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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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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