Why I’d vote for a dodgy MP over an honest judge
Phil Woolas kicked out of parliament by an electoral court, for lying? That’s a bigger scandal than anything he said about his opponents.
A New Labour MP and former UK government minister has been disqualified from parliament and disowned by his party after being found guilty of spreading deliberate falsehoods about his Liberal Democrat opponent at this year’s general election. Phil Woolas becomes the first MP for a century to be kicked out of his seat by two High Court judges presiding over an obscure electoral court in Lancashire.
Every report now introduces Woolas as ‘the disgraced’, which he may be. But whatever one thinks of him, what should be thought truly disgraceful in an alleged democracy is that unelected and unaccountable judges have the power retrospectively to decide what can and cannot be said during an election campaign, and then to overrule the will of the electorate by throwing out an elected MP if m’luds see fit.
This sorry affair is a tale of the corruption and degradation of political life – and not by mud-slinging candidates alone. It is a bit much for Woolas and his few remaining supporters to claim that they are upholding the right to free speech, given that the government in which he served did so much to undermine that freedom. But this issue is not just about him. It has far-reaching implications for democracy and the conduct of future elections. That is why we should insist that the right to free speech does indeed extend to wrong-minded opportunist politicians, too. And that it is better to be governed by dodgy MPs than honest judges, since at least we can vote the former out of office.
Until the General Election, Woolas was New Labour’s immigration minister and the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, an area with a large Muslim population. In May he held the seat, against many expectations, by just 103 votes. The narrowly defeated Liberal Democrat candidate, Elywn Watkins, then complained to the authorities that Woolas had broken the rules by issuing election leaflets that told deliberate lies about him – effectively accusing Watkins of ‘wooing’ Muslim extremists, and of refusing to move to the constituency. The electoral court in Saddleworth last week found Woolas guilty of these offences and disqualified him from parliament and public office. He is seeking a judicial review.
Make no mistake, Woolas’ involvement in the murky issues of race and immigration was indeed a telling sign of the decay and desperation of New Labour. It has previously been discussed on spiked how the New Labour government, gripped by fear and loathing of the traditional white working class – the ‘bigots’ as Gordon Brown might have it – sought secretly to exploit immigration in order to change the political geography and culture of Britain. At the same time, however, New Labour wanted to mobilise electoral support from those it viewed with contempt as the bigoted mass of white working-class voters. Hence Brown appointed Woolas as immigration minister in 2008, and the new man immediately announced that he would be enforcing a ‘tougher immigration policy’ in order to ease racial tensions and ‘change perceptions’ about Labour being soft on immigration. The problem, he said, is that as recession looms ‘racial stereotyping becomes stronger’. As I observed at the time: ‘It might help if ministers didn’t reinforce the “racial stereotype” of the white working class as an ethnic pogrom waiting to happen, a racial time bomb ready to be set off by a spark from the British National Party.’
In Oldham, meanwhile, Woolas and his election team were faced with the local version of these problems. They were worried that they might lose the coming election because of a backlash against Labour from the Muslim community’s political machine, which had largely become affiliated – as in some other parts of the UK – with the Liberal Democrats. Email messages sent between Woolas’ advisors reveal an explicit discussion about the need to ‘get the white vote angry’. One apparent consequence of this was the distribution of some pretty crass-looking leaflets with headlines such as ‘Lib Dem pact with the devil’. What impact these had on the electoral outcome remains very unclear – how many people really vote these days on the basis of the party flyers stuck through their doors like pizza adverts? However, they formed the basis of the successful complaint by the narrowly defeated Lib Dems.
It might be a bit rich for Woolas to now pose as a champion of free speech, but it is considerably richer for Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman to disown him and claim he has betrayed what the party stands for. In reality, New Labour has been hoist with its own petard. The Blair and Brown governments spent a decade making free speech increasingly conditional, trying to crack down on ‘offensive’ speech, especially where it touched on inter-community relations involving the sizeable Muslim minority.
This censorious official attitude towards what could and could not be said was very evident in Oldham, where the authorities were keen to bury the ethnic tensions that had burst out in the 2001 riots (and which they had done much to institutionalise – see Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill). At that year’s General Election, officials banned the traditional speeches by candidates after the results were announced, cancelling free speech ostensibly to prevent the BNP candidates inciting trouble. Woolas and the other mainstream candidates stood in silence, while the BNP wore gags to symbolise what had been done. Hence did New Labour’s sensitive censors pave the way for Woolas to be brought down for using offensive language, in the process managing to hand the reactionaries of the BNP the mantle of free speech. It is a bit late for Woolas & Co to try to reclaim it now.
Nevertheless, what has been done to him is a free-speech issue that should concern us all. Unbridled freedom of expression is always the most important and precious liberty in a free society – and never more so than during election campaigns.
