Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing again

The Woolas case raise an interesting question for the Labour party: if the electorate become hostile to civil liberties, should we? Michael Harris examines the issue.

“We need … to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him [Woolas] out … If we don’t get the white vote angry he’s gone.” – An email sent by Phil Woolas’s election agent Joseph Fitzpatrick to his campagin adviser Steven Green; the result can be seen below:

The rise of the Tea Party is the triumph of anger over reason. The politics of the demotic crowd are rarely harnessed for progressive causes: they play to the belly, the visceral reaction, the fear of the unknown other. Sarah Palin’s famous quote, “How’s that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?” is instructive. Tea Partiers are in the classic mould of Edmund Burke, cynical and un-enamoured by the optimism that reason will triumph.

The Woolas case raises an interesting question for the Labour party: if the electorate become hostile to civil liberties, should we?

Harriet Harman, Labour party chair, thinks not and has now clearly distanced Labour from Phil Woolas saying:

“It is no part of Labour’s politics to try to win elections by telling lies. We believe in good community relations – in fact that is central to our politics – and Phil Woolas has been suspended from the Labour Party.”

But this isn’t the end of the debate. Ed Miliband signalled a strong intention to move away from the wolf whistle politics of the past on civil liberties and immigration, but the temptation in the event of another terrorist attack will be there.

As the Economist’s Bagehot column points out today:

“On terror and crime, most voters are in tune with the Tory right: and that is before the dreaded prospect of another terrorist attack in Britain. The Labour opposition… could wound the government by portraying it as ideologically hostile to the state in all its functions, whether in protecting people’s livelihoods or indeed their very lives.”

Phil Woolas exemplifies a strain of thought (and action) in the Labour party that plays to base instincts for electoral gain.

It’s the ugly face of Labour, the patronising posturing on immigration and ‘Muslim fanatics’ that goes against what the voters know: that it was Labour that oversaw an increased level of immigration and incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British jurisprudence (a leap forward for human rights here).

It’s worth being clear that Labour was not wrong in thinking long and hard about both immigration and the risk of a 9/11 style terrorist attack; the Simon Jenkins school of thought that “terrorism poses no threat to Britain’s national security” is detached hokum.

Jenkins is happy to see the state as an irrational actor, scaling up resources to prevent what he sees as the unlikely possibility of a terrorist attack – but he does not see al-Qaeda as irrational, even though the organisation, if it could obtain one, would use a nuclear weapon in a Western city.

However, there’s a world of difference between the attempts by the intellectual left to reconcile globalisation, anti-totalitarianism and terrorism of, say, Alan Johnson’s journal Democratiya, and the knuckle-headed and sinister politics of Phil Woolas’s attack leaflets.

Let’s be frank, it was Woolas politics that helped lose Labour 5 million voters between 1997 and 2010 as voters turned away from our lowest common denominator politics: 90 days’ detention, locking up asylum seekers – including children – and restricting the right to protest in Parliament Square.

Triangulation failed, simultaneously sending scores of small ‘l’ liberals to the Liberal Democrats, whilst those we were attempting to court abandoned us (especially C2/DE voters) knowing that our leaflets about ‘getting tough with immigration’ were nothing more than meaningless rhetoric. In short – we weren’t being straight.

The decision of Mr Justice Nigel Teare and Mr Justice Griffith Williams to find Woolas guilty of illegal practices under election law sends a clear message about probity in elections: that the truth matters.

The lawyer for Mr Watkins, Woolas’s Liberal Democrat opponent, argued:

“Mr Woolas, believing that he was going to lose the election, resorted to terrifying white voters into believing that there was an extremist militant Muslim element in Oldham, who were in cahoots with Mr Watkins. He wished to convey the message that a vote for Mr Watkins was a vote for extremists.”

Some have argued that this is a free speech issue – it isn’t. The right to free speech is always universal – but qualified. You cannot shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. You cannot maliciously defame someone (and even after Libel Reform you won’t). Free speech is not the right to influence an election through spreading mistruths about your opponent.

