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November 5, 2010 9:16 AM   Subscribe

UK (ex)MP Phil Woolas has indicated he will seek a judicial review of the decision today to void his election victory of earlier this year. He was found guilty of "knowingly making false statements about [rival candidate] Mr Watkins in campaign literature". Woolas claims the ruling will "inevitably chill political speech", whereas the Justices' ruling found that his Election Literature breached UK laws.
posted by samworm (35 comments total)

 
He was accused of stirring up racial tensions in his campaign leaflets by suggesting Mr Watkins had pandered to Muslim militants, and had refused to condemn death threats Mr Woolas said he had received from such groups.

And this man was appointed the shadow immigration minister. Well that's alright then.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 9:24 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


If knowingly making false statements about a rival candidate is enough to invalidate an election, I'm surprised we've managed to elect anyone at all in the last few decades.
posted by Segundus at 9:30 AM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Here's the section of law in question.
posted by grouse at 9:32 AM on November 5, 2010


And this man was appointed the shadow immigration minister
No, he was actually Minister for Borders and Immigration.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2010


So what, he has to outsource malicious lies in the future?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2010


It would be hard to find a US political campaign that didn't make false (or at least wildly misleading) claims about its rival.
posted by octothorpe at 9:35 AM on November 5, 2010


It would be hard to find a US political campaign that didn't make false (or at least wildly misleading) claims about its rival.

I was thinking, "It's a crime over there?"
posted by Joe Beese at 9:36 AM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting that Woolas won the election by only 103 votes. Woolas's attacks about Watkins's "pandering" only needed to change 52 people's mind for him to take the seat.

The narrow margin of course doesn't make it more illegal, but it does emphasize the importance of cracking down on candidates making false statements.
posted by takeyourmedicine at 9:37 AM on November 5, 2010


I have never wanted to live in some warm version of Canada more in my entire life. But at this point I'd settle for that one that already exists despite the snow.
posted by theichibun at 9:48 AM on November 5, 2010


Whilst not denying that's a vile campaign (I thought our local one was bad!) I'm a bit uncomfortable that judges can remove an elected MP. MPs should be quite hard to shift when they're in, until the next General Election. Otherwise, I worry, they'll end up being controlled more tightly by the executive or their party.
posted by alasdair at 9:48 AM on November 5, 2010


Are there other instances of elections being nullified by courts in the UK?

I can't think of a single instance of an election being nullified by the courts in the US (other than Bush/Gore.) Locally, the courts would never do a thing, regardless of what elections laws have been broken. Something about judicial independence, something, something.
posted by warbaby at 9:49 AM on November 5, 2010


I have never wanted to live in some warm version of Canada more in my entire life. But at this point I'd settle for that one that already exists despite the snow.

What?
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2010


The initial reporting seems to suggest that this is the first such action to succeed in 99 years, so it's not a common occurrence. There are quite often complaints, but they rarely get as far as court because the margins of victory are usually quite large. This case was heard and overturned because the margin of victory in the election was 103 votes, and it's reasonable to claim that the wilful misrepresentation affected the outcome.
It could be a bit of a pyrrhic victory though, as the Lib Dems might well get a bit of a shoeing in a re-run due to their association with the Tories in the slash and burn coalition. Still, f you fly with the crows, you'll get shot with the crows.
posted by Jakey at 9:57 AM on November 5, 2010


reading farther down:

"A specially-convened election court - the first of its kind for 99 years - was set up in Saddleworth in September to hear the charges against Mr Woolas."
posted by warbaby at 9:57 AM on November 5, 2010


I'm pretty outraged by Woolas's reaction:
In a statement, he said the judgement "raised fundamental issues about the freedom to question politicians".

He added: "Those who stand for election can participate in the democratic process must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching, scrutiny and inquiry.

"They must accept that their political character and conduct will be attacked.

"It is vital to our democracy that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear that they may be found in breach of election laws."
Firstly, it does not raise fundamental issues about the freedom to question politicians. It prevents you make up falsehoods - or lies, if you will - about your opponent.

Secondly, your political conduct and motives are being subject to searching, scrutiny and inquiry because you lied about your opponent. You made statements of fact which you knew to be untrue.

Thirdly, your use of the word "attack" worries me. It should not be attacked, it should be questioned, because the public have the right to a civilised, factually correct discourse so that they are best informed as to the actual stances of each candidate. Making up falsehoods about your opponent in order to gain political advantage does not fall within the definition of what occurred here.

Finally, there is a difference between speaking freely and outright lying. It is vital for our democracy that those who make statements make truthful statements, and that election candidates conduct themselves in a truthful manner as befits a prospective Member of Parliament.

alasdair: Whilst not denying that's a vile campaign (I thought our local one was bad!) I'm a bit uncomfortable that judges can remove an elected MP. MPs should be quite hard to shift when they're in, until the next General Election. Otherwise, I worry, they'll end up being controlled more tightly by the executive or their party.

