On Friday the eagerly anticipated (by some people!) verdict regarding the Oldham East & Saddleworth election campaign was given…and it was very surprising. The specially convened election court ruled that some allegations made by Phil Woolas, the Labour candidate and subsequent winner of the seat by 103 votes, were not only untrue but he KNEW them to be untrue. This contravened section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and has led to Woolas' disqualification as an MP. Many, including myself, doubted that the two High Court judges would be brave enough to rule the election invalid but that was their conclusion and a Parliamentary by-election is sure to follow.
Now, obviously there has been a great deal of comment about the ruling, in particular how this will affect future campaigns. It is very important to remember that this was ruling was made specifically because Woolas knowingly made false accusations about the personal character of his opponent; the Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins. This is quite a high bar to pass to be found guilty, and it's shown in the case itself. The case focussed on three claims made by the Woolas campaign; that Watkins was linked to/backed by Muslim extremists, that Watkins has reengaged on a promise to move to the constituency and that Watkins had spend £200k on his campaign (well over the legal limit). Woolas was only found guilty of the first two as although the judges were satisfied that Watkins campaign spending was within the legal limit it could not be shown that Woolas was knowingly lying. However, on the other two claims it WAS shown that Woolas knowingly lied, and was therefore guilty. For further reading I'd heartily recommend searching the archives of Nick Thornsby's Blog to read his excellent coverage of the case.
So, although some commentators are suggesting this is the end of campaigning as we know it, and Guido Fawkes is having fun with Chris Huhne's false claims about Chris Huhne, all this judgement really prevents is knowingly lying about an opponents personal character. Accidentally lying about an opponent's personal character and knowingly lying about an opponent's political position are still fair game. I don't think negative campaigning is curtailed a great deal by the Woolas ruling.
Although Woolas is frantically trying to save his career his chances look slim. As I write this his bid for judicial review has been rejected, although the option of a hearing at the Court of Appeal has now been opened. He has been disowned by his Party as Harriet Harman announced his suspension from Labour and that they will not back any subsequent appeal. This is slightly odd as just six weeks ago Woolas was given the role of shadow immigration spokesman by Ed Miliband despite the impending ruling. Most political observers were expecting the campaign tactics to be heavily criticised even if Woolas wasn't actually removed from Parliament so the appointed was controversial. Miliband's judgement has been called into question as a result.
John Bercow is expected to announce a by-election will take place as the May election has been ruled invalid. Furthermore, Woolas has been barred from standing for Parliament for three years and so Labour are going to need a new candidate. Speculation has been that 2nd December will be the date, but we've also heard that 16th December is a possibility. A later date is more likely because, although the parties have been unofficially preparing for an election campaign, three weeks seems a short time to announce a new candidate and run a campaign.
The by-election, the first of this Parliament, is going to be very intriguing. Not only did Labour narrowly defeat the Liberal Democrats here but the Conservatives weren't all that far behind. This is a genuine three-way marginal with conflicting local and national trends. Labour are likely to be harmed by the Woolas saga but they are the party on the up nationally. Their performances in Council by-elections since May have backed up their much improved polling position, so they are by no means certain to lose. The Liberal Democrats are obviously in prime position to gain the seat but they have seen their support drop by at least a third in opinion polls. Furthermore, they have been struggling most in urban by-elections against Labour so a win would go against the current national trend. Finally, the Conservatives are the party in ascendancy in Oldham East & Saddleworth. They increased their vote by almost 9% in May as the Lib Dems stood still. However, the last time the Tories won a by-election whilst in power was in 1989; a certain William Hague was the victor. You have to go back to 1982 to find the last time they gained a seat whilst in Government. So this is likely to be a closely fought contest, and it shouldn't be very long until the starting pistol is fired…
Update (1445): Speaker John Bercow did not announce a date. Debate on the issue in Parliament have been prevented until the judicial proceedings are over (Woolas is seeking an oral hearing to put his case for judicial review).
Oldham East & Saddleworth
Phil Woolas (LAB)
Elwyn Watkins (LD)
Kashif Ali (CON)
Alwyn Scott (BNP)
David Bentley (UKIP)
Gulzar Nazir (CP)