A special election court convened at Uppermill Civic Hall by two high court judges under the Representation of the People Act will deliver its verdict tomorrow on a case brought against former immigration minister Phil Woolas, the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, by his defeated Lib Dem 2010 general election opponent Elwyn Watkins.
Woolas won the election by 103 votes, but Watkins says the result was swayed by ‘dirty tricks’. He alleges Woolas ‘doctored photographs’, ‘misrepresented facts’, and ‘stooped to fomenting racial and religious divisions’ to guarantee his victory.
Under section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, making or publishing a false statement of fact in relation to a candidate’s personal character or conduct is illegal unless you have ‘reasonable grounds’ for believing the statement to be true.
In September, Watkins’s barrister Helen Mountfield QC told the court Woolas had ‘made an overt and, some may say, shocking decision to “make white folk angry” by depicting an alleged campaign by Asians to ‘take Phil out’ and then present Mr Watkins as in league with them’.
‘They falsely suggested that Mr Watkins took this craven stance to the point of refusing to condemn death threats which Mr Woolas claimed had been made against him because he was “in the pay” of a rich Arab Sheikh,’ she said. ‘This was intended to galvanise the white Sun vote against him.’
Woolas has strongly denied any wrongdoing. He described accusations that he sought to stir up racial tension in the constituency as “preposterous” and “politically motivated rubbish”.
He also defended his aggressive stance on the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) endorsement of Watkins, saying it was ‘entirely reasonable in the circumstances’, and offered the following explanation:
‘In the 2005 election in the neighbouring seat of Rochdale the Liberal Democrat candidate Paul Rowen defeated the sitting Labour MP, Lorna Fitzsimons.
‘That campaign was marred by the interference of outside bodies including MPAC and others … [who] campaigned in favour of the Liberal Democrat. It was stated on the doorstep that Lorna was a Jewess (as it happens she isn’t) a Zionist and that she was anti-Muslim.
‘A similar campaign was waged against Jack Straw MP in Blackburn. These campaigns featured in a Channel Four News Documentary.
‘Our campaign was subject to similar tactics: Labour supporting British Asian voters were subject to a campaign “to oust the Jew”. There are many testaments to such activity and leaflets delivered attacking me as being anti-Muslim…
‘My view was that the local Lib Dem party was trying to get support from the side of the spectrum which was being persuaded by those views. By their wooliness on the issue they were giving succour to that vote.’
He denied, however, mounting a personal attack on Watkins during the campaign:
‘It was not an attack on him personally, it was an attack on his political strategy.
‘I do not think he should have needed an invitation [to condemn the extremists]. I think it was politically naive of him. If there were leaflets going round saying “BNP support Phil Woolas”, I would say I do not want this support…
‘My strategy was to mobilise mainstream Muslims and the white community against the extremists and to do that I had to highlight it to the white community.
‘The Asian community were urging me, by and large, to highlight what they saw as a slur on them…
‘The idea that I set out to break the law never came into our minds. It would be political suicide, as well as wrong.’
If found guilty tomorrow, Woolas could be forced to pay a fine and banned from public office, which would trigger a by-election in the constituency.
Tune back tomorrow for an update…
- The Woolas verdict: the hearing (Saddleworth News)
- Immigration law (Findlaw.co,uk)
- Constitutional law (Findlaw.co,uk)
- Immigration law Q&A (Community)
- Immigration law news (The Solicitor)
- Find an immigration solicitor (Contact Law)
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