Labour minister broke election law: re-run ordered
Two High Court judges today ordered a re-run of this year’s General Election campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth after ruling that Labour’s Phil Woolas knowingly made false statements about an opponent.
Martin Beckford and Peter Hutchison
The former immigration minister broke electoral law with what had been described as a “toxic” dirty tricks campaign against the Liberal Democrat candidate Elywn Watkins. His election win in May has now been declared void.
Mr Woolas, who won May’s general election with a majority of just 103 votes, is the first MP for 99 years to face a successful challenge to his election victory on the basis of publishing false statements about an opponent.
The specially convened election court had heard that the Labour MP stirred up racial tensions in a desperate bid to retain his seat in Oldham East and Saddleworth.
Giving their judgment, Mr Justice Nigel Teare and Mr Justice Griffith Williams said Mr Woolas was guilty of illegal practices under election law. They declared the poll result as void.
Mr Woolas was also found to have knowingly made a false statement that Mr Watkins had reneged on a promise to live within the constituency prior to the election.
That suggested Mr Watkins was “untrustworthy”.
But the judges found it could not be proved that Mr Woolas had deliberately made a false statement about claims his opponent solicited illegal donations from a foreign donor.
Mr Woolas denied the allegations made by Mr Watkins, who had said the MP deliberately played on racial tensions in his constituency by falsely claiming that Mr Watkins was “in league with extremist Muslims”.
His team allegedly hoped that by exploiting the racial divide in Oldham, the scene of race riots in 2001, they would “bring out the white Sun-reading vote”.
The incendiary remark was made in an email which said: “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.”
Mr Woolas was accused of fighting a “dirty and dishonest” campaign full of “lies, smears and totally false allegations”. Mr Watkins’s lawyers argued that: “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.”
Emails between members of Mr Woolas’s campaign team, obtained by Mr Watkins’s lawyers, detail their alleged plans to claim falsely that Mr Watkins supported Islamic extremists and was “prepared to condone death threats” against Mr Woolas to secure their vote.
Pamphlets sent out by Mr Woolas also falsely suggested that Mr Watkins was receiving illegal funding from abroad and had lied about where he lived, it was claimed.
Mr Woolas was found to have breached the Representation of the People Act 1983, in which it is an offence to “make or publish any false statement of fact” about an opponent.
Mr Watkins’s legal team successfully argued that “Mr Woolas exploited the privilege of free speech in order to demonise his opponent and to mislead the electorate… the false statements were devastating and far-reaching, and were made in an exceptionally marginal constituency”.
Mr Woolas, the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth since 1997, faced an uphill battle to cling on to his seat following disclosures about his expense claims by The Daily Telegraph last year.
He submitted receipts for items including tampons and women’s clothing, though he denied that he had claimed back money for the items on his expenses.
He was also widely criticised for his handling of the row over Gurkha resettlement rights, in which Joanna Lumley confronted him on live television.
While the Liberal Democrats have succeeded in overturning the result of May’s election, victory at the ballot box in the Oldham re-run represents a tougher challenge.
The party has slumped in opinion polls since deciding to join the Conservatives in a coalition administration in the wake of the inconclusive general election.
One this week saw its rating drop into single figures and a succession of surveys have shown a large proportion of its backers then would no longer vote Lib Dem.