7 in 10 voters back decision to unseat Phil Woolas

Poll suggests that Harman’s decision to suspend Woolas from Labour is in step with public opinion.

Voters overwhelmingly believe that the court decision to strip Phil Woolas of his seat in Oldham East and Saddleworth was the right thing to do.

A YouGov/Sun poll found that 71 per cent of all voters backed the decision of a specially convened electoral court to hold a by-election in the area and suspend Woolas from politics for three years. Just 7 per cent thought it was the wrong decision.

While support was slightly more muted among Labour voters, a substantial majority still endorse the decision – 65 per cent of Labour voters said it was the right thing to do, compared with 82 per cent for both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

The figures show that those MPs rebelling against Harriet Harman's decision to suspend Woolas from the Labour Party are vastly out of step with public opinion. The Labour deputy leader said at the weekend that it was "not part of Labour's politics for somebody to be telling lies to get themselves elected".

The BBC reported last night that one MP told Harman that she was "a disgrace", while the Labour MP Graham Stringer warned that she had gone "far too far", and that there were "big issues involved here in terms of the future of our democracy". Another Labour MP, Michael Connarty, said he had asked Harman to "examine her conscience".

This response beggars belief. Woolas was convicted of lying and exploiting racial tensions in order to defeat his Liberal Democrat opponent, Elwyn Watkins. Quite apart from the moral issue, it would be disastrous for Labour to be seen to be supporting a candidate convicted of such serious charges.

While some take issue with Harman's suspension of Woolas before he had a chance to appeal the verdict, it is worth noting that the decision to suspend Lutfur Rahman as Labour's candidate in the Tower Hamlets mayoral race was widely praised.

It's likely that much of the outrage stems from the fact that Woolas is popular in the PLP. Stringer stressed his contribution to the party over many years – as if that should exonerate him from such a serious charge, which raises serious questions over his suitability to represent a constituency with a population that is ethnically very mixed.

Public perception of the whole political class is still reeling from the expenses scandal. The charge of lying and stoking racial tension is not a light one – and these poll results show that the voters don't take it lightly. Out-of-touch posturing will do nothing to help matters.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.