This time it’s personal.
Oh, wait. It was personal the first time too, and that’s the problem.
It’s been all over the news all day. My MP, Phil Woolas, is apparently no longer my MP. I have no MP. Oldham East and Saddleworth is rudderless. My sakes, how on earth will we cope?
A specially-convened election court has found Mr. Woolas guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983. He’s been suspended from the Labour Party; there will apparently be a statement on Monday about his status as MP, but in the meantime his election has been declared void. He’s seeking a judicial review of the ruling, but the likelihood is that we’ll have to suffer another election. Apparently, one wasn’t enough. In the meantime, he’s barred from standing for parliament for three years. The odds are that his political career is effectively over.
He’s been found guilty of making false statements about the character and conduct of his Lib-Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins. The charges were brought by Mr. Watkins, who was beaten in May by a margin of just 103. And, for all sorts of reasons, it’s troubling.
On the one hand, yes, the election campaign in this constituency was brutally negative. This was a Lib-Dem target seat and Mr. Watkins and his team pulled out all the stops to claw it from Mr. Woolas. Indeed, the Lib-Dem pamphlets and mailings were the first to get personal in their attacks on their opponents (God help me, I read all this stuff when it came through the letterbox). The Lib-Dem campaign, in fact, went negative less than 24 hours after the election was called. Among other things, they more than implied that Mr. Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims were fraudulent, and that he was, therefore, a criminal; there were certainly a couple of claims made in error, but they were more or less certainly genuine mistakes. As the campaign went on, the accusations from both sides became wilder and wilder (since the Tory candidate was never going to win this seat – he finished trailing a fairly distant third – he managed to remain mostly above the fray.) Mr. Woolas – and this is inexcusable – cynically played the race card in a constituency in which there is a very real racial divide, and tried to play on white fear of Muslim extremism by presenting Mr. Watkins as a candidate who had allegedly tried to woo the extremist vote, whatever that is. Disgusting and distasteful, yes – and I didn’t vote for Mr. Woolas – but also no less vicious than the crap printed by Mr. Watkins’ own team.
Beyond that, I have a bigger issue with the way all of this has played out. We had an election campaign, and it got very nasty indeed. Both sides sailed too close to the wind. We cast our votes, the votes were counted and then recounted twice, and there was a result. And then the loser – who had, himself, behaved appallingly badly during the campaign – lodged £5000 with the court himself to trigger the challenge. If anybody else had put up the money, I’d have less of a problem with it. As it is, whatever the rights and wrongs of who said what about whom, more than anything else this smacks of a bad loser throwing a fit because he didn’t win the prize.
And, in the end, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for Phil Woolas. He fought a dirty campaign – but he did so against an opponent who also played fast and loose with the rules. He sometimes seemed to be out of his depth as a minister – Joanna Lumley wiped the floor with him over the Ghurka issue (justifiably, the government’s position was wrong, and insupportable – if we’re prepared to send people into battle on our behalf, we should be prepared to let them live here afterwards) – but he’s been a good, committed and genuinely caring constituency MP, and it shouldn’t give anyone any pleasure to see his career end in humiliation. It’s been particularly nauseating to watch the Labour Party drop him like a hot potato, and it’s been just as nauseating to watch Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Lib-Dems, effectively gloating on national television, as if his party’s candidate’s behaviour during the campaign was above reproach.
The big question now, of course, is what’s going to happen next. Mr. Woolas is seeking a judicial review, yes, but it’s more or less certain that we’re going to have another election, a prospect which I’m sure absolutely nobody, apart from Mr. Watkins, views with anything even slightly resembling joy. The Tories will have to pay for another campaign they’ve no hope of winning. Labour will have to find another candidate, who will have to run in a seat where the last Labour MP’s personal reputation has been shot down in flames in the national press. The Lib-Dems will have to run a by-election campaign when they’re rating far, far lower in opinion polls than they were in April, and try and sell their platform to an electorate that, in the centre and on the left, is increasingly mistrustful of the coalition that they themselves engineered. Mr. Watkins lost in May, and it’s by no means certain that he’ll win the rematch, whenever it’s called. He certainly won’t be getting my vote – and, yes, this time it *is* personal. There’s a certain delicious irony in Mr. Watkins using his own money to lodge a complaint that will lead to a by-election in which it’s very likely that he’ll be far more roundly defeated than he was the first time. Whoever Labour puts in to stand in Mr. Woolas’s place is quite likely to be returned to Parliament with a substantially increased majority. Sometimes, in politics, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.