Tag Archives: nich starling

The Phil Woolas judgement: Arthur Balfour was right

The election offence for which Phil Woolas’s election was overturned is, deliberately and rightly, drawn narrowly and precisely (a point Nich Starling made very robustly on his blog and which Iain has also made on Lib Dem Voice).

The law gives very broad scope to contentious and aggressive claims, partly because – as Arthur Balfour succinctly put it when pushed to expand the law in 1905, “It is evidently not easy to go further, if only because of the difficulty of distinguishing between the mis-statements which are due to malice and those which are due to mere stupidity.”

The offence was introduced in 1895 with, until then, the only offence under election law regarding false statements about candidates being if you falsely claimed that someone had pulled out as a candidate.

It is worth considering what, however, would be the position if even this narrow legal offence did not exist. Imagine case, say, of a candidate campaigning to oust a Labour MP and making false claims about the Labour MP being a supporter of terrorism. The Labour MP loses, sues for libel and wins. During the court case it is revealed that the victorious candidate always knew the claims being made about the now ex-MP were false but even so deliberately decided to include them in leaflets distributed during the election.

Without the sort of offence for which Phil Woolas was found guilty the victorious candidate might have to pay up in libel damages but could continue as an MP. (Eagle-eyed readers will have noted by this point that there are some important difference between the Representation of the People Act 1983 and libel law, but they don’t affect this example.) They would be able to continue speaking and voting in Parliament, drawing a Parliamentary salary, accruing a Parliamentary pension and so on for the next few years. Would that be a satisfactory outcome?

Your answer to that determines whether or not the principle of provisions like those in the Representation of the People Act 1983 is right. I think it is – we should give very broad scope to the public getting to determine who wins and loses in elections, but that is not the same as saying that anything goes.

Those who argue otherwise are wrong and, in fairness to Labour, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of the online coverage from Labour bloggers has been to condemn what Phil Woolas did. I also had the experience of listening to Harriet Harman on the radio at the weekend and agreeing with her. She is right that what we know Phil Woolas did has no place in politics even if he manages a successful legal appeal. What puzzles me, however, is that very little new came out during the case. There have been some interesting details – such as the forged diary, the evidence of the Labour Party agent being called “not reliable” by the judges and the complaint about a cat. At heart, however, what we now know Phil Woolas did is what we always knew he did, which makes Ed Miliband’s decision to appoint him not merely a Shadow Minister but one for immigration, all the odder. Hopefully, however, that will soon become no more than a curious political footnote.

As for political campaigning more generally, I don’t think the ruling will have a major impact – nor should it, because the law should only be for exceptional cases. Leafing through the advice I’ve co-authored for candidates on what you should or should not say in political literature (which was quoted in the court case and described by Phil Woolas as “naive”!), there does not look to be anything that needs changing based on this case. In that, there’s nothing new – for when the original provision was brought in by the 1895 act, the Liberal Party’s then election manual, Woodings, was updated to mention this new offence. It rightly noted it but did not make a song and dance about it for it was rightly considered then, as has been the case, to be a provision that only covers unusual and extreme cases. As the Judge put it in the 1911 case which hinged on this offence:

The primary protection of this statute was the protection of the constituency against acts which would be fatal to freedom of election. There would be no true freedom of election, no real expression of the opinion of the constituency, if votes were given in consequence of the dissemination of a false statement as to the personal character of conduct of a candidate.

The law has been in place for 115 years. That Phil Woolas is one of only a very small number to fall foul of it shows not that the law is too broad but that his behaviour was so awful.

Credit, by the way, to the judges for their understanding of how easy it is to find coverage of election candidates online – para 123 of the ruling shows a familiarity with the internet that counters some of the stereotypes about an out of touch judiciary.

