Phil Woolas has just lost an historic court case in which he was accused of making false claims before the general election. There will now be a re-election for his seat, which he won in May with a majority of just 103 votes.
The case was the first of its kind for a century.
As the FT reported last month:
Phil Woolas was re-elected by a slim majority in Oldham east and Saddleworth, beating the Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins. Mr Watkins claims Mr Woolas made false statements about him in an attempt to influence the result.
The court heard that Mr Woolas’s campaign team aimed to “galvanise the white Sun vote” against Mr Watkins, claiming Mr Watkins had tried to “woo” and “pander” to Muslim fanatics and militants, the court was told.
Now the Labour MP has lost the case it will set a curious precedent for British elections, where mud-slinging is widespread and many candidates are thrifty with the actualité.
Without wanting to trivialise a no doubt serious case, where does Woolas’s defeat leave Britain’s political parties in future elections? Will their leaders have to muzzle all candidates for fear of twisting the truth?
Take this general election, where the Lib Dems made a fervent promise to protect tuition fees and prevent them from rising higher. It was a promise worth its weight in hot air. Should some of their MPs face fresh elections?
Or what about the numerous Labour leaflets back in the spring which accused the Tories of planning to slash a host of pensioner benefits? Back in April the Tories criticised Labour for spreading “fears and smears” by claiming David Cameron would cut free bus passes for pensioners, scrap free TV licences and end the winter fuel allowance.
Now it has turned out that these leaflets were wrong, given that the pensioner freebies have survived the most brutal spending round for decades.
For good measure I should also mention that some Tory leaflets have also been questioned for their veracity, as in this New Statesman article from the spring.
What goes around comes around at infinitum.
Technically none of these examples are exactly relevant to the Woolas case, which was brought under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act.
Under that it is an offence to publish any “false statement of fact” in relation to a candidate’s personal character or conduct to prevent them being elected (unless they believed it was true).
But there are plenty of other instances of PPCs making personal attacks on their rivals.
Here is the judges’ conclusion, courtesy of PA:
Mr Justice Nigel Teare and Mr Justice Griffith Williams said Mr Woolas was guilty of illegal practices under election law. He had attacked his opponent’s personal conduct and character with statements that he courted Muslim extremists who had advocated violence against the Labour MP. He had suggested Mr Watkins had refused to condemn such threats in pursuit of personal advantage. Both statements were untrue and Mr Woolas knew them to be, the judges said. They declared May’s poll result as void.