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8 November 2010

Woolas should go quietly

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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”?