On the 30th anniversary of the Bermondsey by-election there is justifiably much focus on two of the candidates – Simon Hughes, who won the seat for the Liberals and who has remained the MP ever since, and Peter Tatchell, the defeated Labour candidate who has since forged a highly effective career in equality campaigning (including his attempted arrest of Robert Mugabe).
Much of the comment about the by-election focuses on gay rights, an issue which has seen dramatic progress since. However there were other issues at stake in Bermondsey in 1983 and one of these seems to have progressed very little, or even gone into reverse.
At the time of the by-election Peter Tatchell was seen as a local candidate with first-hand experience of the local housing conditions. He lived in a council flat in the constituency. There were comments from some voters that they desperately wanted to move to better conditions and that they would not support a candidate who had failed to move on himself.
Aspiration still plays a major part in politics. People often approve of tax rises for those much richer than themselves, but are against increases for those a few notches higher up the income scale – they aspire to reach that income level themselves one day.
While candidates who have achieved no more than the local electorate tend not to appeal, those who have achieved too much wealth are equally distrusted. There are on-going negative comments about the number of millionaires in the cabinet. However, anyone reaching the cabinet will be earning £130,000 a year. They will usually have been an MP for a decade or more, earning £65,000 a year. To have become an MP in the first place they will have gone through a selection process within their own party (to be selected thay are likely to have an impressive CV) and then they will have won a seat. This filtering process almost guarantees that cabinet ministers will be quite wealthy and, with the value of London properties taken into account, it is not surprising that many (from all parties) will be millionaires.
The moral of this seems to be that successful candidates are increasingly drawn from the ranks of the fairly wealthy. Gone are the days when a miner or a top industrialist would be welcomed into Parliament. Once MPs were paid from 1911, the aim was to attract a wide range of candidates, regardless of wealth. However, these days, it seems that only the slightly above average are welcome.