Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Political campaigning in Britain is about to get a lot cleaner - or a lot more nasty.

We will learn on Friday whether Phil Woolas, the shadow immigration minister and Oldham East & Saddleworth MP, is to be debarred from office for making false statements in this year's election campaign about the Liberal Democrat candidate's personal conduct.

Two High Court judges will deliver their interpretation of the 1895 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act from the Civic Hall in Uppermill, Saddleworth. If their thumbs go down I am told it will be the first time in 99 years that such a verdict has been cast.

Whatever the judgement Woolas's leaflets were vile. I don't object to robust political campaigning but as an example of smearing your opponent these went beyond the pale. The words of the Labour agent, Joe Fitzpatrick, who told the Election Court that one leaflet was only delivered in "the white areas", speak for themselves about the intention.

Woolas's election campaigns have often pushed the borders to the limit. Maybe he has never acquired a proper sense of what is acceptable and what is not.

He and I contested the by-election in the former Littleborough and Saddleworth seat in 1995. Peter Mandelson embraced the challenge of being Labour's campaign manager, determined to demonstrate that nothing could stop the onward march of New Labour.

I was described by Woolas as the Liberal Democrat candidate who was "soft on drugs" for supporting my party's call for a Royal Commission to consider the possibility of decriminalising cannabis possession, and who was "high on taxes" for supporting my party in calling for a 1p income tax increase to provide additional funds for schools.

The Guardian commented: “So lurid is Labour’s portrayal that one expects hypodermic needles to spill out of Mr Davies’s pockets.”

This Labour leaflet (below) caused particular controversy. The story actually related to a candidate selection far away in Winchester!

In his recently published autobiography, Lord Mandelson admitted that Labour had gone “on the attack".

He wrote: “After the campaign was over, not only our opponents but some in Labour would denounce our ‘negative’ tactics in highlighting Lib Dem front-runner Chris Davies’ support for higher taxes and a Royal Commission to liberalise drugs laws. For tactical reasons, I felt we had had little choice.”

“Labour was starting from third place, and especially in a by-election, the bulk of Tory tactical voting was always going to flow to the Lib Dems. If we were to win, we would have to make that option as distasteful as possible.”

BBC Newsnight's present political editor, Michael Crick, has described the Littleborough and Saddleworth contest as "one of the nastiest campaigns of modern times." And Paddy Ashdown records in his diaries that he said to Tony Blair: "You didn't discuss your policies. You simply spent four weeks character-assassinating Chris Davies. He is one of my Party's favourite sons (nice!) and to be dealt with by Labour like this is not the way that we build respect between our parties."

But I won the contest, and no sooner had the result been declared than I had a hundred things to do. I dealt with the present, and looked to the future; I didn't bother complaining about the tactics of my defeated opponent. Maybe I should have done. If Woolas has never understood the difference between right and wrong in political campaigning, maybe it is because I didn't do enough to make sure that he got the message.

If the judges debar Woolas they will send a shockwave throughout the political system. Candidates and agents will have to be very much more careful in what they say about their opponents. Surely that can only be a good thing.

But if the petition by Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins is dismissed, and Woolas keeps his position, the judges will give a green light to negative, personalised campaigning with no holds barred. Politics in Britain will get more ugly, and a lot more dirty.

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