Where it becomes a free speech issue is the barring of Woolas from the Commons for three years. Even if Woolas has made false statements about an opponent, surely it is the right of the electorate to make a decision on his probity for elected office – not judges. In recent years there has been a deeply undemocratic tendency to allow the unelected to bar the elected from public office. It ought to be for political parties to decide whether individuals who have broken the law should be their candidates.

The actual subsection of the Representation of the People Act 1983 reads:

“a candidate or other person reported by an election court personally guilty of a corrupt or illegal practice—

(a) shall during the relevant period specified in subsection (5) below be incapable of—

(i) being registered as an elector or voting at any parliamentary election in the United Kingdom or at any local government election in Great Britain,

(ii) being elected to the House of Commons, or

(iii) holding any elective office; and

(b)if already elected to a seat in the House of Commons, or holding any such office, shall vacate the seat or office as from the date of the report.”

The relevant period in Woolas’s case is three years. So for three years Phil Woolas cannot stand for election or even vote. I hope I’m not alone in thinking this is draconian. This is where the law needs to change. The whim of the electorate must remain supreme – the public should get what the public wants.

Long after the Woolas affair dies down, the temptation will be there for Labour to score easy wins against the coalition on civil liberties. In the dreadful event of another 7/7 this impulse may become difficult to resist.

To detoxify Labour, Ed Miliband must stand firm on civil liberties, even if it costs us popularity in the short-term. In 1997, the Tories were the nasty party; in 2010, after looking through the Woolas leaflet can we hold our heads high and say Labour is still the nice party?

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38 Responses to “Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing again”

  1. Michael Harris

    My piece on Left Foot Forward on #Woolas He represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing again http://bit.ly/aWR1x2

  2. Sean Kirwan

    RT @leftfootfwd: Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing http://bit.ly/9sxsvk writes @cllr_mikeharris o …

  3. digby

    RT @leftfootfwd: Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing http://bit.ly/9sxsvk writes @cllr_mikeharris o …

  4. Mr. Mxyzptlk

    So does Osborne’s claim that Britain had been “on the brink of bankruptcy” mean we have a rerun election

  5. Bad Bonobo

    RT @leftfootfwd: Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing http://bit.ly/9sxsvk writes @cllr_mikeharris o …

  6. badbonobo

    RT @leftfootfwd: Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing http://bit.ly/9sxsvk writes @cllr_mikeharris o …

  7. Pete James

    Michael, I’m quite non-plussed by your argument. In contesting that Woolas should not have been barred from standing again you miss the fundamental basis of being held to account – that if you are found guilty then a punishment be handed down to deprive you of what you hold dear. In Woolas’ case this was to remain in office; he took to deceive the electorate and thus demonstrated he was corrupt and the opportunity to be in public office should be denied. Therefore the judgement seeks to punish him on that basis – and it is a fitting one, not harsh as you contend.

    Your assertion that a political party should have the responsibility to decide whether to allow someone found to be committing an offence should stand again is frankly laughable. You propose to replace the objective independence of a sitting court with a previously supporting party consisting of individuals who will have directly been, or connected to, the activities that brought about the case in the first place? Shame on you for such a nonsensical suggestion that a judicial system should not be able to have oversight on the activities of politicians.

    The decision on Woolas was entirely correct and should serve a warning to others seeking power not to abuse the electorate – something I recall a number of LibDems would be wise to observe.

  8. john P Reid

    Let’s be frank, it was Woolas politics, that helped lose us 5 million voters between 1997 – 2010 ,weel ecven if that wwas true and its not, then nu albour increased labours vote from 8.4 to 13.7 before it fell to 8.7 so its still 300,000 more than in 83

  9. 13eastie

    This piece is simply a cycnical attempt to put a convenient distance between Woolas and Red Ed.

    It’s rather too little, too late, to achieve that.

    Woolas represents absolutely the current Labour Party.

