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Wednesday, September 15, 2010 

Whither Woolas?

Reading back the Guardian's late 2008 interview with the then immigration minister Phil Woolas, it's perhaps not a surprise that he finds himself fighting for his political life before only the second specially convened electoral court in over a hundred years. Asked by Patrick Barkham about the by-election campaign he contested back in 1995, he was unrepentant about the criticism he'd received:

"We took a deliberate decision that we would play hardball because we were fed up of the Liberal Democrats," Woolas growls. "If you read politicians' biographies from Maggie Thatcher through to Michael Foot, they will tell you that the Liberal Democrats play dirty and are sanctimonious about it."

In Woolas' view then, Elwyn Watkins' decision to file a complaint under section 106 of the Representation of the People Act must be the ultimate act of sanctimony. It's also a decision fraught with danger: not only does Watkins have to prove his case rather than Woolas prove himself innocent as in libel actions, the electorate tend to be notoriously unforgiving of those who seek legal redress rather than accept they've lost the public vote. Back in 1997 the then distinctly anonymous Mark Oaten won Winchester by a whole 2 votes, only for the result to be voided after his opponent went to the election court, complaining about votes which went uncounted as they hadn't been stamped. At the subsequent by-election Oaten turned his majority of 2 into a fairly astonishing 21,556. If Watkins does win, it will likely be a new Labour candidate who he'll have to face as even if the judges don't bar him personally from standing again, it will be, or at least should all but impossible for him to stand as the Labour candidate again.

Undisputed is that the campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth had turned personal and incredibly nasty. Defending a slim majority of 3,500 in a constituency with a high proportion of Muslim voters, Woolas was one of the targets of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, an organisation that can best be described as having a decidedly radical flavour, as well as having a highly controversial founder.

Where the truth ends and the fiction begins is much more difficult to ascertain. Watkins' case has it that Woolas was so convinced he was going to lose that he turned in desperation to link the MPAC campaign directly with Watkins and the Liberal Democrats. Woolas's fairly extraordinary eight page newspaper-type electoral missive (linked in the best quality from MPAC's post on it), almost entirely filled with personal attacks on Watkins, claimed that some of the election material supposedly produced by MPAC had included death threats against him. In fact, in what seems to be the only credible reference to the actual existence of the leaflet in question, apparently delivered only in Muslim areas of the constituency, the Sunday Express described it as from a "smaller group", without naming those responsible. It doesn't seem to appear anywhere online, and while it wouldn't be beyond credulity for Woolas's campaign to have completely invented the entire thing, the apparent use of the term "chamcha" in it, meaning bum kisser, sounds reasonably authentic.

In response to the Sunday Express story MPAC issued a press release, as well as a link to the leaflets they had produced. Woolas's campaign had clearly conflated the two together, as MPAC made no mention of immigration whatsoever in their material. It could well be that MPAC were running two campaigns: one official and one unofficial, including the distribution of the leaflets from the "smaller" group, although this is impossible to quantify. The Jewish Chronicle reported on the day of the election that the Community Security Trust had raised concerns about MPAC's multiple campaigns against sitting Labour MPs with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. In Oldham Woolas's team and MPAC swapped accusations of intimidation, and apart from Woolas's claim about the death threats, not much else. Geoffrey Alderman later wrote for the JC that he felt MPAC's campaigns had been strong and blunt, but not especially sophisticated. More pertinently, he felt that their efforts were "peripheral" at best.

While the campaign by MPAC certainly could have affected the result in Oldham and Saddleworth and was undoubtedly a concern for Woolas, they would have been far more worried by the apparent surge by the Liberal Democrats, even if for the most part on the night it didn't happen. One suspects instead that it simply gave Woolas's team a great opportunity to conflate the two things together, as well as materially mislead at the same time. Even if you could conceivably describe MPAC as extremist or militant, to link them to the demonstration by al-Muhajiroun back in 2006 outside the Danish embassy as not just one but three leaflets from his campaign did was a clear act of deception, not least as al-Muhjarioun and its successor organisations view voting as haram while MPAC's campaign was all about encouraging Muslims to make their voice heard. Most disgraceful of all is that Woolas was apparently fully prepared to play the two communities in the constituency off against one another, claiming as he did in the last two leaflets delivered that the real reason why the extremists were targeting him and supporting the Liberal Democrats was due to his stance on immigration and their policy on an amnesty, something he must have known to be false. His campaign even wrote in the eight-page faux-newspaper that

"we despair of the Lib Dems for their weak policy on immigration. It is so important for our local community that we get it right.

...

It risks making things much worse."

without so much as a hint of irony.

Whether or not Woolas wins or loses the case ought to be irrelevant when it comes to his membership of the Labour party. By any standards, Woolas's campaign sank into the sewer in its desperation, smearing a political opponent in a clearly libellous fashion while caring not a jot for the cohesion of the constituency for which he was standing. In his Guardian interview he boasted of how you can either "hide behind your desk and not say anything or you can get out there and get your hands dirty". It's clear which he decided to do when he faced defeat. Labour under its new leader ought to show that the days of political assassination are over by expelling Woolas for bringing the party into disrepute.

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Mr Woolas does have form. In the 1995 Little and Saddleworth by election he ran a very nasty smear campaign against the Liberal Democrat candidate which as I best recall related to his being soft on drugs and translate dinto personal drug abuse.

When thieves fall out honest men don't have to take sides.

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