Oldham election result heading to court

As we reported last month, the election result in Oldham East and Saddleworth – where Labour’s Phil Woolas hung on by just 103 votes – has triggered complaints from the Liberal Democrat candidate, Elwyn Watkins, that Labour’s campaign broke the law.

The case is now heading to the courts. As the BBC reports,

In the last few days of the campaign, Labour put out a small newspaper which was predominantly an attack on their Liberal Democrat opponent, Elwyn Watkins.

Mr Watkins believes the leaflet falsely portrayed him as a politician courting votes from militant Muslims; not a group known to be particularly supportive of British democracy …

Still-undecided voters had the option to read the backpage which moved onto financial matters.

This reported Mr Watkins to be personal assistant to Saudi Arabian billionaire, Sheikh Abdullah Ali Alhamrani.

It helpfully pointed out: “Political donations from overseas are illegal. Even the Ashcroft money can’t match a Sheikh.”

It was not entirely clear what Sheikh Abdulah’s interest would have been in Oldham East and Saddleworth. But putting that to one side, the clear impression was that Middle East money was oiling the Lib Dem campaign.

Such an arrangement would have been illegal.

Presumably Labour has some evidence for these serious allegations. But I haven’t seen it and Mr Watkins denies being anything other than a full UK taxpayer …

In legal language, the Liberal Democrats are claiming that Labour breached Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act, 1983.

In ordinary language, the Liberal Democrats are claiming that Labour lied to the electorate.

The last time an Election Court ordered the rerun of a Parliamentary election was in Winchester in 1997. But that was due to a technicality. The last time there was a rerun due to corruption was in 1911 in Ireland. So this will be a difficult case for the Lib Dems to win.

You can read the full report here.

A more recent successful prosecution action under Section 106 was in the case of then Labour councillor Miranda Grell, who was convicted of smearing one of her Liberal Democrat opponents during the London local elections of 2006. She was fined and banned from public office.

Although it’s a rare form of legal action, it is an easier one to secure a prosecution result under than the charge of ‘undue influence’, which has sometimes been tried in the past. A successful prosecution under those grounds in these sorts of circumstances requires proof that people’s votes were swayed by untrue information.

To succeed with a Section 106 prosecution over the acts of a candidate or an agent, it is the fact of false statements that has to be proved (subject to a defence that someone may have sincerely believed a statement they made was true) without the additional requirement of showing that specific individuals were influenced by them.

Note: piece edited to make clear that whilst one of the legal actions related to Section 106 was a prosecution the other is an election petition.

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15 Comments

  • David Boothroyd 6th Jun '10 - 8:14pm

    This isn’t a prosecution, it’s an election petition – quite different. And you will find that a “clear impression” is not a “factual statement”. Look for example at Elwyn Watkins’ own website and you will see that he intends to focus on supposed statement that he (Watkins) did not live in the constituency. No such statement was ever made; it was simply pointed out that he declared his intention to move to a ‘Lancashire village’ but ended up moving to Delph which is in historic Yorkshire.

  • Andrew Suffield 6th Jun '10 - 8:55pm

    The fact that it’s been a long time since one of these cases happened should have no impact on how hard it is to win – that’s not how justice works. Some really shoddy journalism there.

  • @Andrew – Er… elsewhere people are touting the fact that if the case is successful it will set an important contemporary precedent which will make similar cases easier to put in the future. It cannot both be the case that recent cases make prosecutions easier and that they have no effect on how easy prosecutions are.

  • I am old enough to remember the Littleborough and Saddleworth byelection, where Woolas was defeated by Chris Davies. The Labour campaign was noted for its total abandonment of political honesty and scruple. Mandelson (who was running the campaign) portrayed Woolas as “familiy disciplinarian” who believed in traditional values, and denounced the Liberal Democrats for being soft on drugs and wanting to tax the rich. It would certainly be lovely to see the repulsive Woolas nobbled, but I have to be careful not to say anything that might prejudice any trial that he and/or his agent might one day face.

  • Andrew Suffield 7th Jun '10 - 7:24am

    Er… elsewhere people are touting the fact that if the case is successful it will set an important contemporary precedent which will make similar cases easier to put in the future. It cannot both be the case that recent cases make prosecutions easier and that they have no effect on how easy prosecutions are.

    A precedent under a vaguely modern court makes it easier to argue a case because it establishes (some of) the parameters for what needs to be proved before the court. Without one, all the parties involved (including the court itself) have a lot more work to do.