    Why did Labour do nothing to censure his depraved and hysterical election leaflets?

    If Woolas is the unacceptable “toxic” face of Labour, why did the PLP vote him back onto the front bench?

    And why, knowing the grubby baggage that came with the dirty trickster, did Red Ed re-furnish him with his old immigration brief?

    The answer to all of the above is that Labour and Woolas are one and the same, both consumed by a self-serving culture of smears, lies and spin.

  10. SadButMadLad

    “In recent years there has been a deeply undemocratic tendency to allow the unelected to bar the elected from public office. It ought to be for political parties to decide whether individuals who have broken the law should be their candidates.”

    Bit of an oxymoron. Political parties are not elected. MPs are. MPs made the law that has now hung Woolas by the short and curlies.

    Anyway, are you saying that poltical parties are above the law. That it shouldn’t be judges who decide if a person should be punished by not being allowed to be elected.

    “Let’s be frank, it was Woolas politics, that helped lose us 5 million voters between 1997 – 2010 as voters turned away from our lowest common denominator politics”

    I didn’t realise the Woolas was the leader of the Labour party. I thought was Blair and Brown.

    The whole article is a badly written mismash of different bits and pieces put together with no overall point.

  11. the prole

    You seem to have missed the point entirely.

    The court didn’t declare his election invalid because he was a racist.
    They found him guilty of lying about his opponent, and hence declared his election invalid.

    Trying to throw up a smokescreen about “nasty” views on immigration is entirely irrelevant.

    The key question is why on earth didn’t he get slung out of the party as soon as the offending materials came to light, not does it matter if he is a racist.

  12. Tom Sheppard

    I'm Reading: Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing again:
    The rise of the Te… http://bit.ly/cAMqDy

  13. Jennie Walsh

    RT @leftfootfwd: Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing http://bit.ly/9sxsvk writes @cllr_mikeharris o …

  14. Stephen W

    The Labour party seems to have a problem with its MP’s getting in trouble with the courts. 3 MP’s from the last parliament hauled up before a court for their expenses. And they’ve already lost 3 from this parliament in the last few months.

    Illsey, Macshane and Woolas. Gone.

    Including two former ministers. Seems Labour politicians have a bit of a problem keeping on the right side of the law.

    What was Ed Miliband doing appointing someone who had blatantly attempted to stir up racial hatred to get re-elected as a shadow minister? It is impossible not to question his judgement. This was an easily avoidable home goal.

  15. Unity

    One minor point of correction…

    Woolas will not be barred from voting if his appeal fails as this sanction applies only to voting related offences, e.g. personation.

    This is explained in the next subclause of the Act.

  16. Nick Sutton

    RT @leftfootfwd: Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he shouldn’t be barred from standing again http://bit.ly/aWR1x2

  17. Political Innovation

    Woolas represents toxic Labour: but he should he be barred from standing again? http://bit.ly/cf1Sak

  18. Political Innovation

    Or 'if the electorate become hostile to civil liberties, should we follow?' http://bit.ly/cf1Sak

  19. Political Innovation

    3rd tweet on this: not sure I buy all the analysis here, but like the bit about 'the veto of the unelected' http://bit.ly/cf1Sak

  20. Forlornehope

    Parliament passed the act in 1983. All the judges did was enforce the will of Parliament. If MP’s want to change the law that is their right as elected representatives. I strongly suspect that they will wish to leave it as it is. The point is, in any case, very restricted; you can tell all the lies that you like so long as you don’t knowingly defame your opponent!

  21. HJ

    Surely “dog whistle politics” not “wolf whistle politics”?

  22. GW

    A gross afront to justice.

    Why was Watkins not prosecuted for alledged overapending ?

    GW

    gw

  23. jeff_h

    They should break the Labour party into two. A good Labour party and a toxic Labour party. Into the toxic party would go everything that is corrupt, lying, stealing and self serving. Woolas, McBride, Udin, Straw and all the other human sewage. When they’ve finished I’d like to take the good Labour party out for drink. I’ll pay, shouldn’t cost much.

