Voters in Oldham East and Saddleworth in Greater Manchester went to the polls in a by-election on 13 January 2011, caused by former MP Phil Woolas being found guilty of offences against his Lib Dem opponent, Mr Elwyn Watkins during the May 2010 general election campaign and thereby forfeiting his seat. This case should be good for British democracy despite the fact that the injured party failed in his bid to win the seat, and may well have implications in the way future election campaigns are handled - by all political parties.
Phil Woolas was first elected MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth in 1997 and went on to become Minister of State for Borders and Immigration in the Home Office, as well as Minister of State for the Treasury from October 2008 until 11 May 2010. At times outspoken and controversial, he did however meet his match when actress Joanna Lumley took up the cause of the Gurkha Veterans' resettlement rights.
A man not afraid to mince his words, Mr Woolas told Patrick Barkham of The Guardian on 18 November 2008 whilst discussing Britain's asylum system: "The system is played by migration lawyers and NGOs (non-government organisations) to the nth degree...In one case an asylum seeker won after six layers of appeal...That person has no right to be in the country..."
Mr Barkham in the same November 2008 interview challenged Mr Woolas about his first, unsuccessful election campaign attempt to become an MP in 1995 when he insinuated that his Lib Dem opponent, Mr Chris Davies, was "high on tax and soft on drugs".
In reply, Mr Woolas answered: "We took a deliberate decision that we would play hardball because we were fed up of the Liberal Democrats. If you read politicians' biographies, from Maggie Thatcher to Michael Foot, they will tell you that the Liberal Democrats play dirty and are sanctimonious about it.". Not the first time I've heard similar criticism levelled at the Lib Dems!
No love lost or prisoners taken then but at least one knows where one stands. Mr Woolas' undoing was his campaign to retain his seat in the May 2010 general election, which he just managed with a tiny, 103 majority. Mr Woolas had accused his Lib Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins, of supporting extremist Muslim groups and he and his agent were reportedly involved in "photo manipulation" in election addresses. This is particularly sensitive in the likes of Oldham which is about 20 per cent Muslim and has seen race riots (2001) and demonstrations by the BNP.
Mr Watkins brought a case against Mr Woolas to an Election Court, accusing his Labour opponent of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983 by making false statements against his personal character. Mr Justice Nigel Teare and Mr Justice Griffith Williams upheld the petition and declared the election void. This judgement was upheld on appeal by Mr Woolas, on 03 December 2010, the first case like it since 1911.
The BBC on 03 December 2010, reported that the judicial review heard in front of Lord Justice Thomas, Mr Justice Tugendhat and Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, concluded that the statements made by Mr Woolas against Mr Watkins "were not of a trivial nature."
The judgement continued: "They were a serious personal attack on a candidate by saying he condoned violence by extremists and refused to condemn those who advocated violence."
Mr Woolas was barred from standing for electoral office for three years and fined £5,000. Both parties were informed that they would have to pay their own court costs.
The BBC went on to state that the ruling establishes a modern precedent so that in future, if a candidate makes false statements about another which can be proven to be personal, rather than political, even if they win election, that victory can be taken from them.
If the good fight had been won in the Courts, it wasn't sufficient to persuade a majority of the 48 per cent who bothered to vote of those eligible, to elect the wronged man. Or maybe the electorate had just found the right lady! The seat was won by Mrs Debbie Abrahams for Labour with 14,718 votes, representing a swing to Labour of 11.6 per cent since the general election. Mr Watkins came second with 11,160 votes, his vote count slightly up on the general election. The real loser was Mr Kashif Ali for the Conservatives, a distant third with 4,481 votes and just 12.8 per cent of the total vote cast.
Criticism and recrimination descended upon the Conservative leadership pretty fast, both from within and outside the Party. Basically, the Conservatives are accused of running a most half-hearted campaign and letting their man down. Let us not though take away from the fact that Labour fought a good campaign with a strong candidate and under less than ideal circumstances, given the actions of their previous MP.
Mrs Abrahams is married to ex-Lancashire cricket captain, John Abrahams and until 2006 was chair of Rochdale Primary Care Trust. She resigned her post in 2006 over the then Labour government's plans to increase the use of private companies in the NHS. Whether one agrees or not with her views, Labour ensured that their candidate had a record of standing by her principles.
Mrs Abrahams herself claimed that voters were sending a clear message to the Coalition, singling out issues like police cuts, tuition fees and the increase in VAT to 20 per cent as the causes of her much increased majority and the swing to Labour.
Other Labour sources admitted to the Manchester Evening News that Manchester City Council announcing on the eve and morning of polling, the 2,000 redundancies it will make this year to close a £70 million funding gap, probably gave Labour's campaign a real boost.
The mood in the Conservative Party is rather vexed with the result and especially their very poor showing. Not that any Tory thought for a moment that their candidate would win in a constituency where they could expect to poll between 20 and 25 per cent of the turnout.
Lord Tebbit told the Daily Mirror that: "The Liberals fought an excellent campaign and with the help of Mr Cameron, avoided total disaster."
Less subtle was the Daily Mirror's Jason Beattie writing on Saturday 15 January 2011, censuring Prime Minister David Cameron's "invisible" campaign and highlighting that: "Disgruntled Tory MPs are convinced that he is proud that his low-key campaign meant the Lib Dem vote did not collapse. And there is no doubt that the biggest sigh of relief came from Nick Clegg."
Oldham East and Saddleworth is going to be remembered in some quarters for a very long time and not simply for a modern legal precedent!