During his cross-examination before the electoral court, Woolas insisted of the contentious leaflets that ‘I did not peddle falsehoods. Everything I did was to do with politics.’ He has a point. Democratic politics is traditionally a dirty business, elections a fight to the finish between hostile camps representing opposing ideologies, constituencies and classes in society. This is a struggle for power, not a polite dinner party. To win, all sides will seek to paint their opponents in the worst possible light. Outright lies and fantasies rarely have an impact on the public – the electorate is far too sophisticated for that. Exaggerations and caricatures that bear some relation to public perceptions of reality, however, are pretty much par for the course.
There is a long history in British elections of winning parties deploying low tactics that would make Mr Woolas’ leaflets look like nursery rhymes by comparison. All of the mainstream parties have benefited on occasion, and Labour has often been on the receiving end. For example, the 1906 Liberal landslide that ended a generation of Tory rule was boosted by shrill coverage of the ‘Chinese slavery’ scandal in British-ruled South Africa after the Boer War. In 1924, the Tories routed the first-ever Labour government with the aid of the forged Zinoviev Letter which stirred fears of a Soviet plot.
More recently, at the 1964 general election, Tory campaigners in Smethwick, Birmingham, ousted the sitting Labour MP using the infamous slogan, ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour – vote Labour!’ At a 1983 by-election in Bermondsey, south-east London, the Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes defeated the Labour candidate and gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell after the most queer-baiting campaign in memory. And in Northern Ireland, elections have often been bitter and dirty extensions of the conflict between nationalists and Loyalists, none more so than the historic 1981 by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone won by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
Many of these and other UK elections would make events in Oldham East and Saddleworth appear pretty mild and petty by comparison. Yet none of those results was overturned by an unelected electoral court. Woolas is the first MP in a century to be deposed in such a fashion. That is a sign of the decline of our political life. If what Labour did in that election campaign shows the substitution of low personal insults for grand political arguments, then the high-handed post-election reaction to it demonstrates something more dangerous: the intolerance of non-consensual arguments in today’s managerial political culture, and the outsourcing of democratic authority away from the electorate and towards judges, officials and commissioners. Politics today is run by narrow-minded accountants obsessed with balancing the books – and the last thing accountants want is anything that might upset the status quo.
The reaction to the Woolas judgement from the political class has already been instructive. Everybody agrees that this case will change the way that future election campaigns are run, and move the goalposts regarding what can be said by candidates. That is not good news for democracy. Nobody wants to see more muck-chucking at the polls as an end in itself. But an even more blanded-out, squeaky-clean, after-you-Claude, whatever-you-say-say-nothing atmosphere will do nothing to further debate and clarify differences for the electorate.
Thirty years ago at Manchester University, Phil Woolas was the Labour-supporting general secretary of the students’ union, while I was the voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party. To us revolting Marxist students, he seemed like a bureaucrat and fixer who was highly effective at blocking our campaigns – yet at the same time, capable of leading popular campaigns against cuts or in defence of overseas students. After university, Woolas followed what was then a well-trodden career path for aspiring Labourists, from president of the National Union of Students to trade-union officer and then a member of parliament. In the process, this old Labour man became caught up in the New Labour machine and its obsession with media images, culminating in his being humiliated before the TV cameras by the Gurkha-supporting actress Joanna Lumley. Yet, compared to the colourless generation that has come after him, Woolas now looks almost like a principled and passionate political animal.
In the end, what all sides of this sordid affair appear to have in common is a deep mistrust of the electorate. Voters are feared by politicians as an inconvenient and unwanted interference in their business that must be avoided where possible and manipulated where necessary. Now it seems that voters cannot even be trusted to exercise their own judgement on election candidates and the claims they make. Instead, the courts must decide who is fit to sit in parliament, regardless of what the ballot box says. Presumably there will eventually be a by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth, after all the legal shenanigans are over. I confess a small hope that the Liberal Democrats lose the vote again.
What matters in all of this is not what it reveals about individual candidates, but what it says about the dominant view of the electorate and democracy today. Voters are not to be trusted as adults capable of judging for ourselves what we think of the parties’ arguments. Instead we must apparently be protected from our own worst instincts. The anti-democratic drift of politics is clear in everything from the forming of a coalition government that nobody voted for, to the pulling up of a parliamentary drawbridge in the form of five-year fixed parliaments, and now the intervention of judges to kick out an elected MP.
If the government was serious in its talk of ‘power to the people’, it might start by allowing the voters of Oldham to decide the fate of Phil Woolas and elect whoever they like, regardless of how offensive that might be to the Harriet Harmans and high-court beaks. The rest of us might start by ensuring that the corruption of parliamentary democracy through the Woolas affair is seen as an even bigger scandal than the alleged fixing of votes on The X-Factor.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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