A special court has agreed to hear a case that could lead to a new election in the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency. The election court will examine whether Labour MP Phil Woolas broke the law when controversial claims about his Liberal Democrat opponent were made in some of his campaign leaflets.
The Lib Dem candidate, Elwyn Watkins, lost the seat in last month’s general election by just 103 votes after two recounts. He later announced his intention to begin a legal challenge. Mr Watkins was particularly angry about allegations that he tried to woo Muslim extremists, as well as claims regarding how he financed his bid for office.
Mr Watkins believes his Labour rival breached Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. It states that publishing “any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct” is illegal, unless “reasonable grounds” for believing the statement to be true can be shown.
The leaflets were pushed through letterboxes across Saddleworth and much of the rest of the constituency in the final days of what was a bitterly-fought campaign. The Lib Dem leader of Oldham Council, Cllr Howard Sykes, raised the matter with Equality Commission chief Trevor Phillips, who described the literature as “not helpful.”
It’s thought the special election court will consist of two High Court judges and the official recorder of the House of Commons. The court is expected to convene in Oldham, perhaps later this summer. If the court agrees with Mr Watkins, a re-run of the election could take place before the end of the year.
Election re-runs are extremely rare in British politics, but not unheard of. In 1997, Conservative Gerry Malone successfully challenged the result in Winchester, where he had lost to Lib Dem Mark Oaten by just two votes.
Judges agreed with Mr Malone that 54 ballots declared void because they didn’t have an official mark on them would have changed the result. However, he was thrashed by more than 21,000 votes in the re-run held later that year, a defeat widely put down to the electorate blaming Mr Malone for forcing them through another vote.
However, an election hasn’t been declared void because of criminal wrongdoing by a candidate since 1911. That was in North Louth in Ireland, which at the time still sent MPs to Westminster.
When Mr Watkins first announced his legal challenge, Mr Woolas accused him of “sour grapes” and of being a “bad loser.” The former Immigration Minister has not commented on this latest development.
More information is available in an article from the BBC website here. The story was broken on Twitter earlier this evening by the political editor of BBC North West, Arif Ansari. You can follow him here.
There’s full coverage from Saddleworth News of Mr Watkins’ legal challenge and the rest of the campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth here.
You can see some of the leaflets in question at The Straight Choice website here.
(UPDATE 1/7: Arif Ansari has now written a blogpost about this story at the BBC website, and you can read it here)