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Tuesday, November 09, 2010 

Disgraces and mutinies.

It would be nice to think that there's some sort of principle underlying certain sections of the parliamentary Labour party's support for Phil Woolas. Something approaching fairness, perhaps, one of those values which is meant to be hard-wired into the party's soul. And it's true, there are some making legitimate arguments, even if their case overall is dubious. In their eyes, Woolas has been hung out to dry by the party, not allowed to appeal against a ruling which could have huge implications for the democratic process, summarily suspended and all but told by the party's deputy leader that even if he had the ruling overturned he can't return as a parliamentary candidate.

The problem is that those making such arguments are the minority. Instead, what's really going on is a febrile mixture of pique, loathing for the Liberal Democrats, flagrant disregard as well as contempt for both judges and a system which is enshrined in the Representation of the People Act, and the continuing feeling amongst the older generation of MPs especially that having reached Westminster should give them some sort of protection against the things that everyone else in the country has to endure. The pique is not solely centred at those who are living under the misapprehension that telling lies about your opponent during a general election isn't the done thing, but also at the party's leadership itself, some of the feelings being held over from the hard line taken during the expenses scandal when similar action was taken against miscreants. Add into this how some are still grieving about Ed Miliband winning the party leadership thanks to the unions with his brother being vanquished despite winning the overwhelming support of the parliamentary party, and it's not that surprising that at the first possible opportunity there's been something approaching a mutiny.

More understandable is the feeling that Liberal Democrats have in the past on many occasions played dirty when it's suited them, especially in by-elections, only to now decide to take matters to the courts. Such feelings would be justified if this was just a case of the Liberal Democrats complaining unjustly, yet even a slight knowledge of the campaign which Woolas ran shows just how far he was prepared to take things in a desperate effort to cling on to the seat. It's not just the leaflets distributed on polling day itself which were blatantly misleading and told lies about how extremists wanted Woolas out because he was tough on immigration, it's the extraordinary 8-page newspaper (linked from this post) which his campaign produced which from cover to cover was a tissue of attacks on Elwyn Watkins personally, the vast majority completely unsubstantiated. It was how despite being the immigration minister and representing a constituency hit by riots only 9 years early he was prepared to play the communities off against one another, in his faux-newspaper even claiming that the approval of a mosque which he accepted was needed was a return to the old politics that had stoked the violence. To give a further flavour, in what was probably meant to be a joke, on the page where Woolas set out why he should be re-elected in his own words, beneath the headline was the legend:

Next week we hear from Elwyn Watkins for the Liberal Democrats about his plans to scrap the Geneva Convention.

For Graham Stringer to then decide that he's not in a position to pass judgement is ludicrous - these weren't just white lies and the usual election to and fro, these were actions which should have resulted in Woolas being reprimanded or even suspended at the time for bringing the party into disrepute.

As Justin notes, it's only when MPs or their hangers-on find themselves being investigated or harried by the police that their true colours show. The arrest of Ruth Turner during the loans for peerages scandal resulted in heavy criticism of the Met by some in the Labour party despite the police only following what was standard operating procedure, going to the home of someone they wanted to talk to in the early hours when they were most likely to be there. In this instance we have the just as puffed up Dave Watts, the right honourable member for St Helens North declaring that Woolas was found guilty by a kangaroo court, which is a strange description of what is essentially the High Court in a different guise. Woolas whilst immigration minister, lest we forget, said with a straight face that some of those working on behalf of asylum seekers were giving "false hope" through their actions, working to overturn rulings which could have led to their clients being sent back to face the mistreatment and potential death which they'd fled from.

It's not difficult to see this as a continuing hangover from the expenses debacle. For one thing, it shows an extraordinary lack of awareness of what ordinary public opinion is like: overwhelmingly when asked ordinary voters describe MPs as liars and cheats, fairly or not, and where else do they need to look for evidence than this case? Not only is one exposed as having deliberately lied about his opponent, but his pals at Westminster are objecting to him being thrown out of the party for doing so, whilst complaining bitterly and muttering darkly about judges deciding what is and isn't an "acceptable" untruth. Rather than doing something for their constituents, like providing a decent opposition to a government which is hell bent on pushing through badly drafted and hasty legislation, not to mention brutal austerity measures, they seem more concerned about as usual, standing up for themselves. Fundamentally, it shows, as Liberal Conspiracy has it, an utterly warped lack of judgement.

Finally, it's incredibly short-sighted in another obvious way. The chances of the Liberal Democrats putting in a performance as strong as they did back in May are dubious to say the very least. With a fresh, untainted Labour candidate running against Watkins, now forced to defend the record of his party in government, the odds must surely be for an increase in Woolas's notional majority of just 105. By continuing to support Woolas they're just prolonging the agony and further disgruntling the constituents who are without an MP for the foreseeable future. Those backing such a busted flush couldn't be doing a better job of showing exactly why the wider party remains unelectable in its current form.

Update: See this post for a rather lengthy take on Watkins' support for scrapping the Geneva convention.

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In Mr Woolas' case, although it has taken 17 or so years since his debut as a smearing rat in the Littleborough and Saddleworth by election, time does wound all heels.

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