The chilling effect of the Phil Woolas case

17 November 2010

We Spectator bloggers are now living under a new regime. Rather than posting our blogs
ourselves, we now have to go through the editors. This is all very sensible. Libel is a serious business and you can’t be too careful these days. The Spectator has been a stalwart
defender of freedom of speech and I know Fraser Nelson feels particularly strongly about this. 

The closing down of debate – especially on the subject of radical Islam – is something that hits at the heart of democracy and liberal thought. This magazine has been as courageous as
it is possible to be in this area without putting the publication out of business and everyone who works for it on the dole.

But there is a wider problem within the body politic as demonstrated by the Phil Woolas case in Oldham and Saddleworth. 

Politics is a dirty business and general election campaigning is politics at its dirtiest. Labour’s former immigration minister stands accused of telling lies about his Liberal Democrat opponent,
whom he accused of pandering to Muslim extremists. Judges have intervened to strip Mr Woolas of his seat and Ed Miliband has said he is  no longer welcome to stand as a Labour MP. 


Now, I don’t know if Mr Woolas is guilty of misrepresenting his opponents’ views. But this surely isn’t really the point. What if he has said that the Lib Dems were planning to overturn their
pledge on tuition fees? He would have had no evidence for this, but he would have been right. Would that have been a lie or a good guess? 

As Ed Howker has said, the Woolas campaign was not untypical in northern
politics. And nor are the Liberal Democrats as they like to suggest, as Lorna Fitzsimons discovered in Rochdale in 2005 when she was unseated by an alliance of the Lib Dems and the deeply
unpleasant Muslim Public Affairs Committee (who also sit at the centre of the Woolas case). 

I spent an hour or so in Court Three of the Royal Courts of Justice today to watch this strange spectacle play itself out 

I was not comfortable with Phil Woolas’s "robust" approach to immigration policy. And I cringed at his election leaflets. His attempt to scare white working class voters was distasteful
to this north London liberal. But the gleeful way in which he has been hung out to dry by the Labour Party has been more so. How quick were Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman to reject him – and
how slow to condemn Ken Livingstone for backing a non-Labour candidate in the Tower Hamlets mayoral election in London. 

We will find out in the next few days whether Phil Woolas will be able to appeal the original judicial decision to strike out his election. 

He is fighting for the future of dirty street-fighting politics. The Liberal Democrats who are the dirtiest street fighters of them all should be cheering him on.

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  • guest

    Woolas was a liar. He used the same dishonest tactics in the previous election. From the comments below, you got well and truly busted.


    I thought we bloggers had always been run past the editors.

  • Pete

    Bill Rees,

    If you read the whole judgement, you’ll find that:

    i) It’s not tautologically true that every candidate condones terrorists plots against their opponents, which is what “woo the vote of extremists” means in this context. From the judgement:

    “That… stated that he was prepared to overlook threats of extreme violence in pursuit of an advantage.

    “The Respondent [Woolas] and his election team were aware that some Muslims wished to cause the Respondent to lose his seat and, to that end, were persuading Muslims to vote for Petitioner [Watkins]. They in turn wished to persuade the “white folk” to vote for the Petitioner. To do so they had to get them “angry”. The chosen method or strategy was to suggest that there were Muslim extremists who advocated violence, in particular to the Respondent, and that the Petitioner was attempting to seek the support of such Muslims. This was, we consider, one of the methods by which it was hoped to “damage” the Petitioner.”

    ii) Having made up a bunch of stuff about Muslim extremists trying to kill him and Watkins was wooing their vote, Woolas then claimed that Watkins was confronted at a hustings about this and refused to condemn it. Again lets look at the judgement:

    “The Petitioner was not asked at the hustings to condemn threats of violence against the Respondent. There was therefore no basis at all for saying that he refused to condemn such action, even assuming that such threats had been made against the Respondent by Muslims during the campaign.”

