?Voice of the left?
The media spotlight on Oldham during the election period tended to fall on the Oldham West and Royton seat, held by the bumbling New Labour patrician and former star of the Labour left Campaign Group, Michael ?nine homes? Meacher. This was unsurprising, as it was in this part of the town that the recent street fighting between police and Asian youth, who were defending their communities from racist attacks, took place. The neighbouring seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth and its Labour MP, Phil Woolas, are however worthy of some attention.
Saddleworth is a former textile manufacturing area in the Pennines, which became a residential commuter belt after the death of the industry. Immediately prior to boundary changes which brought in two of Oldham?s poorest wards - St Mary?s and St James - it had been a Tory seat. The decline of the Conservative Party in the northern suburbs saw the new seat become a Labour-Liberal Democrat marginal, which was taken for Labour in 1997 by Woolas, with a majority of just over 3,000.
Woolas came straight from a stable which has produced a succession of Labour Party career politicians: ie, the presidency of the National Union of Students. Again typical - as he arrived in the constituency to press his case to become the candidate - was his possession of ?left? credentials. Keen to gain the confidence of Labour?s activists for the campaign which would be needed to win the seat, Woolas emphasised his association with the Tribune group. Today, he is the chair of the board of directors of the Tribune journal, which still sub-titles itself, ?The voice of the left?.
The voice of the left, as amplified through Woolas?s pronouncements and actions, increasingly though began to sound like the voice of the right. Securing a position in the first Blair government as a ministerial aide to the former Socialist Workers Party member, Lord MacDonald of Tradeston, at the transport department, Woolas was soon championing the privatisation of the London Underground and the air traffic control service. Meanwhile, he began work on drafting his private member?s bill which will seek to impose a new condition upon claimants of state benefits such as jobseeker?s allowance, working families tax credit and housing benefit. If this voice of the left is heeded, benefit will be withheld from claimants who are not on the electoral register. Woolas argues that his proposal will provide further assistance in detecting benefit fraud, whilst impressing upon the poor their responsibility to vote in parliamentary and local elections.
Woolas reacted to last month?s rioting by unequivocally stating his support for the police and condemnation of ?all violence and intimidation?. No doubt fearing that this was not enough to be certain of securing himself against the challenge from the right, he went into print in the Oldham Chronicle on June 5 with the following statement: ?I will campaign for compulsory DNA testing for everyone, not just criminals. I feel that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from this.?
Woolas?s support for the police did, however, pay dividends, on the same day, when campaigners from the North West Unemployed Action Group entered his constituency office to protest at his attack on their right to claim benefits. Police arrived extremely rapidly and obligingly arrested all protestors, detaining them until after the office closed. Only one of them was charged, after allegations of common assault and damage to a lap top computer had been made by the rattled Tribune chair.
Although his vote dropped by 5,000 on the 1997 figure, Woolas retained his 3,000 majority after the Liberal Democrat vote also fell by the same number. The fascist British National Party secured 11% of the poll. The Unemployed Action Group had quite correctly called for voters in the constituency to abstain, entitling their leaflet, ?Put Woolas on the dole?. All candidates in this predominantly working class area, stood for the same attacks on those fighting back against racism and the police and those denied the right to work and a living wage.
It is tragic that the option of answering Woolas in a positive way was unavailable due to the Socialist Alliance?s failure to enter the election contest in this seat.