It is hard to think of a series of more cliched jobs for a Labour politician Phil Woolas could have had before becoming an MP. They cover the usual bases of student politics (President of the NUS), media work (a producer for Newsnight and ITN) and working for a trade union (Head of Communications for the GMB Union), which he did before entering Parliament in 1997.
His rise through the Parliamentary Labour Party was swift and straightforward. Two years after entering Parliament he was made a PPS, and then became a whip in 2001. After serving as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (2003-5), and a Minister for both Local Government (2005-7) and the Environment (2007-8) Woolas was made Minister for Immigration in Gordon Brown’s reshuffle on 3rd October, 2008.
All this was smooth progress. Woolas was earmarked as a rising star of the Labour Party long before the Daily Mirror dubbed him with that cliche in April this year. He learned the art of political campaigning from Peter Mandelson himself (more on that later) and the job at Immigration was presumably seen as a stepping stone to something greater in the party.
Yet less than two years after being made Minister for Immigration, and less than seven months after being called a rising star by the Daily Mirror, Woolas’s political career is in tatters. He has been ejected from Parliament, barred from standing in any election for three years, and might not even have a future in the Labour Party.
It is a mark of just how, for want of a better way of putting it, eventful Woolas’s time at immigration was that few people are shedding tears at his demise. Quite the opposite, in fact. Good riddance, says the most popular left-wing blog. Toxic, says another. Enemies of reason, in one of my favourite blogs on Woolas’s career at immigration, calls him “the man who tried to make New Labour into a Daily Mail wet dream”.
So what did he actually do as Minister for Immigration?
1) Woolas erroneously said that unemployment was caused by immigration:
Phil Woolas told the Times immigration became an “extremely thorny” subject if people were losing their jobs.
“It’s been too easy to get into this country in the past and it’s going to get harder,” he said.
2) He referred to an “immigration industry” where:
NGOs and migration lawyers Woolas says, “by giving false hope and by undermining the legal system [they] actually cause more harm than they do good.” Where that leaves the 200 people who turned out to support the Kachepa family, for example, as they were dragged from their home by Home Office officials, or the communities across the country working to prevent friend and neighbours from being deported, Woolas doesn’t say. Maybe he’d suggest these misguided souls just aren’t reading the right newspapers although I think you’d struggle to paint the residents of Glasgow’s Kingsway estate as Guardianistas.
3) Most disgustingly of all, he called Conservative governments soft on immigration for letting in Ugandan Asians who were persecuted by Idi Amin. From the David Aaronovitch article linked to in Chicken Yoghurt:
Mr Woolas: “It’s assumed that Labour is soft on immigration. In actual fact the largest influxes of migrants into this country came during Conservative periods of government – if you look at the 1950s and early 1960s and indeed the situation with Eastern Africa.”
“The situation with Eastern Africa”? He means the time when the Kenyan and Ugandan Asians were expelled, and arrived in a Britain for which they had passports, where they were called “Paki”, and where they became some of the most successful and dynamic citizens this nation has possessed. And this is used by a Labour minister, a Labour minister, to attack past Conservative governments for softness on immigration! I wanted to throw up.
4) Authorised the use of force to deport the young, vulnerable and mentally ill. See this story broken recently by Liberal Conspiracy:
When in government, Woolas authorised security guards employed by private contractors Serco and G4S to use “physical control in care (PCC)” techniques to remove people resisting deportation.
Not only did that include mothers with mental health problems, but children under the age of 18.
More recently, these “physical control in care” techniques led to the death of Jimmy Mubenga on 14th October 2010.
Phil Woolas was not connected to the Mubenga incident, but the same company, G4S, was instructed under his watch.
5) Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned his stance on the Gurkhas.
Getting the white vote angry
It became clear during the election campaign this year that Woolas’s seat was under threat from Elwyn Watkins’s Lib Dem campaign. Oldham East and Saddleworth was one of the key Labour/Lib Dem marginals in 2005, but in that election Woolas increased his majority. Ironically, there were disputes over whether the Lib Dem candidate, Tony Dawson, had doctored photos in that campaign. At the time there were also doubts over whether Dawson lived in the constituency as he claimed, and that he had made some sweary posts on internet message boards, but I can’t find a link to an article about them now. Suffice to say that, especially with the Lib Dem surge in the polls, Woolas’s notional majority of 3500 was looking rather shakey indeed.
His campaign team realised that as well:
An email by Woolas’s election agent, Joseph Fitzpatrick, to the candidate declared: “We need . . . to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out . . . If we don’t get the white vote angry, he’s gone.” Another from Fitzpatrick to Steve Green, the MP’s campaign adviser, said: “We need to go strong on the militant Muslim (sic) angle” and proposed the headline “Militant Muslims (sic) target Woolas.”
This has disturbing parallels with the by-election Woolas fought for the seat in 1995, when it was known as Littleborough and Saddleworth. This is what Peter Mandelson had to say about the affair in The Third Man:
After the campaign was over, not only our opponents but some in Labour would denounce our “negative” tactics in highlighting Lib Dem front-runner Chris Davies’s support for higher taxes and a Royal Commission to liberalise drugs laws. [He was portrayed by Labour as being “high on crime and soft on drugs” – Cory] For tactical reasons, I felt we had had little choice. Labour was starting from third place, and especailly in a by-election, the bulk of Tory tactical voting was always going to flow to the Lib Dems. If we were to win, we would have to make that option as distasteful as possible. In the end, it didn’t work – or not quite enough. Davies won and Phil Woolas came second, though by a margin of only 2,000 votes. Our share of the vote was up by 15 per cent, while the Tories were down by more than 20 per cent. When Phil spoke at our almost victory party, he singled me out for thanks, memorably proclaiming, “Peter may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”.
It’s no wonder then that Woolas shows no remorse in his statement, and indeed seems to be trying to appeal against the decision (which, as I understand it, is impossible). He has no qualms with playing the race card to such divisive effect in a town like Oldham, where there were race riots less than a decade ago. Just in case it isn’t clear now: Phil Woolas is a moral vacuum.
The campaign literature that Woolas’s campaign put out in Oldham East and Saddleworth certainly tried to make voting Lib Dem as distasteful as possible in May. Please just look at it, and then try and say this is all just part of the rough and tumble of normal political campaigning. This one is perhaps the worst, and most well known, but the others are hideous too:
Woolas won by only 103 votes, so it’s a virtual certainty that these lies about Watkins influenced the outcome of the election.
Labour may want to try and paint Woolas as their “fall guy”, and it’s certainly not just Woolas who is trying to out-right the right, but spreading deliberate lies about a political opponent that you knew to be untrue is something else entirely. As this blog is long enough, I just want to explain via a diagram how bad Woolas’s actions were, and by how far he had crossed the line:
One of the reasons I detest New Labour is their pandering to the racism and distortion of some of our tabloid media. Too cowardly to try and make a difficult, principled argument, they strove for power for power’s sake, rather than bothering to achieve anything worth achieving. Phil Woolas is the ultimate example of this. He is one of the main reasons I felt I could not give my vote to Labour in May, and the fact that Ed Miliband gave him a shadow ministerial portfolio before his expulsion from Parliament gives me great misgivings about his leadership too.
Remember, remember the fifth of November. I certainly will remember this November 5th for a long time to come.
A quick shout out to Nick Thornsby, who’s blogging on the Woolas case has been consistently superb and informative. Thank you.