Electoral slurs declared foul play as Woolas loses seat for personal attacks

Former immigration minister in three-year ban from Commons

Politicians running for election will have to tone down personal attacks on their opponents after a former Labour minister was barred from the Commons for three years for making false claims about his electoral rival.

In a landmark ruling, two High Court judges said that Phil Woolas, a former immigration minister, broke election law with statements he made in a pamphlet and two newspapers distributed in the final stages of May's election.

They found that he had attacked his LibDem opponent's conduct and character with statements that he courted Muslim extremists who had advocated violence against the Labour MP.

They ordered a re-run of the election contest for Mr Woolas' Oldham East and Saddleworth seat and banned him from standing as an MP for three years. He said yesterday he would take the decision to judicial review.

Last night election experts said all political parties would have to reassess the often very personal nature of British election campaigns in the light of the ruling, for fear of being challenged by their opponent in the courts at a later date. Dennis Kavanagh, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and author of The British General Election of 2010, said: "This is yet another example of the judicialisation of politics. In the past the courts would never have become involved in a case like this but we are now much more like the US in that regard. In future, politicians will have to be much more sensitive to the accusations that they make."

More immediately, a potentially awkward by-election looms for both Labour and the LibDems. Ed Miliband will hope to capitalise on Coalition unpopularity after the spending cuts announcement – but could face a backlash from voters angry at the party's perceived "dirty tricks".

Mr Woolas, who only won his seat by 103 votes, was immediately suspended from the Labour Party and Deputy Leader Harriet Harman said there would be no appeal. "It is no part of Labour's politics to try to win elections by telling lies," she added.

But Mr Woolas's solicitor, Gerald Shamash, said: "Those who stand for election and participate in the democratic process must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching scrutiny and inquiry," he said.

"It is vital that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear they may be found to have breached electoral laws."

The court heard that the strategy Mr Woolas and his team concocted to deal with the perceived LibDem threat was described even by them as "risky". Diary entries kept by Mr Woolas, later published in The Independent, showed he thought he was going to lose.

The court heard that false statements were made in three publications on behalf of Woolas in the last few days before the election. His team had set out to "make the white folk angry" by depicting a campaign by Asian extremists to "take Phil out" and present Mr Watkins as being in league with them.

They also falsely stated that Mr Watkins had committed offences by spending more than the law allowed on election leaflets, and had broken a promise to move to the constituency.

Giving their judgment, Mr Justice Nigel Teare and Mr Justice Griffith Williams said Mr Woolas was guilty of illegal practices under election law. He was ordered to pay £5,000 to Mr Watkins, the sum he paid to the court when he launched the petition. He will also have to pay the costs of the case to the petitioner. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, the judges' report must also be passed to the director of public prosecutions, opening the prospect of a criminal inquiry.

Speaking after the verdict, Mr Watkins said: "The idea that if you lie about your opponent and you know you have lied about your opponent then simply you have no part to play in democracy. I think this decision will help clean up politics."

Commons Speaker John Bercow will announce on Monday whether there will be a by-election for Oldham East and Saddleworth now or whether to wait for further legal proceedings.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'