Phil Woolas election – full legal judgement

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged , , and | 7 Comments

Daily View 2×2: 17 May 2010 (with bonus ‘Prophet Steel’ video)

Happy Monday morning, everyone, and welcome to the first full week of Lib Dem / Conservative coalition government. Let’s get down to the news …

One Big Story

Lib Dem members give overwhelming thumbs-up to coalition government agreement

The Daily Telegraph has a fair-minded report proving that extraordinary things really can happen in the new politics (and in stark contrast to the snarkiness of the Grauniad):

… members voted “over-whelmingly” in support of the deal with no more than a dozen of the 2,000 delegates opposing the deal in a show of hands at the gathering in Birmingham. Speaking after the vote, Mr Clegg said: “It is a big step. There are lots of unknowns, there will be bumps and scrapes along the way”. He said the party’s special conference had taken a “very, very important decision” to approve the coalition “which is utterly new in modern British political history”. .. It is understood the while 100 members had quit the party since the deal was signed – a further 400 had joined.

The conference even earned plaudits from an unlikely source: ConservativeHome.com offered three cheers for the Lib Dems’ commitment to party democracy:

I take my hat off to the Liberal Democrats for the attempt to involve party members – the people who work so hard without expectation of office – in the decision to form a Coalition with the Conservatives. On a number of occasions Clegg met his MPs and party officers in a bid to hear their views and explain what he was doing. Today’s ratification of the deal will help bind the party into the fascinating Cameron-Clegg experiment. What a contrast with the Conservative Party where there has been next to no consultation of the party membership. Coming on top of Team Cameron’s various attempts to dilute Tory members’ role in membership selection it is all very disappointing.

Here’s how the BBC reported the day:

Posted in Daily View | Also tagged , , and | 7 Comments

Lib Dem gain in Taverham North, Broadland DC

Nich Starling and Taverham North winning team
Congratulations to Councillor Nich Starling (aka Norfolk Blogger) who gained a seat yesterday from the Tories on Broadland District Council.

The result, courtesy of ALDC:

Posted in Council by-elections | Also tagged , and | 5 Comments

Daily View 2×2: 8 February 2010

Happy Monday morning, everyone. Let’s plunge straight in …

2 Must-Read Blog Posts

What are other Liberal Democrat bloggers saying? Here’s are two posts that have caught the eye from the Liberal Democrat Blogs aggregator:

Posted in Daily View | Also tagged , , , , and | 17 Comments

Is this the laziest piece of political journalism ever?

Well, no, it’s probably not. But it must at least qualify for the laziest piece of journalism this decade. I refer to today’s Independent article, ‘Clegg faces party backlash over Tory alliance’, by Nigel Morris and Michael Savage. Oh, go on, then, here’s a link if you must; though I begrudge handing them the traffic. The opening para gives a flavour of the kite-flying, unsourced speculation:

Nick Clegg faces a backlash from grassroots Liberal Democrats if he moves his party too close to the Conservatives in a hung parliament.

Well, yes, he probably would. Which is why he won’t. Unless the …

Posted in News | Also tagged , , , , , , and | 9 Comments

Daily View: 14 December 2009

Mornin’ all, welcome to Monday, and to the beginning of the last full working week before Christmas. What other things happened on this day in history, you ask? Well, 54 years ago, Hugh Gaitskell was elected leader of the Labour party, succeeding Clement Attlee, and six years ago Saddam Hussein was captured. But enough of the past, and on to the present …

2 Must-Read Blog-Posts

A couple of weeks ago, Iain Dale was casually dismissing the revelations that trustafarian Tory millionaire candidate Zac Goldsmith has been avoiding tax by registering for non-dom status: “lots of sanctimonious guff,” he told …

Posted in Daily View | Also tagged , , , and | 7 Comments

Where to get ideas for blogposts

Welcome to part three of our “Introduction to blogging” guide for Liberal Democrat bloggers or would-be bloggers. It’s appearing each Saturday between now and Christmas, with all the posts available via this page. The series will then be revised and collated into an e-book, so please do post up your comments as the series progresses. Today it’s the turn of Mark Thompson (the one with the blog rather than the one with TV empire) addressing one of the problems that befalls many would be bloggers: how do you keep on coming up with ideas for new posts?

Posted in Blogging guide | Also tagged , and | 6 Comments
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    Stephen - ask who and suspension from what? It's an independent website after all
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