Could Phil Woolas run as an independent? Probably not. For a start, he has been disqualified for three years from standing for Parliament, the automatic penalty for having broken the law in this instance.
Yesterday the High Court agreed to hear an application for a judicial review of the decision. This will begin next Tuesday and last for a day and a half.
If accepted, Woolas is likely to need to be able to raise an estimated £200,000 to bring a full judicial review according to some reports. He will hope to challenge the three-year disqualification penalty, though overturning this remains unlikely.
But what is interesting is the support he retains among members of the Labour Party in his constituency, as well as across sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
One local councillor from the constituency states:
I am very ashamed and very, very disappointed with behaviour of our deputy leader. I feel she has tried and tested him already regardless of the outcome of the JR [Judicial Review], she’s decided that that’s it – we’re not going to allow him back into the party. He could come back from the JR and be completely innocent. Her comments are saying an innocent person cannot join the Labour Party, well I’m now questioning the whole analysis of the Labour Party… This is not Harriet Harman’s party, this is not her party.
Another member, an 80-year old retired teacher comments:
I read the local paper and see him referred to as Phil Woolas the “disgraced MP”… He has not been disgraced… In fact, his “offences” are in the hurly burly of an election.
One member, originally from Pakistan, is particularly scathing of the ongoing judicial process:
I’ve lived in Oldham since 1967. If something like this happened in my native land where I originate from, in Pakistan… people with any sort of knowledge would say this was a kangaroo court. As far as I’m concerned, the judges have behaved in such a manner.
These are obviously selected clips so do not necessarily reveal sentiment across all the Labour members in the constituency. In Westminster, however, supporters have raised £30,000 in 24 hours for his legal fighting fund, according to some reports.
Woolas has also received the support of Gordon Brown, former Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Cherie Blair — although, given the cab-rank rule, in a strange quirk it is barristers from Cherie Blair’s chambers who have been representing Woolas’s opponent in court.
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has rightly said that no Labour candidate will be selected until the legal process has completely run its course. This has led some to suggest, unrealistically in my view, that he could be allowed back.
Moreover, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, issued a “clarification” yesterday to say that the political parties could call a by-election in the constituency, even as legal action is ongoing. This is interesting because any MP can move a writ, in effect, triggering a by-election, although it is usually the party of the person ceasing to be the MP who makes the decision.
Rumours are already circulating about possible Labour candidates. The Manchester Evening News‘ David Ottewall writes:
I’m sure the Labour party in Oldham will have names in the frame already. But one man who springs to mind is Afzal Khan, the former lord mayor of Manchester. He’s someone who transcends traditional boundaries and is a canny political operator, too. If he wants it, he might just win.
Other potential candidates? Coun Khan’s, daughter, Maryam Khan – who put in a creditable against-the-odds performance in losing Bury North in May.
Lucy Powell, originally from South Manchester and defeated at nearby Manchester Withington, worked closely with Ed Miliband throughout the leadership campaign and has been tipped by some as a possible candidate. One wonders in any event if it might be worth biding the time until the next General Election, given John Leech’s vulnerability in a seat with a large student population and a relatively small majority.
There were also rumours on some blogs of one of Woolas’s members of staff putting their name forward for consideration, but these rumours have since been comprehensively refuted.
Either way, this is all speculation and Oldham East and Saddleworth members will come to their decision in due course.
Interestingly, Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, suggested to the BBC’s This Week programme last night that the manner in which Woolas had been treated by the Labour Party was a “tricky issue”, which followed on from the case of Ian Gibson, the former MP for Norwich North, after he was banned from re-election by the Labour Party’s so-called “star chamber” (see 32mins 50secs in).
Woolas has, as the judgement states, been guilty of an illegal practice. This may simply prove totally insurmountable for him, despite what happens next week. The full court document can be read here, but the following section is indicative.
The Respondent is therefore guilty of an illegal practice. That illegal practice was committed by him. We shall so report to the Speaker as required by sections 144 and 158 of the RPA 1983. Section 144 requires the court to determine whether the election of the Respondent as a Member of Parliament is void. We have determined that his election is void pursuant to section 159 of the RPA 1983 because the Respondent is personally guilty of an illegal practice. [Emphasis added]
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