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.