It is tempting to crow about the Woolas verdict, but a more measured response is called for. No true democrat can welcome elections being determined by the courts rather than the voters.
Politics is a competitive activity and those of us actively engaged in local campaigning have to take the rough and tumble. Not a year goes by without one or more of our opponents in Watford complaining about Lib Dem literature that I have written, while I quietly seeth about theirs before deciding to calm down since it’s not worth making a fuss about. There is almost an unwritten rule that however bitter we may feel when things don’t go our way, it’s best to plan to get even rather than whinge.
Yet there has to be a line somewhere, and perhaps Elwyn Watkins has done everyone a favour by taking this case to court and showing that ultimately you can’t just lie about your opponents and then dismiss it as robust political comment rather than an attack on their character. In this case, one of the key points at issue was Labour’s accusation that Elwyn Watkins failed to condemn death threats against Woolas. To say such a thing is clearly not just a political criticism, but an attack on Watkins’ personal character. Most citizens of this country would rightly condemn anyone who condoned (or even failed to condemn) threats of political violence. The more so if said person sought personal advantage from such threats.
It was a clear and surprising error of judgment by Ed Miliband to appoint Woolas to the shadow cabinet, when he will have known the background to the Oldham East and Saddleworth and could have reached a judgment on the ethics of that campaign even without waiting for the court to pronounce. But, however belatedly, Labour have now suspended Woolas from the party and according to Labour List will not be supporting his appeal. (There are also other thoughtful contributions on Labour List from Mark Ferguson and Emma Burnell, even if the former can’t resist a touch of whataboutery with a dig at Simon Hughes over the the Bermondsey by-election, which took place a mere 27 years ago.)
I don’t believe that this judgment will trigger a series of similar actions – legal action is simply too expensive and the results of re-run elections too uncertain. But if it reminds all of us in every party who are engaged in the political ground war that there are limits and the penalties for crossing them can be severe then perhaps this judgment will do some good.
The full judgment, which is available here, is well worth reading.