In 1983, Peter Tatchell stood as the democratically selected Labour Party candidate for the London seat of Bermondsey. The seat had been a safe Labour seat for decades with the Party usually taking some 60% of the vote. But the fact that Tatchell was gay led to the most extraordinarily homophobic campaign by the media, Liberal Party supporters and members and MPs from the Labour Party. So when the seat was won by Liberal candidate Simon Hughes, it merely increased the Labour Party’s discomfort with LGBT rights.
It had already been an absolute nightmare for Tatchell so the future did not bode well for other queer Labour candidates. And it was under those circumstances that, four days after the Bermondsey by-election, Nottingham Labour Party realised that they too had selected such a candidate! Even worse, it quickly became obvious that this one wasn’t going to be ‘playing it straight’ for anyone.
Richard McCance was one of a number of Labour Party members asked to stand as a candidate in the local council elections simply so that the Party could field a full slate of candidates. No one ever thought he would win – especially when he refused to hide his sexuality.
Richard recently recounted his experience in the book Late Outbursts: LGBTQ Memoirs (Global Words Press). He has very kindly consented to my publishing the following extract here:
“…1983, and the forthcoming Nottingham City Council elections.
I was a member of the Labour Campaign for Gay Rights and had been invited to speak at the Forest Fields branch of the Labour Party, having had three years political activity under my belt in the city.
I had always been very critical of favoured prospective parliamentary candidates being parachuted in to places where they had no connection, but this was a bit different, it was only a local election The elections were on the horizon and potential candidates, including myself, were being interviewed.
I was questioned thoroughly on my political credentials and made it very clear that my sexual orientation was a central part of who I was and would not be surrendered under any circumstances. This seemed to go down well enough. I was invited back two weeks later, with several other short-listed candidates, and was later informed that I had been chosen as one of the two preferred choices of the branch.
”You’re in, but don’t worry, its unlikely you’ll get elected. We just need to make sure we put up a good fight in all the wards”, the agent said.
So it was settled, the branch now had two Labour candidates up for election, one of them an openly gay man.
My first Branch meeting as a candidate was four days after Peter Tatchell, the Labour Party candidate, had been defeated at the Bermondsey by-election. He was subsequently subjected to one of the most vicious, homophobic election campaigns ever. Some supporters who put up posters of Tatchell found their windows smashed, and he was attacked in the street.
This hate campaign was, in part, orchestrated by the retiring labour MP and other disaffected Labour Party members , enthusiastically aided and abetted by the Tory Party and Liberal Party, and an article in the Daily Mail, conveniently outed Tatchell prior to polling day. (The Labour Party persuaded Tatchell to keep quiet about his sexual orientation, although he had previously declared himself out as a gay man through his campaigning with the Gay Liberation Front).
Though no one directly referred to the Bermondsey result, some of my erstwhile left-wing supporters started to backtrack citing ‘objective’ reasons why it was not the right time to be coming out gay all over the ward.
By now we seemed to be overtaken by events. At a hastily-called second Branch meeting, it was confirmed that both seats in Forest Ward were potentially winnable and soon enough we returned to the thorny subject of what to put in the leaflets. The pressure on me was now ratcheted up . Having been forced into a prolonged debate defending my right to be open and positively gay, I was now accused of time wasting and being a ‘wrecker’, about to split the branch, and cost them a seat, if I didn’t hide my gayness.
Some said that the real issues were those of the working ‘man’ – women didn’t seem to come into it, apparently. ‘We have to be realistic’ they opined, ‘if you say you are gay on this leaflet it will lose us votes, its better to be expedient’. Others adopted a no-nonsense, Stalinist approach, as if reciting a catechism of invisible tracts. Then that ageing dinosaur Public Opinion was wheeled out for an airing. Although the argument had been won in the branch, voters at large – it was said – were not yet ready to cope with a candidate who was openly gay. I disagreed.
Meanwhile a flurry of activity was taking place in one corner of the room as a resolution was hastily being cobbled together by several of my ‘supporters’ to the effect that I shouldn’t be allowed to mention my partner on any publicity we put out.
I again made it clear that either they accept me as I was, or they must select someone else. I wasn’t about to airbrush Chris, my partner, out of my life. The vote was taken and by a slender majority I was given a mandate to be open and positive. My agent promptly resigned.
