The lying game
Yes, Phil Woolas lied through his teeth - but they all do, including the Liberal Democrats. Eddie Ford looks at the Oldham East ruling
For the first time in 99 years, a sitting MP has been sacked from his job by the courts, as opposed to the electorate - Philip James Woolas of Oldham East and Saddleworth, which he secured by only 103 votes during the last general election. So in a specially convened ‘election court’, held in the disputed constituency itself, two high court judges decreed that Woolas was guilty of breaching the 1983 Representation of the Peoples Act by making a “false statement” about his Liberal Democrat opponent and therefore “knowingly” misleading voters. That is, in more plain language, Woolas lied about Elwyn Watkins. He is now suspended from the Labour Party and is barred for three years from standing for any elected office, though he is currently attempting at the court of appeal to get a judicial review into the ruling - but the clock is ticking against him.
According to the judges, Woolas had violated section 106 of the act, which makes it illegal to publish “any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct” to prevent them being elected, “unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true” (it is also an offence to publish a false statement of a candidate’s withdrawal from an election as well). In making this decision, the court had been guided - as is always the case in these matters - by a relatively arcane judgement (made in 1911 this time) relating to an 1885 statute forbidding “false statements” about a candidate’s “character or conduct”. Never besmirch a gentleman of good standing.
In this particular case, the court ruled that Woolas’s claim - in lurid mocked-up newspapers - that Watkins had “wooed” and “pandered” to Islamic fundamentalists/extremists and failed to condemn death threats made against Woolas because he was “in the pay of a rich Arab sheikh” were a deliberate attempt to blacken Watkins’ name and deceive the electorate. ‘Vote Liberal Democrat, get al-Qa’eda’ - that was the basic message of Phil Woolas’s election material. Well, it seemed to have won him the election - until the courts said otherwise.
As a matter of fact, Woolas is not the first politician to fall foul of section 106. That accolade goes to the charming Miranda Grell - a researcher for the former deputy mayor of London, Nicky Gavron, and also a senior policy advisor to the Acas arbitration service, amongst other things. In September 2007, Grell was found guilty under this section of making allegations of “paedophilia” and “under-age sex” with teenage boys against her Liberal Democratic opponent, Barry Smith - who was gay - during the May 2006 local elections for the Leyton ward of Waltham Forest, which she narrowly won. She was found guilty on two counts, fined, stripped of her political office and resigned from her other posts. To this day she loudly maintains her innocence.
Of course, a by-election will now be held in Oldham East. But the actual date is complicated by the fact that time has to be allowed for the judicial process to complete its course. Needless to say, the high court decision to give Woolas the boot from his day job has caused ructions inside the parliamentary Labour Party - indeed, we are now facing what some have described as a “mutiny” against the Labour leadership for so quickly washing its hands of the errant Woolas. Deputy leader, Harriet Harman, has become a particular object of ire for the rebels - outraged by her public comments on November 7 that it was “not part of Labour’s politics for somebody to be telling lies to get themselves elected”. That is to say, or at least as far as the Labour mutineers see it, even if Woolas succeeds in overturning the verdict he will never be a Labour MP again. Period.
Hence during a stormy meeting of Labour MPs on November 8, Harman was described to her face as “a disgrace”. Another MP darkly suggested she should “consider her position” (ie, resign), whilst Graham Stringer MP felt that Harman had gone “far too far” in consigning Woolas to eternal political darkness. Meanwhile, a former cabinet minister told the BBC: “I have never seen anything like it. Harriet was attacked from every direction.” As for Woolas himself, he states that he has received pledges of support from “dozens of colleagues” - including Gordon Brown, Cherie Blair and David Miliband, the great Labour leader that never was. And, of course, Woolas desperately needs as many pledges as he can get - seeing how he needs to raise between £50,000 and £60,000 by the end of the week in order to pursue his legal challenge.
But these anti-Harman MPs are not staging a rebellion purely out of a sense of personal loyalty - misguided or otherwise - to Phil Woolas. Rather they - along with some Tory MPs, it does have to be said - feel disturbed by the anti-democratic implications of such a judicial interdiction into the electoral process itself, to which the Labour leadership has so meekly acquiesced. For Stringer, the decision to rerun the Oldham East election sets a “dangerous precedent” - especially as, in his opinion, there were many “grey areas” and during the burning heat of an election campaigns it was easy sometimes “to go over the top”. Similarly, David Winnick - another Labour MP - was worried that the ruling could lead to a situation where any defeated candidate could challenge a result in the courts, effectively meaning that elections could be “taken out of the hands of the electorate”.
Perhaps summing up the disquiet that has spread amongst many MPs of all political stripes, the Tory MP, Edward Leigh, declared it was for “people to evict MPs, not judges” - adding that what really concerned him was that if the court decision was allowed to stand, then it would be “virtually impossible” for there to be “really robust debate” during elections, as “people will be terrified of attacking their opponents”. After all, name one person who at some stage during their political life has not accused an opponent of being a ‘liar’ or worse - sometimes for good reason. Frankly, we in the CPGB think that Leigh has a point - a very good point.
Having said that, let us be quite clear about our view of Phil Woolas - yes, he is a lying political scumbag of the worst sort. Yes, self-evidently, the election campaign he ran against Elwyn Watkins was quite disgusting - even when you take into account that the political temperature in key marginals at a general election always runs the risk of hitting sky high. So, for example, we have the infamous confidential email between Woolas’s campaign team, which included the line: “If we don’t get the white folk angry, he’s gone” - ie, Woolas will not win the election.