Why shouldn't they be able to? To my mind, this is a question about the rule of law. It would appear that the penalty for contravention of the Act is for the appointment to be void, and that is what has happened in this case. That he would be able to avoid the penalty because he is an MP would not only defeat the purpose of the legislation, but would also be against the rule of law.

I'm not sure I understand your point about the executive or their party - could you please elaborate for me?
posted by djgh at 9:59 AM on November 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm a bit uncomfortable that judges can remove an elected MP. MPs should be quite hard to shift when they're in, until the next General Election. Otherwise, I worry, they'll end up being controlled more tightly by the executive or their party.

I think that the Speaker will now actually take the steps to remove Woolas as an MP, the article is a little confusing. Also note that they can't remove a properly elected MP, they can invalidate the initial election though.
posted by atrazine at 10:02 AM on November 5, 2010


theichibun - This happened in the UK. While it might feel like it right now, the US doesn't really contain ALL of the stupid and evil in the world.
posted by tzikeh at 10:10 AM on November 5, 2010


Joe Beese: "It would be hard to find a US political campaign that didn't make false (or at least wildly misleading) claims about its rival.

I was thinking, "It's a crime over there?"
"

Political advertising is incredibly tightly controlled in the UK (thank god). Political tv and radio ads are illegal - every party is allowed to make party political broadcasts which, I believe, top out at 30 minutes, with no individual broadcast lasting more than five. Per election.

Due to our incredibly harsh libel laws, you basically can't even imply things about people without risking a suing. While this has regrettable effects when wielded by monied interests to shut down criticism, it does have the pleasant byproduct that the kind of advertising spend and 24hr saturation coverage that defines US politics is almost completely absent. My American wife was gobsmacked when the election campaigning here in Edinburgh boiled down to a few hundred cardboard lamppost signs, one leaflet from each party and a five minute PPB.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:19 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have a rare twinge of genuine, untrammelled pride about the British political system (not that I was responsible for its creation or anything). The best thing about this ruling is that it's a warning to all politicians - not just Labour - about the dangers of shameless muckraking. Calling someone a ginger rodent is one thing; gettin' all American right is quite another.
posted by jrengreen at 10:25 AM on November 5, 2010


It says it all, when the Labour Party's leaflets are identical to the British National Party's. Even more telling, is that the Labour Party think this is appropriate for a (now former) Minister for Immigration.

How far has Labour sunk? This low.
posted by quarsan at 10:28 AM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ok, reading isn't a strong point for me today. But if you substitute UK for Canada the statement stands.

tl;dr: I am an idiot.
posted by theichibun at 10:41 AM on November 5, 2010


OK, I perceive two risks in "putting things between the electorate and the MP" (which I admit I'm conflating):

- Judges sympathetic to the Government may use this power to nullify or resist the election of MPs hostile to the Government. For example, socialist Tommy Sheridan, or Sinn Féin members, or Fascist MPs.

- Elected MPs who do not tow the party line in voting in the Commons may find that they do not have party support in resisting the new impeachment/removal actions. So, for example, a LibDem who votes against the Coalition student funding proposals but still ends up with a Labour challenge from the new impeachment system finds that the national party doesn't help with funding the campaign to prevent it.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a detailed set of figures or analysis. But you see my concern, I hope? Interfering with the principle that "the electorate decides, once every four years" may lead to opportunities for meddling by powerful interests.
posted by alasdair at 10:48 AM on November 5, 2010


So THAT's their secret! Now I understand why British and EU political figures seem at least three notches short of batshit-crazy.
posted by homerica at 11:00 AM on November 5, 2010


alasdair: OK, I perceive two risks in "putting things between the electorate and the MP" (which I admit I'm conflating):

- Judges sympathetic to the Government may use this power to nullify or resist the election of MPs hostile to the Government. For example, socialist Tommy Sheridan, or Sinn Féin members, or Fascist MPs.


There are a couple of things here to address. Firstly, judges are appointed independent of the executive by the Judicial Appointments Commission. This serves to limit the political nature of appointments. However, this doesn't really address your point about judges being sympathetic to the government (but I thought it worth a mention to show that the level of politicisation is pretty low to begin with).

Firstly, judges can't just investigate someone off their own bat - there has to be a case before them. And that threshold for a judge deciding that the relevant offence has been committed (thanks to grouse for digging that out)
106. False statements as to candidates. —
(1) A person who, or any director of any body or association corporate which—

(a) before or during an election,
(b) for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election,

makes or publishes any false statement of fact1 in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds2 for believing, and did believe3, that statement to be true.
1 - They have to be false statements of fact. This means that they have to be presented as fact, and not couched as opinion.
3 - There is no offence committed if I believe the statement to be true as long as:
2 - There are reasonable grounds for believing that the statement was true. That is to say, if I honestly believe that the moon is made of cheese, I can't rely on this, since I will have no reasonable grounds to believe so.

