development, and it was under Mellish and O’Grady’s stewardship that Elephant & Castle was graced with its shopping centre, underpasses and traffic. By the early 1980s, Mellish had lost support both in the constituency Labour party and the wider Bermondsey electorate. Left-wing candidates, led by Peter Tatchell, were elected into key positions and council seats, bringing with them a fresh approach to grass-roots community activism.

Incensed by the growing influence of Tatchell and the new urban left, Mellish resigned his seat in November 1982, triggering a by-election to be held early in 1983. Tatchell was selected as the Labour candidate, and the traditional wing of the local party splintered off, establishing the ‘Real Bermondsey Labour’ party with John O’Grady as their candidate. The abuse that Tatchell sustained at the hands of the popular press and his political opponents was astonishing. The Sun led the charge, with a stream of homophobic articles referencing Tatchell’s sexuality and his work campaigning for LGBT rights. Towards the end of the campaign the Sun ran an article which argued that ‘the official Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell, is a boy dressed in the fashionable clothes of a boy – yet trying to present himself to local voters as a man’. SDP Liberal Alliance campaigners wore lapel stickers emblazoned with the words ‘I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell’, and the SDP Liberal Alliance leaflet Focus referred to Simon Hughes as ‘a straight choice’. Somewhat bizarrely, O’Grady took to singing homophobic ditties from the back of a horse and trap as part of his campaign.

Tatchell was not defeated in the byelection because his political priorities were unpopular. In fact, despite the hostility that he faced, Tatchell outpolled O’Grady, the candidate representing continuity, by more than three votes to one, while the eventual winner, Simon Hughes, bore a surprising resemblance Tatchell, both personally and politically. As a young, single barrister, he too broke the mould of the ‘traditional’ Bermondsey politician, and was a strong advocate of socially progressive, inclusive grass-roots community activism. In an interesting twist, Hughes came out as bi-sexual after the Sun threatened to ‘out’ him in 2006. More interesting still is Tatchell’s claim that Mellish, his old adversary, approached him with repeated and sincere sexual propositions.

At last week’s PMQs, the image of an entirely male, white, middle-aged, predominantly public school educated government front bench highlighted a significant problem for the Conservatives: they simply do not represent modern Britain. It is a problem that, until it is addressed, may well prevent them from forming a majority government. Perhaps, on reflection, they wish that they had paid a little more attention to the ‘loony left’ after all.

Eliot Henderson studied modern British political history and is currently completing a graduate law degree. He lives in Lambeth.

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10 Responses to “Was the “loony left” right?”

  1. swatantra says:

    The ‘Loony Left’ never really went away, even with the abolition of the Feudal System’s Fiefdoms and Rotten Boroughs, and Universal Emancipation. It would be interesting to do some further studies on why people vote the way they do, even when it is not in their best interests.

  2. John Reid says:

    I recal that the term Loony left only came about in 1986′ the Tatchell Bermondsey campaign wasn’t so much a case of the SDP latching on to Tatchells links to the peadophile information exchange, or liberty, and the one comment that the Liberals, not the SDP had as Simon Hughes as a straight choice, was something he didn’t like, but it was more due to Tatchells support for Trotsykite entryist, or communist control, regarding some of the thing a we now take for granted, like the End of Apartied and the Tory press, slamming the left of Labpur for this,it was also the centre left kinnockites, giatskellites and the atory press slamming labour over this, was something that the centre of the lap arty know cuased bad headlines but were prepared to do it,
    There are those who supported Livingstone welcoming the Leaders of the IRA with open arms, who feel there work was done as it brought the,to the negotiating table, but as the UDA were never invited, and not with open arms, what has that got to do with talks, the real reason the IRA decommissioned was they knew that had to compromise, gay rights agian were latched on to by the Tory press as portraying labour as more interested in minority groups that the working class, and yes they have been proved right,

    Regarding those who were Trots, hard left, Be notes or whatever, from Straw, John Reid Blunkett,Boateng Harman to Blair they’d all like to have forgotten what they stood for, but it went too far the other way, having things like 90 day detention,that even the police federation,don’t want, but Ian Blair did,or illegal wars, due to criticising the Falklands,
    The real phrase loony left was used in 1986 post the miners strike after the SWP trying to infultrate Wapping with marbles to trip up police horses, trying to drag Kelvin Mckensie form his car,and having a pigs head on a pole to symbolising decapitiating a cop,

    The Toires had a lie of a story saying that Harringey council had suspended a kid for singing bah Bah black sheep,but there was a party election broadcast from 1987 saying that the chair of Sheffiled Labour Party had said the IRA blowing up the Brighton hotel, was a justified act of self defence, that Diane abbot had said “all white people are racist”, Bernie grants often quoted view on the Tottenham riot “the police got a bloody good hiding” and Ken Livingstone view I’d scrap the army if I could,

