At the opening of the case against Phil Woolas, I posted what I called a half-hearted defence of this rather unpleasant politician.
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?
Now it seems the judges in this case saw matters differently concluding that Mr Woolas did breach election law in the manner of his campaign conduct. Having referred to specific content in election literature they concluded that:
"The consequence of our finding that the respondent is guilty of an illegal practice with regard to the statements we have referred to is that, pursuant to section 159(1) of the Act (the Representation of the People Act 1983), his election as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth is void and we have so reported to the Speaker of the House of Commons. We are satisfied that the statutory penalties for the illegal practices committed by the respondent are both necessary and proportionate, having regard to the seriousness of the statements made with regard to the petitioner's alleged attitude to the Muslim extremists who advocated violence."
To remind us what this conclusion means, the case was brought under Section 106 of the Act which says 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.
So not only did Mr Woolas make false statements about his opponent but these statements had a material effect on the votes received by the candidates concerned. Which I suppose is inevitable – a piece of election literature that doesn’t have an impact is clearly pointless!
However I remain a little concerned about the implications this has for the conduct of election campaigns. The campaign in Oldham East & Saddleworth was particularly bloody (although not uniquely so) leading to those running one campaign stepping past the boundaries of conduct defined in the laws government election conduct. And with a very close result, it is probably fair to say that the character assassination of the Liberal Democrat candidate was, in all likelihood, material to the actual result.
Having read the literature to which the judges refer, it is very clear that agents for Mr Woolas made up stories about his opponent with the express intention of affecting the opinion of those reading the literature. Or I hope that this is the reason for the decision – if not we will face an avalanche of challenges in close contests involving the forensic examination of each piece of literature. I also fear – as we’ve seen in some elections in Bradford – unattributed literature attacking one or other candidate becoming more common. In the Phil Woolas case the literature is unquestionably produced by him as the Labour candidate. Watch now as “unconnected” front organisations begin to pop up with scurrilous literature attacking candidates.
The real lesson in all this is for political parties to police their campaigns better. Not to vet every piece of literature but to get clear guidance down as to what you should or should not say and to be prepared to sack candidates (and I mean candidates not candidate’s agents) who do not comply.
Finally, let’s not just be partisan about this – dancing on Phil Woolas’ political grave. All the main parties know – as we always said in the days when I was a paid agent when discussing election management – “there but for the grace of God go I”. There are campaigns conducted at every election that step beyond the moral boundaries of electioneering, if not necessarily the legal boundaries.