Phil Woolas: Poisoned by his own venom
Barring the delayed polling contest in Thirsk, we are – unless a judicial review goes Phil Woolas’s way – heading for the first By-Election of the new Parliament, following the decision of an election court to void the result of General Election in Oldham East & Saddleworth. Phil Woolas, the Labour incumbent, accused his LibDem rival, Elwyn Watkins, of cosying up to “Muslim extremists”, who in turn were siding with the Liberal Democrat candidate to “get Phil”. Not surprisingly, Watkins took this as a slur on his character, and a decisive one in terms of the result: Woolas squeaked home by 103 votes.
It turns out, however, that just as spreading malicious lies about someone is a crime – Scots Law refers to it as defamation of character; English & Welsh as slander or libel – so spreading malicious lies about an election rival is equally criminal, and Woolas was found to be in breach of the Representation of the People Act.
And of course the allegation was BS: if a fundamentalist group – or extremists of any hue – wished to “get Phil”, they would have sent someone like Roshonara Choudhry, the woman convicted of stabbing Stephen Timms. That is how extremists do things. They do not leaflet for the Liberal Democrats.
Moreover, the actions were deeply irresponsible. Oldham is a town divided and in 2001, relations fell to such a low that riots broke out in the Muslim community, spurred on by vicious BNP campaigning, that ultimately saw the white extremists take 11.2% of the vote. Although the BNP vote share didn’t come anywhere near that either in 2005 or last year, it’s still higher than average and the party did save its deposit this time around. Woolas sought not just to tap into their vote, but to tap into their sentiment, despite the mainstream parties claiming to deplore the BNP and everything it stands for, and knowing that the last time an anti-Muslim campaign was run in the area, the results for the entire community were devastating.
So let’s review: in running a campaign aping the tactics of the BNP, Woolas risked pushing community relations back to their nadir of 2001 and, as a court has found, spread lies to do it. Smear your opponent? Meh. Imitate the fascists you claim to deprecate? No one’ll mind. Risk a race riot? Hey, if it gets him elected…
Until now, the only politician I’ve ever truly hated is Anne McGuire, for her decision to sack thousands of disabled workers then have the hypocrisy to turn up on the BBC after the Glenrothes By-Election claiming to care about the legitimate concerns faced by disabled people in Fife, worried about care costs. Given Woolas’s actions, I’m afraid he has to join her. To go to such disgusting, irresponsible lengths? Frankly, my quibble with the three-year ban from public office meted out by the court is that it’s not long enough – this vile, odious little man shouldn’t be allowed on a ballot paper ever again.
And of course, the Tory press has noted that Ed Miliband, despite being elected Leader while court proceedings in Oldham East & Saddleworth were underway, felt that not only was Woolas front bench material, but that he was a suitable Shadow Minister for Immigration. Well, when the Tories, who just five years ago were running a borderline xenophobic election campaign, can make a legitimate point about someone’s actions damaging community cohesion, something is very, very wrong.
Then Harriet Harman appeared on TV last night, confirming Woolas’s suspension and lamenting his bad politics. His politics weren’t bad enough to deny him a place on the frontbench (and what about the politics of referring to Danny Alexander as a “ginger rodent”?), but now that he’s been caught, it’s a different story.
But the decision is subject to judicial review, and the Speaker is to make a statement on the matter on Monday. We shall see what happens.