    That should not affect the outcome of the case, only how long it takes and how much it costs.

  • Steven Acres 7th Jun '10 - 8:42am

    In response to David Boothroyd’s contribution.

    I’m sorry, David (or should that be Sam), but you are wrong in evry statement you have made. This WILL be a prosecution; it IS illegal to give a clear impression and then claim innocence because you didn’t give it as a factual statement; the claim that Mr Watkins didn’t live in the constituency WAS made; many other claims were made that are just as wrong and just as criminal.

    To Sesenco. Please say what you like about the repulsive Woolas. It won’t prejudice the case as it isn’t to be held in front of a jury.

  • David Boothroyd 7th Jun '10 - 11:34am

    No it won’t Steven, it’s a petition, not a prosecution. It says so on Elwyn Watkins’ own press release (or are you accusing Elwyn Watkins of lying?) And where is this claim that Watkins did not live in the constituency – because it is nowhere in any Labour leaflet?

    But despite the fact that it’s a petition and not a prosecution, Watkins will still have to prove to the criminal standard that there were false statements of fact made. A “clear impression” is not a statement of fact. Note that in the Tower Hamlets case (R v Rowe ex parte Mainwaring) a manifestly false and fraudulent impression was given but the application of s. 106 to the leaflet was not pursued in court.

  • David Boothroyd,

    I suggest you take the trouble to read the law report in the Tower Hamlets case – [1992] 4 All ER 821, [1992] 1 WLR 1059.

    The judge made it clear that all the statements about Labour Party policy were true.

  • Steven Acres 7th Jun '10 - 12:19pm

    That doesn’t change the fact that it is a prosecution. That’s why it won’t be a re-run election if it comes to it. If that happens Woolas will have been barred from public office. So this case does not turn on the fact that anybody’s opinion may have been changed by rhis literature. It will be based on whether Wollas and his agent said things that are untrue.

    Are you saying that Labour didn’t claim that Watkins didn’t live in the constituency as that wouldn’t have been true? Really, David, is that what you are claiming? It would have been a lie to have said so and therefore Labour didn’t?

    Along with other untruths that were covered in the Labour literature this will be fairly simple to disprove. The burden of proof then falls on Woolas to show that he had reasonable grounds for believing the filth that he spewed. That’s the bit we should all look forward to.

    In law you can’t dress up statements as a series of so-called questions and then claim that they weren’t statements. If you’re in any doubt about that then ask Miranda Grell.

  • David Boothroyd 7th Jun '10 - 12:21pm

    I have read it, and I have read the despicable leaflet in question. I have even looked up the case papers in the National Archives. There is no question that the statements were absolutely untrue as statements of Labour Party policy. And one of the judges made it clear that, while ruling the leaflet was not a ‘fraudulent device’ within the meaning of the Act, that did not mean that the conduct of the Liberal Democrats involved was not reprehensible.

  • Darren Reynolds 7th Jun '10 - 8:36pm

    I believe this is the relevant bit of legislation, below. It seems to me that the allegation is the commission of an offence in relation to which an investigation by the police and a prosecution by the CPS would take place.

    106. False statements as to candidates. — (1) A person who, or any director of any body or association corporate which—
    (a) before or during an election,
    (b) for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election,
    makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true.

    http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/content.aspx?LegType=All&searchEnacted=0&extentMatchOnly=0&confersPower=0&blanketAmendment=0&sortAlpha=0&PageNumber=0&NavFrom=0&parentActiveTextDocId=2353631&ActiveTextDocId=2353631&filesize=10192

  • I think if the court rules the election should be re-run, the record for number of LibDems volunteering in a by-election would be smashed. To have the chance of the kicking out the odious Mr Woolas would be too good to miss!

  • Steven Acres 11th Jun '10 - 8:33pm

    Totally agree with Jim except for a couple of factual points.

    Firstly, it would not be a re-run of the election. If the petition is successful it will result in Woolas being barred from public office, hence the need for a by-election for his replacement.

  • Steven Acres 11th Jun '10 - 8:50pm
  • Kevin Peters 30th Jun '10 - 12:07am

    It is hard to see how Woolas could mount a credible defence in this case. All avenues appear to be cut off to him. The judicary can be caprious. The Daily Mirror put out an edition during the Oldham East Saddleworth byelection which found to be in breach of election law, but not in the public interest to pursue.

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