On 5th November a specially convened electoral court handed down a judgment in which it declared that Phil Woolas had knowingly made untruthful statements in the course of his campaign to be re-elected as MP for Oldham and Saddleworth East. As a result the election has been declared void and Mr Woolas’ status as MP annulled. A by-election has been ordered.
On the wider political canvas this has caused a rumpus amongst MP’s not just because of the decision of the court but because Mr Woolas has been summarily dismissed from the Labour party, provoking a mildly entertaining “revolt” and, if reports are to believed, plenty of grief for the ever irritating Harriet Harperson.
However the matter which caused my state of mind to swing from “jaundiced amusement” to “irate” was a radio interview with all purpose apparatchik and general Stalinist throwback Graham Stringer MP last Tuesday.
Quizzed by BBC political correspondent John Pienaar on Radio 5Live, Stringer reported his and many other MPs’ – of all parties – rage at the treatment of Mr Woolas. This was not merely at Woolas’ summary treatment by the hatchet faced, humourless Harperson, but at the intervention of the courts in the electoral process. This is my note of some of his observations:
“The court has come to one conclusion, we [i.e. MPs] have another view…Actually the court shouldn’t be interfering in the democratic process in this way anyway…And if they [the Court] have done the position of the party should be to support Phil [Woolas]…Elections in constituencies that are marginal in general elections are not Sunday school outings…candidates from all parties occasionally cross the line…It’s not [a question of] agreeing with every word [that Woolas said] …. and some of those leaflets are pretty strong…it’s recognizing that even if he crossed the line, the court shouldn’t have intervened …Democratic principles are involved here.”
Now of course it would be unfortunate and undesirable if the Courts should find themselves involved in every political spat and verbal rough and tumble. For example, I do not think that Ms Harperson should be subject to prosecution for stirring up hatred of either red haired people or rodents, recent comments notwithstanding.
But should the courts be divorced from control of the conduct of elections?
The complaint in issue was made by his Mr Woolas’ LibDem opponent, Robert Elwyn Watkins. The case was not heard in some smoke filled back office (where politicos like to do their business) or under a palm tree, but by two of Her Majesty’s Justices of the Queen’s Bench Division sitting in public. When not generally “monking about” I have had some small experience of such men and women. I am not a completely unqualified fan, but I will grudgingly admit that on the whole they are a pretty smart bunch.
The specific complaint was that Mr Woolas was guilty of an illegal practice contrary to section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, namely that before the election and for the purposes of affecting the return, he made or published several false statements of fact in relation to Mr Watkin’s personal character or conduct which Mr Woolas had no reasonable grounds for believing to be true and did not believe to be true.
As with any offence, each and every component of the definition must be distinctly proved. The burden of proof is the criminal one: beyond reasonable doubt.
I shall let the court explain a little more. At paragraph 26 of the judgment the Judges explain thus:
“The Representation of the People Act 1983
26. Section 106, which substantially re-enacts section 91 of the Representation of the People Act 1949, which itself re-enacted sections and 1 and 3 of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1895, provides as follows:
“(1) A person who, or any director of any body or association corporate which –
(a) before or during an election,
(b) for the purpose of affecting the return of a candidate at the election, makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, the statement to be true.”
There is thus a long established principle, and proof of the offence involves the mens rea (mental element) of knowingly making a false statement of fact, and not mere opinion. Taking into account the criminal standard of proof this is a stringent test indeed.
The consequences of such illegal practice are set out in sections 159-160 of the Act. Amongst other matters, if a candidate is found either personally or by his agent to be guilty of any corrupt or illegal practice his election shall be void.
After the usual and expected meticulous review of the law and the evidence, the conclusions of the Judges were summarised thus at paragraph 207 and following:
“Reasonable grounds for belief
207. For the reasons which we have given we are sure that the Respondent [Woolas] made statements of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of the Petitioner [Watkins] which he had no reasonable grounds for believing were true and did not believe were true [my emphasis]. Those statements were as follows:
(i) The statement in the Examiner that the Petitioner [Watkins] had attempted to woo the vote, that is, that he had attempted to seek the electoral support, of Muslims who advocated violence, in particular to the Respondent [Woolas].
