Shadow Immigration minister Phil Woolas is suspended from the Labour party after his election as MP was declared void. Labour leader Ed Miliband tells Channel 4 News it was right to suspend him.
The court ruled Mr Woolas breached election laws when he stirred up racial divisions in a tightly-fought election campaign against his Liberal Democrat rival Elwyn Watkins.
The rare court hearing, which was the first legal attempt to overturn a general election result since 1911, has triggered a by-election in the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency.
Labour leader Ed Miliband told Channel 4 News he thought the party had made the right judgement in suspending Woolas.
He said: “The court’s made a very clear judgement in this case. A clear finding of fact about what happened and what Phil Woolas did and that he knowingly made false allegations about his opponent and therefore I think we’ve taken the right decision. The right decision is to suspend him from the party and to say we’re not going to fund his further legal action. I think reasonable people will think we’ve done the right thing.
“I think that most MPs, the vast majority of people fight very clean fights. I think most people will agree that is the case. There’s obviously rough and tumble in politics, but sometimes you go beyond rough and tumble and I think this in a way is a salutory reminder to all politicians from across the political spectrum about the importance of a clean fight. It’s certainly a reminder that I think all of us will take to heart.
“I think there a clearly wider implications that the electoral commission will need to look at, because this has been a law that hasn’t been used obviously for a hundred years and I think most people will think it’s right that the people who decide whether MPs stay in office or get kicked out are in general, the voters. But clearly you do need a backstop and I think that’s what the election court has done today. They’ve made their ruling. We’ve accepted that ruling. It’s very important to me that we fight cleanly in our politics. There’s no place for making misleading allegations about opponents in this way and that’s why we’ve taken the action and judgement that we’ve taken today.”
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman said Mr Woolas’ behaviour was “no part of Labour’s politics”.
“The court has found that Phil Woolas said things that he knew were untrue during his election campaign.
“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,” Ms Harman said.
The specially convened election court ruled that he knowingly made false statements about the Liberal Democrat candidate. Mr Woolas now cannot be elected to the House of Commons for three years.
He told reporters the ruling will “chill political speech”, adding that he has applied for a judicial review based on the fact that the case rested on a previous legal judgement made almost 100 years ago. He was orded to pay Mr Watkins £5,000 in costs.
Mr Watkins claimed that the Labour MP breached electoral law. He accused the Labour MP’s campaign team of setting out to “make the white folk angry” by publishing leaflets in the run-up to the election containing false claims about foreign donations and support from Muslim extremists.
Phil Woolas’ solicitor Gerald Shamash, said on his behalf that he was instructing his legal team to seek a judicial review.
He said: “This election petition raised fundamental issues about the freedom to question and criticise politicians.
“The court has found that the election leaflets put out on my behalf contained three statements which breached Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.
“The court accepted that all three statements were attacks on the petitioner’s political conduct but held that the statements also related to the petitioner’s personal character or conduct.
“In reaching this decision the court adopted an interpretation of conduct decided in a case nearly 100 years ago when considering a 19th century statute.
“The court has decided that an election should be overturned and an MP should lose his seat and be incapable of being elected to the House of Commons for three years because statements which attacked a candidate’s ‘political conduct’ were also attacks on his ‘honour’ and ‘purity’.”
Lawyer Mr Shamash warned that today’s judgment would have a chilling effect on political debate.
“Those who stand for election and participate in the democratic process must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching scrutiny and inquiry,” he said.
“They must accept that their political character and conduct will be attacked.
“It is vital to our democracy that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear that they may be found to have breached electoral laws.
“This decision will inevitably chill political speech.”
Simon Hughes MP, Liberal Democrat deputy leader, responded to the decision, saying “It is an important day for the rule of law, and an important day for politics.”
Coalition test: by-election will be 'snapshot' of public opinion
Mr Woolas scraped through the general election winning the constituency with a 103 majority following two recounts.This year's general election saw Labour's 2005 majority of 41 per cent give way dramatically, transforming Oldham East and Saddleworth into an ultra-marginal seat - with the Liberal Democrats taking 31.63 per cent of the votes and Labour 31.86 per cent. The Conservatives won 26 per cent of votes - up from 18 per cent in 2005 - with candidate Kashif Ali 2,310 votes behind Mr Woolas. The latter has represented the constituency since 1997.
With a by-election now on the cards, the coalition government faces its first big test, says polling group YouGov.
"By-elections are typically snapshots of what is going on in the country at the time," YouGov's senior political researcher Laurence Janta-Lipinski told Channel 4 News. "It will be an interesting test for the coalition."
The Cleggmania of the general election, which pushed the LibDems up to 24 per cent in the opinion polls, has since subsided with the party losing much of the support gained during the election - now settling around 11-12 per cent in the polls.
Meanwhile the two main parties are running neck and neck, with the Conservatives just a per cent or two above Labour in the polls - bobbing around the high 30s and low 40 per cent mark.
Oldham East and Saddleworth, to the east of Greater Manchester, is a constituency riddled with deprived terraces and racial tensions.
Oldham has a large Muslim population, which in places erupted into race riots during 2001. During this period the BNP gained more than 10 per cent of the vote.
Mr Woolas’ campaign team, he said, were attempting to “galvanise the white Sun vote” – by depicting an alleged campaign by Muslims to “take Phil out”.
Mr Woolas has denied the accusations, adding that running such a campaign would have been “political suicide”.
Giving their judgment, Mr Justice Nigel Teare and Mr Justice Griffith Williams said Mr Woolas was guilty of illegal practices under election law.
He had attacked his opponent’s personal conduct and character with statements that he courted Muslim extremists who had advocated violence against the Labour MP.
He had suggested Mr Watkins had refused to condemn such threats in pursuit of personal advantage. Both statements were untrue and Mr Woolas knew them to be, the judges said.
Conservative Party Chairman, Sayeeda Warsi said today: “This ruling exposes Ed Miliband’s terrible misjudgement. He was fully aware of Phil Woolas’s despicable and inflammatory campaign but still appointed him to a highly sensitive role on his front bench. After failing to act when Ken Livingstone directly contravened party rules, and dithering over whether to attend the TUC rally, Labour has another leader who’d rather duck a difficult decision than show real leadership.”
The Labour party has yet to release a formal response.
Opening the case in September, Helen Mountfield QC said diary entries kept during the election by Mr Woolas showed he was “pretty convinced” he was going to lose.
The prosecutor said Mr Woolas feared his downfall would be prompted by a national swing away from Labour, alongside the expenses scandal and decision he made as Immigration Minister.
Two High Court judges presided over the five-day hearing, which was called on a rarely-used clause of the representation of the People Act (1983) to declare the 5 May election result void and force a new vote.