On the whole, I’m heartened by Labour reactions to Phil Woolas’s expulsion from both Parliament and his Party. The reaction of the Parliamentary Labour Party has been an entirely different matter. This anger from Labour MPs depresses me more than I can say, but it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.
There are three other general types of reaction to the Woolas case that I think are worth addressing:
1) Politicians won’t be able to debate with each other properly
For instance, Edward Leigh, a Conservative MP, said:
What worries me about this is that, if this is allowed to stand, it will be virtually impossible for there to be really robust debate during elections.
People will be terrified of attacking their opponents.
This sort of comment displays a startling amount of ignorance about what Woolas said, and the ruling of the judges.
The judges ruled that Woolas told false statements about Elwyn Watkins’ character, and that he knew were untrue. They found that this was true beyond all reasonable doubt.
Compare this to the negative campaigning Woolas engaged in against Chris Davies in the by-election in 1995. They called him “high on tax and soft on drugs” because he supported higher taxes on the rich and the establishment of a Royal Commission to consider legalising drugs.
You might not like this sort of negative campaigning, but it’s not illegal. It’s a caricature of Davies’s position, for sure, but it’s not as if Davies didn’t hold those views.
In the judgement itself, the judges give three areas where Woolas knowingly lied about Watkins:
(i) The statement in the Examiner that the Respondent had attempted to woo the vote, that is, that he had attempted to seek the electoral support, of Muslims who advocated violence, in particular to the Respondent.
(ii) The statement in the Labour Rose that the Petitioner had refused to condemn extremists who advocated violence against the Respondent.
(iii) The statement in the election address that the Petitioner had reneged on his promise to live in the constituency.
Aside from the inflammatory nature of the leaflets, these were deliberately-told lies about Watkins. These lies and smears were so bad they were illegal. It won’t stop negative campaigning, or even politicians exaggerating or bending the truth about each other, but might (hopefully) stop deliberate smears.
2) Political Parties lie on manifestos
Steve McCabe is quoted in the Birmingham Mail as saying:
I wonder if this means votes on tuition fees will result in the courts ordering a string of by elections in Lib Dem marginals?
For a start, it’s incredibly hypocritical of Labour to get all high and mighty about opponents doing the opposite thing to what they said in their election manifestos. It was Labour who originally said that they would not introduce tuition fees, and then did so. By announcing that they would not campaign for AV on Friday, Andy Burnham has basically said that Labour won’t bother trying to campaign for one of their manifesto pledges.
Also, governments have to do lots of things that weren’t mentioned in their manifestos, because circumstances change. You won’t find anything about going to war with Iraq in the 2001 Labour manifesto, for instance.
There’s also nothing in the 1983 Act (that I can find, anyway) relating to false promises on manifestos. s106 of the Representation of the People’s Act only refers to False statement against candidates, which is what Woolas has been found guilty under. So no, there won’t be a series of by-elections Mr McCabe.
3) Unelected judges should not overturn a democratic election
Comments on this have come from both left and right. Sally Bercow on twitter said:
Yep – not *at all* liking unelected judges overturning democratic result. Slippery slope.
Edward Leigh and Steve McCabe also made similar comments in the posts I linked to.
Again, this level of ignorance about the legal system is shocking. The case is on whether election law was broken. And it’s judges who interpret the laws that elected MPs pass. That’s their job. It’s called the separation of powers, it’s quite famous and useful.
As I mentioned above, it’s politicians who make these laws. And Woolas was found guilty of illegal practices under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (False statements as to candidates).
This section was most recently amended by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. According to www.publicwhip.org.uk, guess who voted in favour of this legislation?
Yep, that’s right. A certain Mr Phil Woolas MP.*
Hoisted by own’s own petard.
On a slightly more serious point, the outcome of the election must also have been shown to be affected by these lines. I don’t see how it’s more democratic for a candidate to win an election based on smears against his opponent that he knew were untrue. Woolas only won by 103 votes, so these leaflets must have played some part in this tight victory.
I will probably post later on whether Labour’s treatment of Woolas is just, but I think that’s enough for now.
*I’m grateful to my brother for pointing this out to me, and for help with legal mumbo-jumbo in the case generally.