The Watford Observer is reporting that Ian Oakley, who until recently was Conservative parliamentary candidate for Watford, has pleaded guilty to two counts of harrassment and five of criminal damage. He has asked for 68 other offences to be taken into consideration.
This follows a three-and-a-half year campaign of criminal activity in Watford directed against Liberal Democrat candidates, councillors, members and supporters in Watford. Many of the victims were not even party activists but merely people who displayed posters at election time.
Although this case has triggered national coverage, I have resisted commenting in public until now to allow the court case to proceed unhindered. However it is disappointing that there have been at least some Conservative activists, including one parliamentary candidate, who after Mr Oakley's arrest have sought to play down what has happened or imply that somehow Liberal Democrats have brought this on themselves (see here and here. In fairness, I should say that others have taken a very different line.
Criminal activity should have no part in political campaigning in a democracy. I may well post on this at greater length soon, but my initial reaction is that the Conservatives now need to hold a full enquiry into this case and the conduct of Watford Conservative Association, with the findings made public. Mr Oakley has held two very senior positions in Watford Conservatives - general election campaign manager and parliamentary candidate. The intimidation campaign began during the 2005 general election campaign. We need to know how Mr Oakley was allowed to carry out so many offences without arousing the suspicion of his Conservative colleagues; whether any other Conservative activists were involved and what steps will be taken to stop this happening here or anywhere else.
I should perhaps add that I don't believe for a second that the local Conservative Association as a body would have condoned such activities. But we need to know whether or not other individuals were in any way complicit.
This was not just a case of a single act carried out in anger or a practical joke gone wrong (not that those things would be acceptable either). It has been a sustained campaign of intimidation, aimed at subverting the democratic process - and which arguably has made the difference to the results of elections in Watford - we have failed to win seats by margins of 2, 3 and 47 votes in wards where our candidates and supporters have suffered criminal damage during the election campaign.