    Note that your proposed solution is worse than useless here, because if Watkins condemns the death-threats, he’s lending credibility to the claim that he’s supported by a bunch of murderous thugs.

    It’s like Woolas claiming that Watkins never apologised for shooting JFK, and you pointing out that this could easily be refuted by Watkins apologising. Technically true, but kind of missing the larger point.


    iii) It’s hard to think of how he could have more effectively refuted it than by having claimed to live in the constituency in the first place. Saying “No, I really really do” is unlikely to make that claim more credible. Which is kind of the point of all defamation law – personal smears are hard to refute completely, because people always assume that where there’s smoke there’s fire.

    iv) Where did you get the idea that the judges took the size of the majority into account?

    v) What does fraudulent voting have to do with anything?

  • Frederik

    Nonsense. Woolas knew the law, and he broke it. British law doesn’t demand much from candidates – i.e. not being corrupt and not wilfully lying about the character of opponents – and Woolas couldn’t even meet this least of standards. There was a clear line marked do not cross, and Woolas crossed it.

    And why should we tolerate conduct from politicians that would lead to expulsion from any other profession? People are entitled to expect that politicians believe everything they say; the politician who lies for personal gain is a charlatan who deserves everything the courts throw at him.

  • Paul T Horgan

    There is a crucial difference between going back on a policy and a dishonest personal attack, which you, amongst others fail to recognise.

    So perhaps best that your blogs should have a reality check on them.

  • Bill Rees

    The conclusions of the court, from the report of the case, were as follows:

    “The Respondent (Woolas) made statements of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of the Petitioner which he had no reasonable grounds for believing were true and did not believe were true. Those statements were as follows:

    “(i) The statement in the Examiner (Labour literature) that the Respondent 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.

    “(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.”

    Is this judgement sufficient reason to nullify an election.

    (i) For Woolas to accuse his opponent of trying to “woo the vote” of Muslim extremists is presumably tautologically true, given that candidates are trying to woo the vote of everyone in a constituency, whether extremists or non-extremists, Muslims or non-Muslims. How could this allegation could be a genuine ground for nullifying an election?

    (ii) The allegation that the LD candidate had failed to condemn extremists could easily be refuted by the LD candidate actually condemning them. In any case, one man’s condemnation is another man’s mild rebuke.

    (iii) If he was living in the constituency, all he had to do was to refute the allegation.

    The judges seem to have found against Woolas because of the slim majority he won. But that begs the question of what majority would be big enough to be unassailable.

    The biggest threat to our election system is fraudulent voting, not robust campaigning that may sometimes overstep the mark, or even be downright dishonest. Elections have never been about making statements that are legally 100% watertight, and they never will be.

    Phil Woolas may be a pratt, but in this case the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

  • Pete

    Just to echo everyone else on this thread:

    No, no, no you confounded moron!

    Politicians can still continue to speculate, misinform and outright lie about each others’ policies – it’s just the ad hominem stuff where they need to be a little bit careful.

    Even here, all the law says is that you need to have reasonable grounds for believing, and do actually believe, any personal allegations you make. It doesn’t have to be true or anything.

    So if Phil wanted to spin a bunch of lies in order to start a race war as part of his dirty street-fighting electoral style, he was perfectly entitled to do it. It just had to focus on policy.

  • Rob S

    I agree with John at 1042. Everyone knows campaigns can be dastardly and you do not expect to enter one if you do not have backbone.
    The LIb Dems are notorious in their ‘excessive’ campaign literature. Living in the ward, i woudl comment on the subtle change in the literature – ‘ Conservatives cannot win here’ to the now more subtle ‘ Conservatives are third here’.
    The burden of proof is whether Mr Woolas ‘absolutely’ knew what he printed was incorrect.

  • Alexander Pelling

    John W at 10:42. I don’t understand what you mean when you say that the case sets a “horrific precedent” with its “new judicial involvement.” The case was brought under the Representation of the People Act 1983, which, as its name implies, has been on the statute book for nearly thirty years. Why isn’t this case a straightforward application of a statutory power? I can’t immediately see a precedent. What is the legal development that it contains?

