Phil Woolas: his shame, our gain

Submitted by martin on 9 November, 2010 - 7:35 Author: Mark Osborn

Phil Woolas, former Immigration Minister in the last Labour government, is in big trouble. As someone who remembers him from Manchester University Labour Club and the National Union of Students in the 1980s, may I go on record as expressing my great pleasure at the scale and nature of his shame?

And on behalf of all the children of asylum seekers he had jailed in New Labour’s detention centres, may I hope he lives out his days in isolation and on the crappy minimum wage his government set.

Woolas, an MP since 1997, held onto the Oldham East and Saddleworth seat by only 103 votes in the recent general election. If Labour selects a decent candidate to replace him, it has a chance of a better result in the coming by-election: the Lib-Dems, who ran second in May, have deeply discredited themselves by joining Cameron's government.

Two high court judges have ruled that Woolas knowingly misled the public in claims he made about his Liberal Democrat opponent, Elwyn Watkins, during the election campaign. The court found Woolas had deliberately stirred up white fears and anti-Muslim hatred, knowingly lying about Watkins' supposed links to radical Islamists, for his own electoral advantage. Election statistics suggest that the net effect of Woolas's dirty tricks was to limit the Lib Dem vote but also to lose Labour votes (the Labour score went down 10.7%) and boost the Tories and UKIP (they gained 10.5%, bringing the Tories up to a good third where in 2005 they got less than half Labour's score).

Woolas ran a nasty, divisive campaign that should be condemned by all labour movement and anti-racist activists. Cynical opportunists like Woolas have no place in our movement.

The judges overturned the election result and have barred him from parliament for three years. Woolas says he will appeal against the decision.

John Mann, a Labour MP and a friend of Woolas, said: "This has got profound implications for British democracy. The idea that a judge rather than the electorate can remove an MP is farcical". Woolas's is the first case of an MP being disbarred by the courts for malpractice since 1911.

However Labour immediately suspended him. The sharpness with which Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman distanced the party from Woolas is a measure of how unpleasant his campaign was.

Harman said on national television: "Whatever happens in an appeal... they could say on the basis of the facts that the election court found it was not warranted for them to strike down the election result and disqualify him, so he might win on a legal basis.

"But it won't change the facts that were found by the election court, which was that he said things that were untrue knowing it, and that is what we are taking action on - because it is not part of Labour's politics for somebody to be telling lies to get themselves elected."

She went on: "That's not going to change, and that's what we regard as very serious and that's why we have suspended him." Harman might have added that leader Ed Miliband should never have kept Woolas on as a Shadow Minister after the election defeat.

Woolas started his political career alongside John Mann as a student Kinnockite at Manchester University. He was president of the National Union of Students in 1984-6. In terms of broad public perceptions, then, he was part of the Labour left; but he was also a pacemaker in a process, from the mid 1980s, of a big swathe of the Labour left adapting to Thatcherism by shifting further right than the old Labour right wing.

He was an "operator", a smarmy, manoeuvring hack. Presumably, at one point, there had been a vision of a better world in his head. But after three decades of machine politics – in the student movement, as a union full-timer and as an MP – look what’s left: a man who picked on vulnerable black children so Labour could get electoral advantage by looking tough on immigrants. And then he took that idea one step further by conspiring to produce division in the working class along race lines for his own, petty, electoral advantage.


Submitted by Bruce on Tue, 09/11/2010 - 17:19

I agree with this article and am glad to see the back of Woolas too. However we shouldn't - unlike a lot of her supporters - lose sight of the fact that what Harman did was fundamentally undemocratic and arbitrary and uses exactly the same sort of powers used to expel others of whom the leadership disapproves.

Submitted by Bruce on Wed, 10/11/2010 - 10:28

In reply to by Bruce

One correction to what I wrote above: what Harman did wasn't arbitrary. She had good reason to bar Woolas. But the powers the Labour leadership have do permit them to act in an arbitrary way: expelling members, deposing and imposing candidates without due process when it suits their political convenience.

On Matthew's point: Woolas was of course no less opportunistically racist when he was Immigration Minister in the last Labour government. Harman is denouncing him now because he has become a political embarrassment not because their politics on immigration have changed.

Submitted by Matthew on Tue, 09/11/2010 - 17:32

Following the demise of Woolas' political career last week, it is now rumoured that the Liberal Party - the rump who refused to join the merger with the SDP that formed the Lib Dems in 1988 - will stand a candidate in the resulting by-election, making it even harder for the Lib Dems to win than it would have been because of their place in the Tory-led coalition.

On Woolas' dumping by the Labour leadership, if anything they have been sluggish. What facts are known now that weren't when he published the now infamous leaflet? There was nothing to stop the party kicking him out ahead of the election court deciding whether he should also be disbarred as a MP.

Submitted by Mark on Wed, 10/11/2010 - 20:11

And while I'm at it. Isn't the sight of the Labour MPs who are rallying to Woolas's support - while ignoring the political content of what he did - unpleasant? So, 'Phil went a little bit over the top'? Meaning he should simply have been subtler when he played the race card?

Submitted by lynn f on Thu, 11/11/2010 - 12:32

As another person who remembers Woolas well from Manchester, when the words "self serving" are not enough to describe him, I agree with Mark. However we should not forget the Lib Dems' traditional MO in election campaigns of dirty smear and slander - their outrage is a bit rich!
Lynn Ferguson

Submitted by cathy n on Thu, 11/11/2010 - 15:15

My memory of Phil Woolas. He was the National Union of Students President. We were on a massive London student demonstration - winter of 1985?. While students were sitting down in the road, blocking a bridge (Waterloo) he was standing on top of a bus shelter. Being militant? No, telling everyone "thanks for coming, you can all go home now". Plus ca change...

Cathy Nugent

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