Bermondsey and the Press

Fleet Street’s descent further into the gutters was clearly demonstrated by the campaign of vicious character assassination pursued in the run-up to the recent Bermondsey by-election. The power of the media to persecute those who do not fit in with its smug capitalist values is proof that the much-celebrated freedom of the British press is all too often a freedom for journalists to imitate the tactics of their colleagues in Moscow and Johannesburg in defaming with impunity the characters of their opponents.

Much as the press attack must be exposed and deprecated the Labour candidate in Bermondsey, for all his sincerity, was defeated because of his own political opportunism. It was only because he was a candidate for a party which traditionally wins votes from ideologically conservative, nationalistic workers that the press attack was successful. The press labelled Labour’s candidate as a homosexual; the old Labourite bigot, John O’Grady, went around the streets of Bermondsey singing a song accusing his Labour opponent of homosexuality; the Liberals, whose official policy is supposed to favour “gay rights”, also used the homosexual smear. But the Labour candidate, seeking votes from workers who detest sexual non-conformity, refused to stand up and affirm his homosexuality.

Similarly, the Labour candidate was attacked for being a “draft dodger” because he refused to fight in Vietnam. All socialists would seek publicity for their opposition to all war, and would make it clear that those who fight cannot call themselves socialists. But Labour, when in office, supported the war in Vietnam, just as it has given its support to many other bloody capitalist battles. The Labour candidate had to appeal to nationalistic Labour voters who are all in favour of flags and armies and wars. When that sickening enemy of the working class, Frank Chapple, President of the TUC, was asked on Any Questions why Labour lost Bermondsey he replied, “Well, I ask you, who’s going to vote for a gay draft dodger?” In short, the man at the top of the TUC and close to the top of the Labour Party, admits openly that Labour voters are too bigoted to vote for a man who is homosexual and too chauvinistic to vote for a man who refuses to kill Vietnamese workers.

The hacks of Fleet Street made much of the fact that the Labour candidate was not even English –  the ultimate crime. Ignorant people with nothing more sensible to say, were reported as running after the Labour candidate and telling him to “go back to Australia”. It is doubtful whether the same workers will be urging the Duke of Edinburgh to return to Greece. The Labour candidate for Bermondsey will not be the first aspirant political leader to fall victim to his own political opportunism.

Labour’s opponents in Bermondsey accused them of being communists and Marxists; and the Labour Party does not like that. The fact is that Labour has no more to do with Marxism or true communism than the Mafia has with fighting crime. Communism and socialism are, when properly defined, synonymous terms: they have identical meanings. The Labour candidate for Bermondsey was not unacquainted with the real party of Socialism (or communism), the Socialist Party of Great Britain. But, like his fifteen electoral opponents, he dismissed the aim of abolishing the wages system and creating a classless, propertyless, moneyless society as one not worth working for. Instead, he spent his time on the traditional path of capitalist reform—trying to gain a few more crumbs for the wage slaves of Bermondsey from the cake that they had baked. When the lie-makers of the press called Labour’s candidate a revolutionary he protested with all the horror of a radical vicar whose belief in god has been questioned. Any real socialist candidate in Bermondsey would have proclaimed to all the electors that he or she is a revolutionary—not in the anachronistic sense of building barricades in the street, but in the social sense of aiming to end capitalism and replace it with worldwide production for use.

Where there are leaders it will always be possible for the media to direct their viciousness against personalities rather than principles. That is why the Socialist Party enters elections as a political party, advocating a clearly stated object; our candidates are simply put up to satisfy the electoral laws of Britain—a vote for the Socialist Party is a vote for socialism, not for any particular socialist. If the media wants to talk to us they will have to discuss serious ideas. The Socialist Party, unlike all other political parties in Britain, does not make promises or ask for votes. Indeed, we alone urge workers not to vote for our candidate unless they are convinced socialists. Those who we have convinced will not be persuaded to desert the socialist cause by the puerile tactics of the capitalist-owned press. The greatest strength of the working class is the strength of ideas; once we are consciously organised the propagandists of capital can pervert the truth until their faces are as blue as their rosettes—the workers will treat them with the contempt they deserve. That is why socialists are so emphatic about the need for political education. A single worker who is conscious of the system which exploits him and understands the realisable alternative is better than fifty floating voters with floating minds.

In Bermondsey, an apparently solid Labour majority of 12,000 was reduced to a total vote of just over 7,000: the voter who lacks class consciousness can be manipulated by whichever trickster is the most cunning.

Steve Coleman