  24. Brian G

    Pathetic.

    What lost you lot the election was your politics of social engineering and gerrymandering through mass-immigration: “rubbing the right’s nose in diversity”, then playing the racism-card against anyone critical of your acts of treason.

    As your many crooked MPs and former MPs will continue to come before the courts, it will be dacades before your brand is detoxified. Real working class people despise your metrosexual moralistic we-know-best arrogance.

    Oh… call me all the names you like, socialists. You’re irrelevant.

  25. Henry

    Think Brian G must have got out of bed the wrong side this morning.

  26. SadButMadLad

    @GW (11) – “A gross afront to justice. Why was Watkins not prosecuted for alledged overapending ?”

    Because it wasn’t true. If it’s alledged then it hasn’t been proven. He could only be prosecuted if there was enough evidence to take him to court. There wasn’t. He wasn’t.

    Phil Woolas and his team (specifically his parliamentary researcher, John Battye) made up the numbers about overspending based on an unsubstansiated comment from an unreliable witness, Rachel McGladdery, who claimed that she was paid £3/hr for her volunteer work – even though her claims were found to be false by HMRC.

    http://nickthornsby.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/phil-woolas-goes-down-in-history/

  27. torieboy

    i dont believe in kicking people when they are down, he was a talented MP
    whatever he’s faults , i think its sad when someone’s career is in ruins.
    not half as bad as the nasty harriet harman.

  28. merthyr_bill

    i liked phil woolas. maybe he lied at the election. he’s a labour man – it’s in his blood. the end justifies the means, you can’t make an omelette etc. at least he’s not a tory

  29. 13eastie

    He proposed a scheme whereby undecorated (i.e. not brave enough) Gurkhas would not be considered for eligibility to live in the UK.

    A disgusting, cowardly hypocrite for whom Labour’s dirty tricks have justly come home to roost.

    Any kicking he gets is entirely his own fault and fully deserved.

  30. 13eastie

    @Michael Harris – it must have been hard choosing which heading to put this under, eh?

    Greed and corruption?
    Old politics?
    Media manipulation?
    Racism and extremism?

    N.B.: IT TOOK ONE OF RED ED’S CHOSEN FRONT BENCHERS TO TICK ALL OF LFF’S BOXES!

  31. Judy

    Is it at all possible that there are equally horrible people in other parties who are not above fabricating a story about their opponents? Can we look forward to a succession of court cases followed by by-elections? What fun we will all have!

  32. 13eastie

    @Judy

    Here’s a list of MP’s currently facing (or expected to face) criminal proceedings:

    Dаvіd Сhаytоr
    Еllіоt Моrlеy
    Jіm Dеvіnе
    Dеnіѕ МасЅhаnе
    Paul Farrelly
    Margaret Moran

    The Labour Party seems to have staked a claim on this niche, has it not?

  33. The rise and fall of Philip James Woolas « Paperback Rioter

    […] at his demise. Quite the opposite, in fact. Good riddance, says the most popular left-wing blog. Toxic, says another. Enemies of reason, in one of my favourite blogs on Woolas’s career at […]

  34. Anon E Mouse

    jeff_h – I could probably add 20 other Labour MP’s to your list and suspect there wouldn’t be many people disagreeing even on this blog but I wouldn’t include Jack Straw in that list myself.

    He may go on a bit. OK he does go on a bit but I do not think it’s fair to include him in the same sentence as Damian McBride really – he seems straight enough to me.

    Put Gordon Brown in there by all means – he was a thuggish, dishonest bully who shouldn’t be taking a full time wage for one days work in 6 months…

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    […] I wrote before for Left Foot Forward, Labour is toxic to many of the people it ought to be a natural bedfellow of. […]

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    […] I wrote before for Left Foot Forward, Labour is toxic to many of the people it ought to be a natural bedfellow of. […]

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