There are also other get-out clauses for the candidate if they had no knowledge of the statement being made, e.g. if an agent of the candidate went rogue and printed "So and so is X" and the candidate honestly had no idea.

The question of reasonableness could obviously be considered a bit nebulous, but generally English law has various rules-of-thumb (finely honed over centuries) to deal with this.

Secondly, even after all that, should the judge make a crazy decision, then an application can be made for judicial review (which Woolas has done). This isn't an appeal - he's not questioning the decision on a substantive basis (i.e. "I didn't do it"), he's saying the decision was badly made. One of the ways that a judicial decision could be overturned under judicial review is because of illegality (which is a bit of a catch all term). The bit that would apply in your scenario falls under illegality, and is taking irrelevant considerations into account (i.e., the judge is pro-government and anti-this-chap).

- Elected MPs who do not tow the party line in voting in the Commons may find that they do not have party support in resisting the new impeachment/removal actions. So, for example, a LibDem who votes against the Coalition student funding proposals but still ends up with a Labour challenge from the new impeachment system finds that the national party doesn't help with funding the campaign to prevent it.

The thing is, it isn't an impeachment or removal action. The penalty for breaking the law in question is that your election can be avoided - or in less legalese, your win is void and therefore you have not been elected as an MP. He was removed as an MP because his win was void due to his breaking the law. Impeachment can broadly be understood as being charged with a crime, and because of this crime being removed from office. Here, Woolas isn't so much being removed from office as having the vote that put him in office declared void (I realise that this could be seen as a semantic difference), and therefore having no right to be in office.

The offence in question doesn't require party support - because it's not impeachment or removal, the party (indeed, the House of Commons) doesn't get involved at all. It takes place in a court, not in the House. So really the accused isn't beholden to the party so much as to the law.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a detailed set of figures or analysis. But you see my concern, I hope? Interfering with the principle that "the electorate decides, once every four years" may lead to opportunities for meddling by powerful interests.

I think you're conflating this current situation with the proposals for MP recalls, which is different from both the situation at hand and the impeachment/removal scenario. The Recall of Elected Representatives Bill would, I believe, require some sort of constituent threshold. The parties' positions (on the second page) seem to require a finding of serious wrongdoing by an independent body (along with possibly a voter threshold).

As for the general principle you espouse, the various methods of removing an MP above seem to be only in the most serious of cases, rather than a fickle method for ejecting MPs uncooperative to their party. Only impeachment is legislature-only, and requires a crime to have been committed. It also hasn't been used in recent history ("some legal authorities (such as Halsbury's Laws of England) consider it to be probably obsolete").
posted by djgh at 11:59 AM on November 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


Thanks, djgh, that's a detailed rebuttal. Yes, as I admitted, I'm conflating a number of issues into one general one. Which is "I think there is a place for independent bodies and judicial review, and I don't think election of representatives is that place." I believe there should be a place in our constitutional arrangements for simple relationships between subject and authority, and electing whichever bastard you like and then having to suffer the consequences for five years is that place.

I think this all stems from the general contempt we have for politicians, and from the general contempt they have for us. But I don't think the solution is more regulation and control, because I think we need simple narratives for democracy to work well and "you elect who you want unless some posh guy in a wig says you can't" doesn't help a vibrant and inclusive democracy. And yes, that's a ridiculous simplification, but it's what you'll get in the Sun and it's what our fellow subjects will think.

After all, if we only need this mechanism every ninety years, do we need it at all? Principles like "when you elect someone they stay elected - so make sure you don't believe everything you read in the spam the day before the election!" is perhaps a better one than "you can trust the candidates to meet some unspecified standard of quality because of some nebulous regulatory body answerable to who-knows-whom". Because, you know, if judges makes sure all the candidates are good guys, why should I bother voting?
posted by alasdair at 2:40 PM on November 5, 2010


On the detail front, you're welcome, although I hasten to point out that I wasn't trying to rebut you - I come from a legal background myself (could you tell?!), and I know that a lot of this sort of stuff overlaps. It can be pretty tricky to sort them all out and to sift through the various technical distinctions between things, and obviously (as you rightly point out) these are invariably the sort of nuances that get left behind when the news splashes onto the front page.

I lean towards the idea that candidates shouldn't be able to benefit from their own bad acts - that for someone like Woolas to pick up an MP's pay packet and be representing a constituency for four years when he lied in order to get there isn't right. I don't credit the vast majority of the electorate with a long memory, and the press doesn't help with this either. It's all too easy for something like this to slip under the radar four, five years later when re-election comes up, essentially allowing someone to get away with this kind of thing.

