Allowing Woolas’ behaviour is not “vital to our democracy”

Phil Woolas has vowed to fight on to keep his parliamentary seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth, following the ruling on Friday that voids his General Election victory and bans him from standing as an MP for three years.

He no right of appeal against the judges’ decision, but wants to take it to judicial review, though on what grounds isn’t clear.

Mr Woolas would like us to think that the judgement is not only wrong but fundamentally damaging to political discourse – that it will allow politicians to get away with all sorts whilst their opponents cower, unwilling to risk a court case from challenging them.

That didn’t happen after the last case in 1911 and there’s no reason to think it will happen now.

Mr Woolas, in a statement issued via his solicitor, said

Those who stand for election can participate in the democratic process must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching, scrutiny and inquiry.

They must accept that their political character and conduct will be attacked.

It is vital to our democracy that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear that they may be found in breach of election laws.

Let’s look at the bar that has to be cleared for someone to be found guilty under this legislation.

  • To fall under this law, a statement must be about the personal conduct or character of a candidate – it excludes attacks on a party or on purely public conduct (for example, the candidate’s political views or actions).
  • It’s not enough to show the statements were false.  It must also be shown that the respondent (Woolas in this case) knew them to be false at the time they were made.
  • Although this is a civil case, the burden falls on the  Petitioner (in this instance, Elwyn Watkins) to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.  Proving to that level that Woolas knew his claims to be false at the time they were made was no easy matter.

Woolas’ argument would appear to be that making attacks on the personal character or conduct of your opponent which are not only untrue but which you know to be untrue is all part of acceptable political campaigning, and there’s nothing wrong with winning an election on that basis; indeed that it’s “vital to our democracy“. that someone is able to win an election in that way.

Certainly some of Mr Woolas’ opponents believe these sorts of tactics have been vital to his success not just in 2010 but  in at least one previous election too.

The full and summary judgements can be read here.

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20 Comments

  • “It must also be shown that the respondent (Woolas in this case) knew them to be false at the time they were made”

    To be pedantic (but an important point) it’s having a reasonable belief, and believing that the statement was true is a defence (and why I thought this would be a difficult case to win).

    That would for example allow good faith reliance on a story printed in a reputable newspaper*. This is an important distinction with libel where belief in the truth of what you are saying is required – hence relying on uncorroborated newspaper stories in election campaigns is always fraught with danger.

  • We all know that Woolas was one of the most obnoxious New Labour cretins to serve in the last authoritarian government – please dont waste tine pontificating over the judgement – just get to Oldham and give the Labour party the rollicking they really do reserve – this is going to be massive for us – they will need experienced canvassers – door to door will be the key not shoving a million leaflets through each letter box. £150 million per day interest – thanks to Woolas and his cronies – lets go for it.

  • If you read the full judgement, the files have been sent to the public prosecutor. More charges to follow?

  • Has anyone yet established definitely whether Woolas can go for “Judicial Review” in this case? Somebody on the other thread said that JR is specifically of public administrative decisions rather than court decisions? Surely right of appeal would be the way to go, eg to High Court or perhaps the Court of Appeal? He personally made a big thing about JR, but he was probably in a state and not thinking clearly.

  • I certainly hope that the CPS looks at this although I also fear that many more (less plausible) cases will be brought in future. I would prefer an independant body to be responsible for bringing the case rather than rely on the (generally) losing candidate. Mind you I would also expect the body to be allowed to recall those who are elected on blatant falsehoods.

    I would not expect a reversal of the result in a by election. It’s hard to fight a campaign on honesty if most of your MP’s ar about to break a key election pledge within 6 months of polling day.

    In 1992 a Tory candidate seeing I was a member of the forces told me a vote for Labour would be voting myself out of a job. 6 months after the election the Tories announced my branch would be cut by half, I survived the cut but vowed never to vote Tory again. I did vote Labour in ’97 and 2001, and Lib Dem in 2005 and 2010. The blatant betrayal over tuition fees means that I will probably not vote Lib dem again for some time, and I am not alone.

    To be honest I am even changing my mind over AV. As a previous pationate advocate of PR I have now experienced coalition government and do not like the odea of having more.

    In short Woolas should be charged and this should send a message to all candidates but I wouldn’t expect a new LD MP as a result.

  • David – I just hope our campaign doesn’t bang on about inherited debt etc etc – frankly we will play into Tory hands that way. And – labour will be watching every statement for its veracity, frankly.

  • Patrick Smith 6th Nov '10 - 1:45pm

    Labour have withdrawn membership to Mr Woolas and the £400K legal costs in the name of Mr Woolas are paid by their Election insurance.

