The week that was: Phil Woolas scandal

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What happened?

It’s bloody hard to win a marginal, don’t you know. Political contests for these seats can get, well, just a tad messy. One can barely keep track of who called whom a bigot, let alone who alleged whom of pandering to Islamic extremists. Best turn a blind eye to the mudslinging, then, and let the public make up their minds. Not any more, though: ex-MP Phil Woolas, one time immigration minister, has been banned from politics for three years and has had his wafer-thin election victory declared void for lying about his opponent, the Lib-Dem Elwyn Watkins. He was found guilty of apparently sanctioning general election campaign leaflets that were said to have “played the race card” that suggested his Liberal Democrat opponent was very close to local Muslims and his campaign was funded by a rich Arab. Now deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman wants him booted from the Party as well.

What the papers say

Rather a lot, as it happens. The last time an election result got overturned in court was 99 years ago, making this quite a big historical-precedent-setting deal. Add to that the fact that Woolas was a high ranking Labour MP who had been given a role on Ed Miliband’s shadow home office team, and you have yourself one heck of a story. The Mail points out that Woolas will still be able to collect his minister’s pension of 30k a year, while one Guardian blogger has suggested that Woolas’ misleading behaviour was hardly any worse than that of Lib Dem MPs who pledged not to raise tuition fees.

What now?

What indeed. Election battles will potentially never be quite the same again in this country. The Woolas affair is troubling for anyone who happens to believe that Elections should be the decision of the people, not of (unelected) high court judges. And yes, from time to time the people may be swayed by a particularly unscrupulous politician. What we have to ask, though, is whether this kind of thing should be rectified in a court of law, or whether it should instead be seen as an unfortunate but ultimately inevitable occurrence in a democratic system (Thucydides would agree). In terms of immediate consequences, however, Harriet Harman is currently facing a back bench mutiny over her desire to ostracise Woolas from the Labour Party, and the Tories have asked Labour to disclose exactly how much they knew about Woolas’ inflammatory election literature at the time of his offence. The Phil Woolas scandal is a problem for Ed Miliband that is not likely to go away soon.

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