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Why is Phil Woolas back on Labour's frontbench?

The Labour MP, currently the subject of a court action, has been named Home Office minister.

There's much to welcome in Ed Miliband's final set of shadow ministerial appointments. Some of Labour's best new MPs, including Rachel Reeves (work and pensions), Rushanara Ali (international development) and Gloria del Piero (culture), have been swiftly promoted onto the frontbench and Miliband has retained the talents of figures such as Karen Buck (work and pensions) and Andy Slaughter (justice).

The one sore point is the bizarre decision to hand Phil Woolas the post of Home Office minister. Having run one of the most disgraceful election campaigns in recent history, Woolas is currently fighting an attempt to have his victory overturned by his Lib Dem opponent on the grounds of "corrupt practices". He has consistently denied breaking electoral law to secure his seat and said it would have been "political suicide" to do so.

Below is the demagogic leaflet published by Woolas's campaign, which, according to his defeated opponent, Elwyn Watkins, suggested that the Lib Dems were courting support from Islamist extremists.The text reads:

Extremists are trying to hijack this election. They want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration. The Lib Dems plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay. It is up to you? Do you want the extremists to win?

Poster

Legal documents submitted to the High Court argue that there was a calculated attempt by the Woolas campaign to whip up racial tensions in a bid to get the "white vote" behind him.

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 Moslem (sic) angle" and proposed the headline "Militant Moslems (sic) target Woolas."

A verdict on the case is expected on 5 November and defeat for Woolas would see him expelled from Parliament and a by-election held in the highly marginal seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth. Regardless of the morality of his appointment, the pragmatic case against appointing an MP currently subject to a court action is clear. The court may yet find in Woolas's favour, but his presence on Labour's frontbench is hard to see as anything but a serious mistake.