It was during the UK's general election campaign in May that it began: a tense political battle that would eventually go down in history for all the wrong reasons. Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas versus Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins, in a fight to the wire to win the notoriously marginal seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth, near Manchester.
Woolas went on to claim victory in the election – by just 103 votes. (And was recently appointed to the shadow cabinet by Labour's new leader Ed Miliband, a decision he may now regret). But the real drama was only just about to get started. In the aftermath of the election, Watkins filed a legal challenge to the result. Woolas had breached the Representation of the People Act (RPA), he said, because he had published several false statements about him in order to sway the electorate in his favour.
Central to the allegations was a claim that Woolas had tried to infer a connection between Watkins and extremist Muslims who advocated violence. Racial tensions run high in the constituency – which has a troubled history of inter-racial violence – and the implications were severe. Was a senior and high-ranking Labour politician using smear tactics against a Lib Dem opponent, while in the process potentially inciting racial hatred in a desperate bid to cling on to his seat?
It would be up to the judges to decide. A special election court was convened in Saddleworth, and there could scarcely have been a more incongruous setting for a trial of such historic significance. The first of its kind in nearly 100 years, it was to be set in a small Civic Hall in the confines of an idyllic Pennine town. High Court judges would travel from London, as would the national media, and all would watch closely as the dark underbelly of British politics was sliced open miles from the hustle and bustle of Manchester.
The court heard how emails were exchanged between members of Woolas’ campaign team. “Things are not going as well as I had hoped … we need to think about our first attack leaflet,” wrote campaign manager, Steven Green. "If we don’t get the white vote angry he’s gone,” responded Joe Fitzpatrick, Woolas’ election agent. An array of leaflets and newspaper-style materials were then promptly produced by the Labour team, approved by Woolas, accusing Watkins of trying to “woo” extremist votes, while Woolas himself was conversely presented as a tough on immigration candidate who had courageously defied extremist death threats.
Opinion was divided across the political spectrum. Many felt such tactics were simply part and parcel of electoral campaigning. “By-election hand-to-hand electoral combat can throw up trenchant exchanges and tricky campaign behaviour,” said Charles Kennedy of a similarly close-fought Saddleworth election in 1995. “One should not be too precious about this sort of thing.” Sitting in Labour’s Oldham office a week prior to the announcement of the Woolas verdict, Racial Equality First Director and lifelong Labour supporter Mohammed Tufail OBE adopted a similar position. Inflammatory leaflets were “just playing the game,” he said. “Sometimes you put in nutty leaflets nobody takes seriously.”
Others, though, strongly disagreed. Among them were two High Court judges: Mr Justice Griffith Williams and Mr Justice Teare. Delivering a historic ruling in the Saddleworth Civic Hall, they found Woolas “guilty of an illegal practice,” for contravening section 106 of the RPA. “To say that a person has sought the electoral support of persons who advocate extreme violence, clearly attacks his personal character or conduct,” they said. “It suggests that he is willing to condone threats of violence in pursuit of personal advantage.”
The consequences, the judges made immediately clear, were serious. “Allegations of an illegal practice in elections,” they wrote in their full judgement, “have what are in effect penal consequences.” As such, the May election Woolas won by 103 votes was declared void, and he was barred from the House of Commons and any elective office for three years.
Some of us expected it, but the verdict still came as a shock. There was a collective gasp in the hall’s makeshift press gallery when the announcement was made, particularly when the words “election” and “void” echoed through the room. It was a historic moment and all present were acutely aware of it. Here was a former cabinet minister, a front bench MP, being found guilty of lying by two High Court judges in a Civic Hall in a serene Pennine town.
But the story has yet to be concluded. Woolas said after hearing the verdict that he would apply for a judicial review of the case, which could take months. Though it remains to be seen whether he will stick to his guns after the Labour Party confirmed they would not support his appeal – either financially or politically. Labour leader Ed Miliband told Channel 4 News Woolas had now been suspended from the party. “The right decision is to suspend him from the party and to say we're not going to fund his further legal action,” he said.
Beyond Woolas, there is also a much bigger picture to be considered. If the judgement stands – which it most likely will – then there are potentially massive implications for politics on a national level. In the first instance, there is a danger that freedom of expression could be impinged. A paranoid self-censorship could result in overly sanitised, dull political campaigns lacking in fire or bite; there could be a “chilling effect” as Woolas' solicitor suggested.
Alternatively, the judgement may well serve as a timely reminder that there are some boundaries that cannot be crossed – that it is acceptable to push the line, to engage in rhetorical judo with opponents, but it is not legal to execute unfounded character assassinations, to spread lies or to incite racial hatred.
Or perhaps the repercussions will be limited, as legal experts have already predicted. Whatever the eventual consequences of the Woolas judgement might be, though, it is clear is that the trial – even if only temporarily – opened up the mechanics of political campaigning to public scrutiny, and that can only have been a good thing.
In essence, the whole dramatic affair was summed up in a few simple words quietly spoken by Elwyn Watkins in the moments after his historic victory. "Everybody is in favour of proper democratic debate, but that has boundaries," he said, standing outside the Civic Hall. “Politics has to be better than this."