Woolas should go quietly

Rather than fighting on in the courts, the former Labour MP should simply apologise.

There's more bad news for Phil Woolas today. The high court has rejected his request for a judicial review of the election court ruling, saying he should instead appeal against the ruling. Despite this, Woolas's legal team is reportedly planning to make a fresh application for judicial review.

But any victory (and the odds are against it) would be decidedly pyrrhic. Woolas's political reputation is already shot and Harriet Harman has confirmed that he is not welcome in the Labour Party, even if he overturns the court ruling. In order to salvage some dignity, Woolas should surely drop all legal proceedings and apologise to the Liberal Democrats, Labour and his constituents.

Meanwhile, as I feared, Woolas has attracted a growing number of Labour apologists. "Hung out to dry" was the cliché of choice for the Labour MP Graham Stringer and Peter Watt, the party's former general secretary. With remarkable understatement, Watt describes Woolas's leaflets as "controversial, to say the least". He cannot bring himself to condemn an election campaign that deliberately sought to whip up racial and religious tensions for political gain.

As for Stringer, echoing those who have warned (employing another cliché) that the Woolas judgment "opens a can of worms", he describes Woolas's removal as a "dangerous precedent". Those who adopt this line are either ignorant of the court's ruling, or are misrepresenting it.

Here is the full wording of the law (Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983) that Woolas breached:

(1) A person who, or any director of any body or association corporate which –

(a) before or during an election,

(b) for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election, makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate's personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true.

As Mike Smithson points out, the court judgment was based entirely on the false claims Woolas made about his Lib Dem opponent, not his policy statements. Thus, those such as Robert Halfon MP and Tory Radio, who suggest that parties could now be hauled up over misleading manifestos, or that Labour MPs could be punished for the party's cancer leaflets, could not be more wrong.

But what does it say about our political culture that a court judgment that should deter candidates from lying about their opponents is condemned as a "dangerous precedent"?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Liverpool protest was about finding a place for local support in a global game

Fans of other clubs should learn from Anfield's collective action.

One of the oldest songs associated with Liverpool Football Club is Poor Scouser Tommy, a characteristically emotional tale about a Liverpool fan whose last words as he lies dying on a WWII battlefield are an exhalation of pride in his football team.

In November 2014, at the start of a game against Stoke City, Liverpool fans unfurled a banner across the front of the Kop stand, daubed with the first line of that song: “Let me tell you a story of a poor boy”. But the poor boy wasn’t Tommy this time; it was any one of the fans holding the banner – a reference to escalating ticket prices at Anfield. The average matchday ticket in 1990 cost £4. Now a general admission ticket can cost as much as £59.

Last Saturday’s protest was more forthright. Liverpool had announced a new pricing structure from next season, which was to raise the price of the most expensive ticket to £77. Furious Liverpool fans said this represented a tipping point. So, in the 77th minute of Saturday’s match with Sunderland, an estimated 15,000 of the 44,000 fans present walked out. As they walked out, they chanted at the club’s owners: “You greedy bastards, enough is enough”.

The protest was triggered by the proposed price increase for next season, but the context stretches back over 20 years. In 1992, the top 22 clubs from the 92-club Football League broke away, establishing commercial independence. This enabled English football’s elite clubs to sign their own lucrative deal licensing television rights to Rupert Murdoch’s struggling satellite broadcaster, Sky.

The original TV deal gave the Premier League £191 million over five years. Last year, Sky and BT agreed to pay a combined total of £5.14 billion for just three more years of domestic coverage. The league is also televised in 212 territories worldwide, with a total audience of 4.7 billion. English football, not so long ago a pariah sport in polite society, is now a globalised mega-industry. Fanbases are enormous: Liverpool may only crowd 45,000 fans into its stadium on matchday, but it boasts nearly 600 million fans across the globe.

The matchgoing football fan has benefited from much of this boom. Higher revenues have meant that English teams have played host to many of the best players from all over the world. But the transformation of local institutions with geographic support into global commercial powerhouses with dizzying arrays of sponsorship partners (Manchester United has an ‘Official Global Noodle Partner’) has encouraged clubs to hike up prices for stadium admission as revenues have increased.

Many hoped that the scale of the most recent television deal would offer propitious circumstances for clubs to reduce prices for general admission to the stadium while only sacrificing a negligible portion of their overall revenues. Over a 13-month consultation period on the new ticket prices, supporter representatives put this case to Liverpool’s executives. They were ignored.

Ignored until Saturday, that is. Liverpool’s owners, a Boston-based consortium who have generally been popular on Merseyside after they won a legal battle to prize the club from its previous American owners, backed down last night in supplicatory language: they apologised for the “distress” caused by the new pricing plan, and extolled the “unique and sacred relationship between Liverpool Football Club and its supporters”.

The conflict in Liverpool between fans and club administrators has ended, at least for now, but the wail of discontent at Anfield last week was not just about prices. It was another symptom of the broader struggle to find a place for the local fan base in a globalised mega-industry.The lazy canard that football has become a business is only half-true. For the oligarchs and financiers who buy and sell top clubs, football is clearly business. But an ordinary business has free and rational consumers. Football fans are anything but rational. Once the romantic bond between fan and team has been forged, it does not vanish. If the prices rise too high, a Liverpool fan does not decide to support Everton instead.

Yet the success of the protest shows that fans retain some power. Football’s metamorphosis from a game to be played into a product to be sold is irreversible, but the fans are part of that product. When English football enthusiasts wake in the small hours in Melbourne to watch a match, part of the package on their screen is a stadium full of raucous supporters. And anyone who has ever met someone on another continent who has never travelled to the UK but is a diehard supporter of their team knows that fans in other countries see themselves as an extension of the local support, not its replacement.

English football fans should harness what power they have remaining and unite to secure a better deal for match goers. When Liverpool fans walked out on Saturday, too many supporters of other teams took it as an opportunity for partisan mockery. In football, collective action works not just on the pitch but off it too. Liverpool fans have realised that. Football fandom as a whole should take a leaf out of their book.