(ii) The statement in the Labour Rose that the Petitioner had refused to condemn extremists who advocated violence against the Respondent.
(iii) The statement in the election address that the Petitioner had reneged on his promise to live in the constituency.
208. The Respondent is therefore guilty of an illegal practice…We shall so report to the Speaker as required by sections 144 and 158 of the RPA 1983. Section 144 requires the court to determine whether the election of the Respondent as a Member of Parliament is void. W have determined that his election is void pursuant to section 159 of the RPA 1983 because the Respondent is personally guilty of an illegal practice….”
Pretty strong stuff, and seems clear enough. There is a bit more. Whilst it would be unwelcome and unnecessary to rehash all the evidence, at paragraph 193 we find this in respect of a particular factual matter:
“193. Surprisingly, both the Respondent [Woolas] and Mr. Fitzpatrick [his agent] gave evidence that the article in the Jewish Chronicle on 4th. March had not been seen by them. That is surprising because one would have expected the Labour party election team in the Constituency to have monitored the internet for reports of their opponent and to have found the article in the Jewish Chronicle, especially in circumstances where the Respondent had copied his letter to Mr. Clegg to the Jewish Chronicle. However, the Petitioner’s web site entry of 1st March must have been seen by the team. Mr.Fitzpatrick accepted that he did see it….”
For those unfamiliar with the careful and nuanced language of Her Majesty’s Justices there is a code here. “Surprisingly” in this context means “We don’t believe a word of what you said.”
Not bad for a former Minister of the Crown.
Now, leaving aside the ins and outs of the Byzantine workings of local politics in which “the Muslim Vote” is a significant factor, the law of the land is clear. It has been laid down by Parliament for more than a century. Even though Oldham East and Saddleworth may seem to some to have more in common with the Land of Mordor than with the Home Counties, the law applies there was well, for the moment.
I could barely raise an eyebrow at the antics of the manifestly mediocre placeman Mr Woolas in his desperate, nay, frenzied bid to hang onto office and the generous income that it has so long afforded him at the taxpayer’s expense. It was and is understandable. Doubtless it would be frightening for a man so spectacularly lacking in discernable talent to have to try to make his way in the real world. Fear provokes desperation. And sure, elections are rough and tough.
No. It is Mr Stringer’s comments which seem to me to betray a more serious and fundamental problem. Mr Stringer and other MP seem to take the view that the law should not apply to them: OK, it’s a law, but hell, he’s an MP, he’s one of us, and if he did lie he only lied a bit. To extrapolate, we are MP’s and this law which we have enacted could be inconvenient. “We” – the political “uber class” – are supreme. The court should not “intervene.”
It may be worthwhile noting that the court did not “intervene” – at least not off its own bat. It heard and adjudicated upon a complaint by a private citizen who was legitimately entitled to make it, as it was obliged to do, about allegedly unlawful conduct, and under powers which previous Parliaments have expressly granted to it – and with good reason.
Neither Mr Woolas nor anyone else should be above the law.
I was immediately reminded of the general consensus of public opinion during the expenses scandal: Members of Parliament lay down the rules for others, the little people, to obey but which they do not think it appropriate to apply to themselves.
Whom, I wonder, would Mr. Stringer have regulate elections? The MP’s themselves? The Party machines? I think not. We have seen the consequences of self regulation before and know them well.
Is it inconvenient for politicians to be held to account for making false statements about their opponents and in so doing breaking the law?
If so, it seems to me there would be two solutions open to Mr Stringer. First, repeal the law which makes it illegal to knowingly make false statements of fact about one’s political opponents.
Let’s hear an MP argue for that and explain his case.
Alternatively, get your facts right and don’t lie. And recognise that the law applies to “You” as well to “Us.”
 I couldn’t possibly comment!