Likewise, I think that we get the politicians we deserve, but I think that we only deserve them if we've been able to make a proper decision about them, and I think this is what this law serves to protect. The judge isn't saying that you can't elect someone, and they don't pre-emptively vet people - it's only when there's evidence of this kind of outright lying (and as I showed, the hurdles to conviction are pretty high) that it even comes before the judge.

I realise that the Sun etc. may sensationalise or even twist things, but their remit is to sell papers. The remit of any candidate isn't so much to be elected as it is to be a suitable representative of their constituents should they be chosen - such that I think lying to such possible constituents should be punished.

I'm glad we have a law like this - all too often, Parliament protects its own (see: expenses scandal). I think it's a feature to have an impartial person weigh in on the matter. Having politicians know that they can't get away with lying to voters in the end protects the voters themselves, and prevents an abuse of the system and asymmetrical communication inherent in British political discourse.

If we didn't have this kind of law, politicians would just endlessly smear their opponents. It would become a mud-slinging operation, and noting of substance would see the light of day. People would be so busy accusing people of things, and defending themselves from things, that we'd have almost no idea where a candidate stood on any relevant issue.

Finally, I'd say that the existence of the mechanism is perhaps why it is so rarely used. Look at the punishment. For a politician, being barred from standing for an election and being expelled by their party is far worse than a rap on the knuckles, a few contrite words to the paper, and a promise never to do it again (again, see: expenses scandal). It is very clear: if you lie to the electorate, your political career is effectively over. Judges aren't pre-selecting which candidates can run in this case, they're there for the rare instances when candidates attempt to deceive the electorate for their own ends.
posted by djgh at 3:12 PM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Unlawful to make false statements in your election literature? That's the LibDems fucked then.
posted by reynir at 3:48 PM on November 5, 2010


djgh, Fuckin' A man. I couldn't favourite that harder. It wouldn't be possible.
posted by smoke at 7:06 PM on November 5, 2010


Woolas claims the ruling will "inevitably chill political speech"

Only that political speech involving outright lies. Which I think is probably ok.
posted by antifuse at 7:41 PM on November 5, 2010


Unlawful to make false statements in your election literature? That's the LibDems fucked then.

Harsh but fair: the LibDems have a long history of distributing campaign literature, particularly in by-elections, that is meaner with the truth than George Osborne with housing benefit.

It's a kind of late, sad indictment of British politics in 2010: you have a Labour minister whose campaign staff decided that going after the BNP-curious vote was the way to keep his job against a Lib Dem candidate who, had he won, would have seen all of his campaign pledges swept under the coalition carpet. On the other hand, having just experienced the tawdriness of yet another bloody American election season, I do have a flush of pride at the revival of a fusty British legal concept of not being able to lie your way to victory.
posted by holgate at 8:50 PM on November 5, 2010


Interesting that Woolas won the election by only 103 votes. Woolas's attacks about Watkins's "pandering" only needed to change 52 people's mind for him to take the seat.

Emails released from Woolas's campaign indicated that this was more about turning the white vote out, rather than convincing Lib Dems to flip for the other side. It may have convinced a few people to put a cross next to Labour instead of Lib Dem, but I would say its main effect was to get white voters out, and perhaps convince a few Lib Dem voters to stay in. So it is a bit more difficult to work out the 'What if?' scenario. But that's just me being pedantic. A close call is a close call.

LibDems have a long history of distributing campaign literature, particularly in by-elections, that is meaner with the truth than George Osborne with housing benefit.

Oh come on. I find it funny that you bash Lib Dems on a thread about a Labour MP being stripped of their seat for lying. When is the last time that happened to a Lib Dem?

Which doesn't mean they are perfectly behaved. My feeling is that campaign teams of any colour are capable of appalling mistruths. Most of the time, things are not close enough to warrant dirty tricks. But when they are, you need a candidate of exceptional integrity to prevent things from sliding into the mud
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 1:58 PM on November 6, 2010


When is the last time that happened to a Lib Dem?

Well, it was especially ironic to see Simon 'Straight Choice' Hughes celebrating the decision yesterday.

If you aren't aware that the Lib Dems have a long history of extremely dirty leafletting and ground-level campaigning, you really don't know much about British politics.
posted by holgate at 3:47 PM on November 6, 2010


Illustrating my point that they are all pretty appalling so why highlight the Lib Dems? I am sure we could fnid numerous examples about any party.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 4:38 AM on November 7, 2010


why highlight the Lib Dems?

Um, because the Lib Dems were the ones who filed the complaint that brought the case to court?

It's possible to be glad that Woolas got punished for running a nasty, lying campaign and still note that the Lib Dems can't be considered a fount of clean politics.
posted by holgate at 5:15 PM on November 8, 2010


Some Labour MPs clearly don't get it.
posted by djgh at 9:45 AM on November 9, 2010


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