Phil Woolas has admitted defeat in his attempts to overturn the ruling which threw him out of parliament. The former Saddleworth MP was at the High Court in central London today to hear three senior judges agree with the outcome of the earlier election court case, in which Mr Woolas was found guilty of knowingly lying about his Liberal Democrat opponent Elwyn Watkins.
The ex-Labour minister said he had reached “the end of the road” after losing a judicial review of the initial decision. A by-election now seems certain to be held early in the new year, perhaps in mid-to-late January. Because Mr Woolas has been banned from public office for three years as part of his punishment, he won’t be a candidate.
Speaking to reporters outside court, Mr Woolas said: “There is no avenue for my electors, who elected me at four general elections, to have their say. This is the only area of law as far as I can see where there is no appeal… the judges hands were tied by what is an out of date law.” That was a reference to the fact that the judges sitting in central London couldn’t reconsider the facts of the case, they could merely look at whether the original judges had correcctly interpreted the law.
When asked whether he had a message for voters in our area, Mr Woolas said he had been “overwhelmed” by the support he’d received, adding: “It does seem completely unfair to me that I am not allowed to stand to put my case before the electorate. I will be supporting the Labour Party, I always have done, I always will do.”
Mr Woolas was found to have broken the law by falsely claiming in his election literature that Mr Watkins had tried to woo so-called “Muslim extremists” during the general election campaign. However, he said today: “I don’t believe I made any mistakes, I believe I am a victim of the circumstance of this law… I don’t regret anything that has been said.”
Meanwhile, Mr Watkins said it was “time to the let the voters decide” in a by-election. He said: “This judgement makes it clear once again that if you knowingly lie in your election campaign and deceive your constituents you should be kicked out of parliament. This is a victory for the people of Oldham and Saddleworth.”
Mr Watkins added: “The people of Oldham East and Saddleworth have been without an MP for long enough. They need to be able to choose a new Member of Parliament as soon as possible.”
At the end of a bitter battle earlier this year, Mr Woolas beat Mr Watkins by just 103 votes. However, the Lib Dem took legal action over Labour leaflets which were sent out during the last days of the campaign. It seemed to be a bit of a long shot, as no election result had been declared void because of criminal wrongdoing by a candidate for almost a century.
But there were some uncomfortable moments for Labour and Mr Woolas during a four-day hearing in front of two High Court judges in Uppermill in September. Those judges returned to the Civic Hall last month to give the historic verdict that Mr Woolas had indeed broken the law, and to strip him of his election victory.
The main parties have already been preparing for a by-election, and several senior Lib Dems have already visited Saddleworth to lend their support to Mr Watkins. Labour members have also been doing some low-key campaigning in recent weeks, and the party will now have to find a candidate to fight the election. Kashif Ali, who came a close third for the Conservatives in May, is certain to stand again.
UKIP are putting up Euro MP Paul Nuttall, and have already established a campaign office in Clarksfield. A rather more controversial MEP, Nick Griffin of the BNP, also indicated today that he could enter the contest. The Greens and Respect are likely to stand as well.
As for exactly when the election will take place, we could hear more from the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow at the start of next week. It’s thought the earliest likely date is 13 January, although it may be a week or two later than that.
The earlier Saddleworth News article about today’s outcome is here.
You can see video of Phil Woolas speaking today from Sky News here. Among the reporters at the High Court were Arif Ansari of the BBC and Granada’s Claire Ashforth, and you can check their Twitter accounts here and here.
You can read both the summary and the full judgement here.
The full background to the case from Saddleworth News is available in an archive of articles here.