Or, if you prefer, there is always this email exchange - “Repeat the target, the mad Muslims. Ask the question: ‘Stand by yer man?!’ For evil to succeed, etc. Re-use the photo of the mad Muslims and the ‘behead’ sign”. Then we have the following admission: “The issue is not that the extremist campaign itself is effective or not but whether we can use the campaign to galvinise [sic] the white, Sun-reading voters.” And not to forget Woolas’s ‘Labour rose’ pamphlet distributed on the eve of polling day, which ran the headline - “Extremists rant, as Phil Woolas defies death threats” (and which “Phil thinks its fine, as he said it’s shit or bust” - as reported by one his election aids in another email). Of course, at the time the Labour leadership “stood by Phil”, to use the term often deployed in Woolas’s Oldham election leaflets. No less than Tony Blair offered the view that Woolas “has a knack for knowing what people think and expressing that view in a straightforward and honest way” - witch-hunter Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty expressed similar sentiments.
The real disgrace, of course, is that the Labour Party - or at least its leadership - tolerated Phil Woolas: even pandered to his vile Islamophobic, if not racist, bigotry. In his election campaign, Woolas clearly set out to demonise an entire section of the Oldham community - ordinary Muslims. Yes, certainly, Woolas is not fit to be a Labour MP or indeed hold any public political office and should have been driven out of the party itself. But not by the courts and judges - an arm of the bourgeois state - rather by the actual membership, using the democratic rules and procedures of the party (insofar as they have not been totally whittled away by the rightwing Labour leadership), as part of a wider political struggle against all forms of Islamophobia and national chauvinism in general.
However, regrettably, it has been the courts which moved against the loathsome Woolas - not us. A sign, if ever there was one, of the current appalling weakness of the Labour left and the working class movement as a whole. Given that we have judge-made law in this country, a dangerous precedent has indeed been set by the manner of Woolas’s departure. The courts now have far more leeway to interfere in the ‘internal affairs’ of political organisations - to circumscribe what can and cannot be said, or even overturn the voters’ verdict. Remember Florida? And it goes without saying that such oppressive power can potentially be directed first and foremost against working class and left organisations, especially when the class struggle picks up tempo - which it will, when the savage cuts planned by the coalition government really begin to be felt and in turn the resistance to them assumes mass proportions.
Therefore communists defend the right to be offensive, to be “robust” in your political language - something of course that large sections of the British life have problems with, historically prone to imposing all sorts of gags and blocks on free speech in the name of preventing “verbal abuse”. On the contrary, the CPGB has always argued that everyone should be free to speak their mind - free from bureaucratic/moralistic censure. Which, of course, does not mean that we therefore approve of attacks on a political opponent, or imagined political opponent, which are ad hominem in nature or consist of purely personal sleights - funny nose, big ears, unfortunate haircut, etc. Communists aim to tell the political truth, not indulge in personalised mud-slinging. So to call Phil Woolas an odious lying scumbag is no more than stating an obvious political fact and we fight for our right to do so - including in election material and propaganda. We say to the courts - keep out of political debate!
More centrally still, communists are obliged to point out that bourgeois politics in this country is not much more than the art of lying perfected to a near science - they all do it, to some degree or another. Just like in the United States, empire of the big lie - where the working class have been written out of official existence: we are all middle class now. In that sense, Woolas’s plainly deceitful electioneering is only separated by a question of degree from the more ‘normal’ election lies we almost take for granted.
Just look at the supposedly saintly Liberal Democrats. Leave aside for now their conduct in local elections, where anything short of murder seems to go, and think about their general election campaign. That nice Mr Clegg promised to abolish student tuition fees - now he is part of a government that has announced plans to treble them. Ditto for their ‘counter-crisis’ measures when in opposition, which amounted essentially to Keynesianism. Now they are implementing the opposite - massive cuts in public spending as part of the coalition government’s anti-working class austerity drive. In other words, the Liberal Democrats lied pure and simple - can we take them to court?
No, for communists the best way to combat bourgeois lies in the here and now is to demand annual parliaments and the recallability of MPs by their party. Not because we think that in and of themselves these two demands represent a magic panacea that will somewhere guarantee the abolition of lies and the ushering in of the republic of truth. But simply for the reason that any individual candidate or organisation/party caught lying can be quickly and easily punished while the memory is still fresh - whether by being removed from office or losing an election. Which is to say, the working class principles of annual parliaments and recallability substantially reduce the ability of the bourgeoisie and their agents to bamboozle and hoodwink the electorate.
Perhaps ironically enough, Elwyn Watkins’ victory in the courts - assuming Woolas’s appeal comes to nothing - may turn out to be a Pyrrhic one. Under other circumstances, you might have expected the Liberal Democrats to win any by-election after being defeated by an unscrupulous liar - especially when you consider that they only lost by 103 votes in May. However, as the Liberal Democrats’ popularity plummets, there is a distinct likelihood that Labour will in fact win Oldham East with a greatly increased majority. If so, defeat for the Liberal Democrats again in Oldham East and Saddleworth could turn out to be an omen for what may come in 2015 - either being wiped out at the general election or disappearing into a far more formalised/institutionalised Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance: the possible end of a separate and distinct national third party.