  • Rob

    Your question about tuition fees is a complete red herring. The judges found that what was key was that Woolas went beyond a ‘political’ attack and made a factual attack that went to the heart of his opponent’s character. To take an alternative example, what if Woolas had stated that his opponent was a convicted paedophile, knowing it to be untrue. Should that have been allowed as robust political debate?

    The fact that this power has not been used for 99 years (although there was a local authority case in London very similar to my hypothetical) perhaps indicates that judges would be very reluctant to interfere in political argument. But simplying telling lies by making factually untrue statements about your opponent personally is a different matter.

  • Onus Probandy

    There is a significant difference between expressing an opinion and telling a lie.

    Saying that the LibDems would raise tutition fees would have been speaking of the future, and so is implicitly an opinion — we can’t talk about future facts. It’s also political opinion. Opinions can never be lies. Only right or wrong; and we should never hold someone criminally liable for having a wrong opinion.

    Saying that his LibDem opponent has already acted in a way that panders to Muslim extremists is talking of the past, and is stating something as a fact, not an opinion. If it isn’t the case then it is a lie.

    If we allow candidates to lie about their opponents to get elected, then campaigns become pointless — it simply becomes a matter of who can come up with who can come up with the most unpleasant lie and have it believed. You’ll forgive me if I would rather elections were fought on different grounds.

  • Klaus Westwood

    For god’s sake – why is it that so many apparently intelligent journalists are failing to understand the issue here. “What if he has said that the Lib Dems were planning to overturn their pledge on tuition fees?” NOTHING. Woolas’ transgression was on the basis he knowingly made false statements about the personal character of an opponent for electoral gain. PERSONAL. It really is pathetic how so much ill-informer and badly thought out guffe is being written on this. READ THE STATUTE then READ THE JUDGMENT. Then you might be in a position to comment…

  • Evan Harris

    “Now, I don’t know if Mr Woolas is guilty of misrepresenting his opponents’ views. But this surely isn’t really the point.”

    Damn right! The issue in this case – which every other journalist has grasped – is whether Mr Woolas knowingly misrepresented (lied) about his opponents’ *personal* conduct.
    I suggest that Labour should have expelled him, not over just the verdict (and if that were the only basis then it could and should be reversed on successful appeal). Rather the sanction should have been imposed much earlier when it became clear – and this aspect was uncontested – from emails that Mr Woolas’s campaign (for which he took full responsibility) decided that it was an appropriate tactic “to galvanise the white Sun-reading voters” and that “We need… to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out … If we don’t get the white vote angry he’s gone”.
    To use stoke up racial tensions as a campaign technique may be legal but should be consistent with being a candidate for any mainstream party, nor – Ms Harman and Mr Miliband take note – being appointed spokesman on immigration.

    In contrats, when Liberal Democrat (and Labour) politicians in Tower Hamlets in the 1990’s were accused of stirring up race tensions over housing allocations in the Isle of Dogs, the Lib Dems held an enquiry and expelled members.

  • Mossytoddler

    What is it you’re scared to say here? That we’ve entered a new era of politics and the Muslim bloc vote is now an important factor? That Woolas has Muslims coming at him from all sides (in alliance with the Lib Dems to unseat him, and working within Labour to brand him a WAYCIST)? That the Muslim bloc vote is going to hold the balance of power in many constituencies and will use that to wrest concessions from all parties?

  • John HW

    Good article. I think the Woolas case sets a horrific precedent. Quite apart from the jaw dropping hypocrisy of the Lib Dems in bringing this case – past masters of the tactics of deniable smear, innuendo and unattributable rumour in many previous campaigns – lies a wholly reprehensible, unwelcome and new judicial involvement. Like Labour or loathe them, they simply have to be re-elected in Oldham with an increased majority. I know Miliband and Harman have played a stinker so far on this, but still…

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