It was only last month that the Parish council at Uppermill was debating whether they needed to spend £500,000 on updating the Civic Hall. The consensus of popular opinion was that there were now’t wrong with Civic Hall as it was, and Councillors should produce a business plan if they thought it was ever going to get more use than it currently did. Why – hadn’t t’Parish council had only just finished paying for the ‘monstrous carbuncle’ they had bolted onto the front of the building, in a fit of expansion, 25 years ago?
You will be hearing a lot about Uppermill Civic Hall over the next few weeks – and watching the cream of London’s lawyers come and go through its algae covered portals. Mr Justice Griffiths Williams recently spent an entire afternoon sitting in the Royal Courts of Justice in London listening to arguments from leading barristers concerning the precise place that the first election court to consider corruption allegations against a sitting MP for 100 years should convene.
Thus it is that this morning, two High Court Justices, accompanied by a registrar from the Supreme Court and a shorthand writer from the House of Commons will journey forth with all the pageantry that an Inter-City train can provide, and take up residence in Saddleworth to decide whether the election result, which returned Labour MP Phil Woolas to the seat for Oldham East and Saddleworth, should be allowed to stand.
Oldham East and Saddleworth has been the scene of many a bitterly fought election. 15 years ago Peter Mandelson was drafted in to mange an earlier challenge for the seat by then youthful Blairite Phil Woolas – Woolas came second then. Mandelson admitted in his recent autobiography that he had gone ‘on the attack’ in order to make a Lib-Dem vote ‘as distasteful as possibly’.
“After the campaign was over, not only our opponents but some in Labour would denounce our ‘negative’ tactics in highlighting Lib Dem front-runner Chris Davies’ support for higher taxes and a Royal Commission to liberalise drugs laws. For tactical reasons, I felt we had had little choice.”
The Labour-supporting Daily Mirror distributed a special free edition in the constituency, with some trenchantly pro-Woolas material in it. This was later found to have broken election law, although prosecutors decided pursuing the case was not in ‘the public interest’. Similar tactics were employed in the recent election –some of which disgusted even Labour activists, well aware of the racial tensions in the area.
The narrow majority which returned Woolas – a mere 103 votes – is now being disputed by the Liberal-Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins under the rarely used section 106 of the Representation of the People Act (1983). Statement of petition HERE.
Mr Watkins was particularly upset by two features of Labour’s leaflet campaign, which ‘contained numerous misleading and erroneous claims regarding my personal character and reputation, and that of my campaign’ – specifically that he tried to woo Muslim extremists and claims regarding the financing of his bid for office. Election leaflets can be seen HERE.
However, this is no defamation case where the onus would be on Mr Woolas to prove the truth of his statements. Quite the reverse.
Elwyn Watkins must convince the court of three things.
First that the allegations made by Woolas were statements. Gavin Millar QC (entirely coincidentally, Alastair Campbell’s brother-in-law) is likely to argue that they were mere questions or suggestions.
Second, Mr Watkins must prove the statements questioned his personal character rather than just his political views.
Third, that the statements questioning his personal character were false.
Even then, he must show that Phil Woolas had no reasonable grounds to believe that such statements were true.
The stakes are high – if Elwyn Watkins is successful, not only will there be a by-election, but – depending on the court’s verdict – it is entirely possible that Phil Woolas and his agent will be fined and barred from holding office, even from voting in an election. Section 144(1) of the Act bars any appeal from the judges decision. However, if they fail to agree, then the original result will stand.
Expect a bloody fight. The name of Saddleworth is already imprinted on the British conscience as a place of dark and terrible deeds. As events unfold in Uppermill Civic Hall today, its reputation is unlikely to be enhanced.
UPDATED: Excellent resume at The Saddleworth News HERE.