    Surely in this case not only has Mr Woolas maligned the Liberal Democrats and Mr Watkins in the Oldam Estate and Saddleworth Constituency but he has maligned irrevocably his standing in the Labour Party?

    The decision by the unique in history High Court Judges Electoral Court hearing was that Mr Woolas had made false statements and leaflet representations,intended to prevent a fair Election being held on May 6th 2010.

  • @Niklas Smith
    The lies of Lib Dem Ministers…..

    1. Campaigning on a plan to half the deficit over the parliament and then becoming converts to the Tory policy within minutes.
    2. VAT…
    3. Cheering Osbournes ideological cuts in the commons.
    4. Vince Cables emails being so full of spin.
    5. Signing up to personal pledges then breaking them, shamelessly falling back on the argument that things have got worse (incorrect argument if the figures are examined).

    In short the Lib Dems would probably be the make weight in Government more times then not under either AV or PR and they have shown us the type of service we can expect.

    You can expect the Tories to be Tories, I suppose I just expected the left leaning, progressive party I voted for to be left leaning and progressive. They have also by their vitriol and their dealings with Labour post May probably made any future coalition with them improbable. Meaning we get stuck with the Tories.

    I could go on….

  • Tony Dawson 6th Nov '10 - 8:36pm

    “some of Mr Woolas’ opponents believe these sorts of tactics have been vital to his success not just in 2010 but in at least one previous election too.”

    We need to separate here Woolas’ illegal practices (which were more clear-cut in 2005 than in 2010 though without the disgraceful religious/racial overtones) from the results in the various elections.

    Oldham Labour Party’s tactics have been pretty evil for decades but ‘evil’ does not always mean illegal. There were, however, clear illegal practices, one of which was referred to in Elwyn watkins’ evidence in the court case. Had Woolas been brought before a court in the summer of 2005, the judicial verdict should have been the same on a roughly-similar number of counts. That is very different from saying that we would necessarily have been victorious in the General Election had Woolas removed the illegal part of his armory alone. One of his non-illegal attack lines was based upon a clever twisting of a sarcastic blog-posting which I had made in Southport in my own name. He had other audacious tricks which varied from ‘sharp’ to ‘vile but were not unlawful. My agent also broke his leg on the opening day of the campaign and spent it all in hospital.

    in 1997, Chris Davies was defeated by Tony Blair, not by Phil Woolas. Labour were nasty, as they had been in the by-election but Chris did not have enough time to develop his incumbency after the by-election against the ‘Blair wave’ to hold his majority. Too many people forget the by-election was in Littleborough and Saddleworth, not Oldham East and Saddleworth where Chris fought the General Eelction months later. Having been the agent in all four wards concerned, I can assure you the swapping the hills of Littleborough and Wardle for the estates of Holt and Alt and the terraces of Glodwick was a massive handicap.

    Howard Sykes would have been elected MP in 2001 and still been MP today had it not been for the totally-unpredictable escalation of small-scale events into the Oldham riots in the spring of that year. Howard’s support in the Saddleworth area was also not as strong as he deserved.

    When I took over as candidate in 2003, the Lib Dems in both constituency and Oldham borough were almost in electoral free-fall. Nobody within the constituency considered General Election victory in a single campaign to be the remotest possibility and the Party did not treat it as a target seat. We managed to turn things around in local government terms using the sparsest resources and were moving forward. I was, however, pleasantly-surprised, in the circumstances, to be told by our team that I had gained the highest Lib Dem vote share ever in Saddleworth. This contributed to a small rise in the overall Lib Dem vote while Phil Woolas was benefiting from the collapse of the BNP vote back to Labour in East Oldham. It would be ludicrous to say with any confidence that stopping Woolas’ illegal practices alone in 2005 could have turned around the 3000 majority Labour had in OES that year. An autumn by-election, however, would have been more than interesting. As I hope this one will be!

  • Just another thought on this thread. Whilst I think he is guilty as a puppy next to a steaming pile of smelly stuff, why is there no right of appeal ?

    If there were it could be held fairly quickly and avoid the perhaps elongated process of a judicial review. Also as a matter of fairness I would prefer there to be a right of appeal in any legal proceedings of this import.

    In the absence of this standard legal process the Speaker has a very difficult job..

  • This case will bring http://www.electionleaflets.org to the fore. You can see all Woolas’s election leaflets, on the site.

    I have to confess, I was quite critical of, what was then ‘Straight Chose’, because I saw its name as anti Lib Dem and the blog as partisan; however as ‘Election Leaflets’ there is no comment and an obvious neutral name. I believe the site will be a force for clean politics as leaflet writers of all parties will think twice before going negative.

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