Monday, 13 September 2010

A (rather half-hearted) defence of Phil Woolas

The rather unpleasant former immigration minister, Phil Woolas is currently up in front of the beak (or more accurately an election court consisting of two high court judges encamped in Saddleworth Civic Hall) because of his election campaign – a campaign that resulted in a majority for Mr Woolas of just 103. In general terms the allegations relate to how the challenging Liberal Democrat candidate, Elwyn Watkins, was described in Labour literature. The BBC report the gist of the allegations (presented by the prosecuting QC) as follows:

"Mr Woolas's team had made an overt and, some may say, shocking decision to set out to 'make the white folk angry' by depicting an alleged campaign by those who they described generically as Asians to 'take Phil out' and then present Mr Watkins as in league with them. This was intended to galvanise the white Sun vote against him"

And this campaign involved:

“…using doctored photographs, misrepresenting facts, stooping even to fomenting racial divisions and tensions.”

In one respect this campaign is wholly reprehensible – the literature produced by Mr Woolas was deeply unpleasant and portrayed the area as deeply divided, under threat from ‘extremists’ and (by pretty blunt implication) that the Liberal Democrats were in some form of cahoots with these groups. To be honest, I shudder to imagine the outrage from Labour had this literature been produced by a Conservative candidate – and I wonder just how the party (which must have known) tolerated such an approach.

The action is being brought under section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 which states that:

It is a criminal offence to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of an election candidate. The purpose of making or publishing this false statement must be seen to be to affect how many votes the candidate will get.

It seems to me that Mr Watkins will need to demonstrate that the campaign conducted by Mr Woolas actually affected the outcome. And bear in mind that (I assume) the Liberal Democrats will have used the somewhat anti-Asian tone of the literature to gain support from that section of the local electorate.

Whatever the outcome, it seems to me that the most commonly shown piece of literature is not sufficient to make this case – and however nasty it may be, I see no reason why Mr Woolas should be banned from making such as statement. What amazes me it how the Labour Party dares to speak about racism so long as this man is one of their MPs.

It may be that material I have not seen – real misrepresentation of the character or actions of Elwyn Watkins (and I’m not sure that the issue of support for arms sales to Palestine is good enough) – will come to light during the next few days (and this might be a start). But so far what we have is literature that shows Mr Woolas to be a nasty bigot. And as far as I can tell, there are no rules against electing nasty bigots. Indeed, if Mr Woolas campaigned to ‘stop the extremists’ (in a manner that might be seen as racist) that cannot be seen as an assault on the character of the Liberal Democrat candidate – indeed it says rather more about Mr Woolas’s character!

Even the more detailed revelations in the Telegraph show Mr Woolas’s campaign team to be exploiting the racial divide (and by inference associating Mr Watkins with Moslems) as well as making some slightly questionable claims about his income and election spending – although anyone familiar with claims about bankrolled candidates will be struck by Lib Dem hypocrisy on this given what they said about the Conservative candidate and campaign in nearby Pendle.

However much it pains me to say this, I do not think that Mr Woolas’s campaign breached election law (although I would be delighted to be proved wrong). More importantly, I see that the action undermines free speech and the ability of candidates to criticise their opponents – however lurid that criticism might be. Labour ran a nasty, underhand, personal and racist campaign – and won. Perhaps that tells us more about the Oldham public than about election law?

I do think, however, that the labour Party might like to consider expelling Phil Woolas!



Honest Jo Fitznumpty said...

The document you linked to is not even mentioned in Watkins' petition against Woolas. This is available on the Oldham MBC website, and linked to through wikipedia.

My favourite one is where Woolas comes up with a figure of £200000 for the LibDem campaign. And then because Watkins didn't declare £200000 in donations, accused him of accepting bribes, smuggling money into the country, laundering it and illegally using it to fund his campaign.

That comment suggests to me that legal action might be justified.

There are plenty more instances like these in the relevant documents. Try wikipedia and the straight choice, and pick out your own, special favourite smear.

Ps Watkins really spent 28000 in the long and short campaigns combined. So goodness knows where Fill Woolarse and Honest Joe Fitzgobshite got their figures from.

Anonymous said...

HJF is quite right. The leaflet featured in the link above is not part of the case.

The other thing you have slightly wrong is that that is no need under this law to show that these leaflets affected the result, merely that they were intended to do so. Or rather that they were deliberately aimed at persuading people not to vote for Watlins by attacking his character. Whether or not they did is irrelevant.