    After that 1987 broadcast the Tories went from being 2% ahead in the opinion polls to being 12% ahead a week later! just in time for the 87 election, Bernie Grant for one had a 10% swing against him! yet Paul Boateng down the road didn’t have a swing when Labour did just the same in London at the 1987 election as we did in the 1983 one,

    Shriley Williams said in her autobiography ,that the public feltthe Labour Party were more an extremist organisation in 87 than 83′ and Recall Livignstone and Sharon Atkins in 1987 said labour had lost as it wasn’t left wing enough, and Benn said the same in 1983,

    Regarding the 1986 council Results, we all know that governments are unpopular midway, all Labour ones have bar the 87-2001 one, Peter Mandleson organised a great campaign in 1986′ but come the general election labour were in the doldrums again, people vote at local level on national issues, and Woolwich and Greenwich, a year later with the SDP’s John Cartwright, and Rosie Barnes were swept too power.

  3. Madasafish says:

    ” image of an entirely male, white, middle-aged, predominantly public school educated government front bench highlighted a significant problem for the Conservatives:”

    And the Labour and LibDem leaders are?

    White, male, millionaires. educated at Oxford or Cambridge…

  4. John P Reid says:

    Nada sawfish, Miliband and Clegg weren’t privately educated, and most labour leaders went to Oxbridge, they do earn a good wage for the work they’ve done,

    I forgot to pint out. That the reason labour did well in 1986 council level, despite the so called loony left, was there were people who still vote labour no matter what recalling our good record of the 40’s and60’s, infact there’s a larger core labour vote than Tory

  5. Les Abbey says:

    The Labour MP for Bermondsey between 1950 and 1982 was Bob Mellish, a former dock worker and trade unionist. Mellish had been Labour Chief Whip between 1969 and 1976 and was firmly on the ‘traditional’, working-class right-wing of the party…

    And we exchanged these right-wing Labour working class MPs for what? Middle-class Oxbridge New Labour clones. I think I preferred the likes of Mellish.

  6. Ralph Baldwin says:

    The reality is Labour no longer has any idea whatsoever what Left, Right and Loony Left even are anymore which is brilliant. They not only have no narrative at all they lost whatever understanding they once had of what is real and what is fantasy – their attack lines are laughable, their photo-PR crap is lamentable and they are completely dead as a Party 🙂

    More importantly it could not happen to a more deserving bunch of tossers.

  7. John Reid says:

    I always felt that it was best to stay in the Labour Party and fight ones corner, when the other side were losing us votes, or gaining them, if people wish to leave Labour and be personally offensive, that’s up to them but I find it odd that there are those who get control of the party ,lose the party millions of votes be it the left in 83, or the right in 2010′ then when the opposite wing of the party takes over, due to those electoral losses, and tries yo change the party to swing it to the middle ground,
    There are those who now see the party not being the one that they liked when ‘their wing’ was running it so result to insults about the party dying, the irony is it was when they had their go in 1983 or 2010 , they were the ones who cost the party millions of votes

  8. swatantra says:

    I agree with John; stick with the Party through bad times as well as the good. There are some people for example like Clare Short who suddenly decide after 30 long years that the Party is not for them and they go Independent; 30 years after they’ve accrued all the benefits and comradeship that the Party has given on them. It really doies make me sick; my view is that they were never Labour in the first place, but fellow travellers and carpet baggers. There are quite a few of them around, some in the Lords now that continually stab Labour in the back. We should have seen them coming and booted them out long ago.

  9. John Reid says:

    Some people do leave and want to see the party die, for not being what they’d wanted it too be,To its core vote who’d stuck by, over the wilderness years the things that we did in the first term were popularism, the minimum wage, hereditary peers, the London assembly welsh Scottish Northern Irish parliaments ,Macpheron report,and fighting off those who wanted us to seing to the left on trade union laws, a such we own a second landslide on a much smaller turnout, after the second term there was feeling from some we’d swing towards the left, David Blunkett was known for his left wing views when he was on Sheffield council and many were hoping he’d continue the work started by Jack straw on police reform ,but he turned out to be the most reactionary Home Secretary ever,

    Yet the 2005 election was sayng that Iraq over shadowed the second term can we have another so we get it right his time and 2010 was saying the same but over the leadership struggle so, we begged for. A forth term, yet now we may have seen 8 or so right wingers leave such as Dan Hodges, but we’ve hardly won back many who left over Iraq or whatever,

  10. Ex-Labour says:

    @John P Reid.

    Eh ?…..Clegg not privately eductated ?? Caldicot and Westmister School – both private and then Cambridge.

    Miliband wasnt privately educated due to his father moving around as a professor. However he did gain entry to Oxford on what can be considered “adequate” qualifications. I wonder how he got in ?

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