103. Or, Elwyn Watkins: Big Girl’s Blouse

Just when you thought the election was finally over, and it was safe to look at the news again without keeping a barf bag next to the television, along comes this gem:

Losing candidate challenges Oldham election result

“Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins came second in Oldham East and Saddleworth on 7 May following two recounts. But he claims Labour leaflets contained misleading claims about his reputation and campaign and has begun a High Court bid to have the result quashed.”

Unfortunately, some of the story is missing from the BBC piece above. There’s a word for Mr. Watkins, and it isn’t “dignified”.

Since this is happening on my doorstep, I saw the campaign material that’s the bone of contention here – it came through my letterbox, along with leaflets from the Conservatives, UKIP, and a bunch of lobotomised baboons the BNP. In terms of demographics, this is an unusual constituency – a mixture of inner-city deprivation and wealthy rural villages/commuter belt, with a narrow strip of middle-class suburbia separating the two. The Conservatives, since the boundaries were redrawn 15 years or so ago, are never going to win this seat because the staunchly left-wing inner area core more than counterbalances the pockets of Tory loyalists further out in the villages. UKIP’s role in the election was essentially to inject levity by enabling us all to laugh at their touchingly delusional party leaders, and the BNP are a group of offensive, racist thugs whose party literature, when it dropped through my letterbox, went straight into the recycling bin (unfortunately their leaflets were printed on glossy paper, so I couldn’t flush them down the toilet where they belonged). So the contest, here, is between Labour and the Lib Dems, who hold a significant number of seats on the borough council, with the Tories placing a distant third.

This was not, in fact, one of the top thirty Lib Dem target seats this time around, but the campaign here, nevertheless, got very nasty. In the end, it was one of the ten closest election races in the UK, with Labour incumbent Phil Woolas holding on to the seat by just 103 votes. There were two recounts because the numbers were so close; this seat usually calls a winner at around 3.30am the morning after the election, but the results were not called until around 11.30am. At that point, one would have hoped that Mr. Watkins would at least have known how to lose gracefully – and indeed it seemed he did, for about ten minutes. But apparently the honeymoon period of his defeat is now over, and he’s suffered the hideous torment of not seeing his name printed in the Oldham Evening Chronicle (a newspaper so dire that they probably couldn’t get a camera to the Second Coming if it happened on Union Street outside their office building at lunchtime on a quiet Wednesday) for four whole days in a row. For as loudly mediocre a publicity whore as Mr. Watkins, that’s like crack withdrawal. Imagine what he’d be like if his name started appearing regularly in papers people actually read, that contain actual news. We’d have to build a new planet to house his head. If he succeeds in getting the result thrown out (unlikely, I would have thought), we’ll have to have a by-election. Whoopee.

I know, I know. I sound angry about this. I am angry about this. You see, I voted for Elwyn Watkins, holding my nose as I did so, and after having sworn, in the first week of the campaign, that I would not. I voted, for once, for a party far more than a person, as a deliberate statement, because I am convinced that this country needs major electoral reform, and I hoped, since it looked as if we would be heading for a hung parliament, that the Lib Dems would be in a position to force a referendum. And the reason why I held my nose as I voted for Mr. Watkins is, well, Mr. Watkins himself – he’s basically a gob on legs – and the election materials sent out by Mr. Watkins’ own campaign, which were downright obnoxious. As I said, the campaign here between Labour and the Lib Dems was nasty. Mr Watkins’ own campaign leaflets made some very unpleasant insinuations about Phil Woolas, particularly regarding Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims, making a great deal out of minor irregularities in Woolas’s claims that were almost certainly the result of Woolas simply forgetting to highlight specific items on a couple of supermarket receipts. Not necessarily admirable, but it’s not as if Woolas claimed for a floating duck island, or mortgage interest on a loan that had already been repaid. The sums involved were minor, and Woolas’s claims were essentially within the rules that were in place at the time, with a (very) few minor aberrations which were probably genuine mistakes. And yet I got three separate Lib Dem campaign leaflets through my letterbox, each of which stopped just short of calling Mr. Woolas a criminal, and each of which was a masterpiece of half-truth, negative spin and innuendo.

And now Mr. Watkins – who, evidently, has approximately the same level of self-awareness as, say, Jeffrey Archer or Zsa Zsa Gabor – is loudly whining to anybody who will listen that Woolas’s win was unfair because Labour’s election materials in this constituency “contained numerous misleading and erroneous claims regarding my personal character and reputation, and that of my campaign”, which would be in contravention of the Representation of the People Act (1983). The righteous anger is impressive. Prick him with a needle, and you’ll get enough hot air to heat most of Lancashire for a couple of years. The act might even be convincing if he hadn’t shown us on the campaign trail that he’s all mouth and trousers.

Because hot air is all it is. I read all of the campaign material that came through the letterbox. Masochistic of me, I know, but I did. Labour’s leaflets pulled no punches, particularly regarding Mr. Watkins (they paid little attention to Kashif Ali, the Tory candidate, because the chance of his ever winning was similar to the chance that Simon Cowell might be human), but the most borderline-defamatory, vituperatively negative materials, bar none, that I received came from Elwyn Watkins and the local Lib Dems. And now he’s crying foul and trying to force a by-election, because he lost. There’s a word for that. There are lots of words for that, most of them quite short.

I suppose it’s too much to hope that the Lib Dem central office will step in and squash this idiot like a bug. He got my vote once. He won’t get it again.

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