Later that evening I was treated to several hectoring phone calls from branch members, accusing me selfishness and splitting the branch and undoing years of good work. The next few days were difficult for everyone, as we searched for a workable compromise that would re-enlist our agent, whose skills we needed,whilst maintaining my integrity. Those who supported me were unequivocal about it, though they knew we might lose one or both of the seats. To some, I must have seemed like a car crash waiting to happen. But I was firm: I’d been out far too long to be pushed back into the closet, regardless of the reason.
By now the reality was dawning on the Branch. The time to choose another path had evaporated under the cloud of their own ambivalence. There was no time to select another candidate. They were stuck with me, whether they liked it or not.
I never realised that the word ‘love’ could cause such a furore, but then I remembered the words of Gore Vidal loud and clear: ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ had apparently become ‘the love that didn’t know when to shut up!’ A major problem was how to describe, in a non-oppressive way, the man I lived with. The Thesaurus wasn’t much help – consort, companion, friend, spouse, boyfriend, cohabitee. I finally settled for partner, which had connotations of the Skaters Waltz for me, because after all, it was a delicate dance we were doing, and in the public eye, we were doing it together And it was in this spirit of compromise that my ex-agent agreed to return to the campaign. We were now focused with more laser-like precision on the task at hand. How to convince the voters that I was a good bet, regardless of my sexuality.
Over the next couple of weeks we put out several leaflets, which included my personal ‘confession’. From the outset I was clear, my home address would go on the leaflet, as was the custom. Now good old fashioned paranoia set in, as I began to worry about what might happen. I lived two miles outside the ward, unlike my hapless agent and his family. I wondered what they were thinking and expecting. We held our breath and waited.
On our third canvass some returns indicated that voting might be split; several people made it clear that there was no way they would vote for a homosexual. However, there were encouraging signs as well. Several nameless callers wished me luck. There was a phone message from an anonymous supporter, thanking me for ‘standing up for us all’. There was a short article in a local paper which had me ‘admitting’ I was gay, but then accurately quoting from my personal statement.
An eve-of-poll leaflet, produced by one of the other parties spurred us on to have the last word. At six am on a cold and wet election morning twenty branch members and supporters leafleted the ward just before voting began. The evidence that the Forest Fields seats were now distinctly winnable, increased activity dramatically. Did we all work that bit harder, because in the Ward we were fielding one candidate who, in some peoples eyes, was likely to be an electoral liability?
My partner, Chris, a long-time Labour Party activist, and I attended the ‘count’, which was going to be close and by implication, exciting. As the votes came in it soon became clear that our vote was holding up, and that many of the voters had temporarily severed their party allegiances by voting for me.
Some were clearly votes from known Tories, and Labour voters were also defecting to Liberal Democrats whilst others came over to Labour. Overall, the Labour Council lost five seats that night, but gained two in Forest Fields, myself and the other candidate giving the Labour Group on the Council a majority of one.
Reactions to my win were varied. Friends sat up to listen to the result; one of them cried when she heard it. Another rang me twice with congratulations – he couldn’t believe it. A lesbian mother phoned to say it was a victory for the gay movement and the beginning of the ‘takeover’ of City Hall.
All I had done was stand my ground,refusing to be intimidated and did what I believed was right: The message from the electorate was loud and clear: Some Tory and Lib Dem voters said they voted for me because I stood up to be counted and they respected that. And I was only two votes behind my running mate when the vote was finally counted*.
There were several important lessons, from this experience. Voting patterns indicated that I had some dyed-in-the-wool Tories who broke ranks and voted for me. Equally, some traditional Labour voters crossed over and voted for Independent candidates or the Liberal Party, rather than vote for the Tories. I refused to be intimidated and did what I believed to be right. It also probably indicated to them that I was not afraid of controversy and would represent them well on local issues, when required.
The campaign was remarkable for the low level of expressed and expected homophobia, Whilst individual prejudices may have been strong, there was no anti-gay campaign to unite them – unlike the virulent queer bashing that went on in Bermondsey. There was no news in my being ‘out’ as opposed to being ‘found out’. I was also an unknown candidate, one of fifty-four others in a local election, and not yet generally perceived as a threat to the moral order of Nottingham. From the beginning, we journeyed on an uncertain and bumpy road. It was painful at times, but there were no villains in this tale except our own fear. We overcame that fear, and in a decade often renowned for its blatant hatred, we were victorious.”
*The election result was S.J. Taylor (Labour) 1554, Richard McCance (Labour) 1552, with the Tories and Liberals trailing behind, with a 39.1% turnout.
This extract is taken from The Skaters Waltz, by Richie McCance in Late Outbursts: LGBTQ Memoirs, ed. Victoria Oldham. 2014. Global Words Press, Nottingham, UK.