John Rentoul: Lies, damned lies, and Phil Woolas

Most politicians tell the truth, more so than most other human beings. I dislike the use of the words 'lie' and 'liar' in politics

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That Tony Blair is such a liar. He says in his memoir, A Journey, that it was the Conservatives who first called him "Bliar" in the 2001 election. Any pedant knows that it was in the 1999 Scottish Parliament election. But that's the thing about politicians, isn't it? Can't trust them. And that Phil Woolas, the former Labour MP and immigration spokesman: "We all know," do we not, that he is a politician. After all, a YouGov poll in The Sun yesterday found that 71 per cent of people said so. Quod erat case proven, as they said in ancient Rome.

Except that some people – mostly Labour MPs, it must be said – have said: "Not so fast; hold your horses; what about article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to free expression?" Actually, I don't think that is what they said when they gave Harriet Harman, their deputy leader, a hard time at their meeting earlier this week. Their main objection to her cutting off Woolas with a brisk, "No, I've never heard of him, your honour, and nor has any one else of us fine upstanding Labour people," was that she showed a certain lack of solidarity with a fallen comrade.

However, some other people have made the serious point that you cannot have judges interfering in the democratic process, and that it was up to the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth to decide whether their MP had behaved badly or not. It is a serious point, but a mistaken one.

Before I explain why, I have a confession to make and have to ask for a number of other offences to be taken into consideration. My confession is that I like and admire Phil Woolas. I reported for this newspaper on the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election in 1995, which he narrowly lost to Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat, before winning the redrawn seat at the subsequent general election. The countryside there is pretty, but the by-election was not. Woolas's memorable slogan was that Davies was "high on taxes and soft on drugs".

This was too much for the delicate sensibility of the New Statesman, which abandoned its traditional support for the Labour cause and urged people to vote Liberal Democrat. I thought it was a forceful and perfectly legitimate – even witty – way of making the New Labour argument, that it was a party of economic aspiration and social conservatism.

Since then, I thought Woolas was a good minister, often willing to go on television to defend the really difficult New Labour positions, which is a better test of character than asking the current lot to go on to complain about the cuts that they would have made if they had still been in power.

As for my other offences, I have to say that I think that most politicians tell the truth, more so than most other human beings. I dislike the use of the words "lie" and "liar" in politics. I think less of William Hague for using it against Blair in 1999, and I thought it contemptible of Michael Howard to use it in the 2005 election campaign of Blair's case for joining the invasion of Iraq, which Howard supported. I hope that most people are capable of telling the difference between assertions that turned out to be mistaken and deliberate deception.

I was, therefore, eager to agree with my colleagues who thought that the judges' verdict in the Woolas case was an impertinent usurpation of democracy. It seemed to be a lawyerisation, complication and bureaucratisation of the back-and-forth of vigorous, even Hogarthian, political debate.

I hadn't paid too much attention to the details of the case; I assumed that Liberal Democrat (and liberal) complaints about Woolas's election leaflets was just the New Statesman delicate-flower tendency whining about some rough language.

However, I managed to take the elementary precaution of reading the judgment – or at least its conclusions. I am afraid that I had no idea that there was a law against telling lies in election campaigns. But there is, and, now that I have looked at it, it is a good law. It is section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which says that anyone who "for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election, makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate's personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true".

It is a limited and specific law, designed as a fail-safe for extreme cases. It is intended to prevent candidates publishing factual assertions about their opponents that they know, or should know, to be untrue, and which are likely to affect the outcome of the election. In such cases, the law of defamation offers insufficient remedy, because the successful candidate might simply pay damages while continuing to serve as an MP, which would be a reward for "illegal practice".

The question, then, is not whether there should be a law, but whether the court was right to find that Woolas broke it. We are not talking here about a bit of sharp practice in Labour leaflets that claimed that the Conservatives wanted to take away free bus passes or winter fuel payments, and which were disowned by Gordon Brown. Until David Cameron made specific promises in the televised debates, there may have been some ambiguity about Tory policy.

In any case, these do not relate to the "personal character or conduct" of individual candidates. Of course, exaggerations and distortions of opponents' views are also often bandied about. But what the judges found in the Woolas case was that he claimed that his opponent sought the support "of Muslims who advocated violence", in particular to Woolas, and that his opponent "had refused to condemn extremists who advocated violence against the Respondent [Woolas]". The judges say that these were claims that Woolas "had no reasonable grounds for believing were true and did not believe were true".

At one point they say of Woolas: "In his cross-examination he was reluctant to accept that the Labour Rose [Woolas' election leaflet] stated that the Petitioner [Elwyn Watkins, the Liberal Democrat candidate] had refused to condemn the actions of extremists who had made death threats against the Respondent. We consider that this reluctance stemmed from an appreciation that what was said in that article was not true."

Now, whether the judges came to the wrong conclusions on the evidence before them will be for the courts to decide if Woolas is able to take the case further, as I hope he will, because it is important that the point be tested.

But it is not wrong in principle that an MP's election should be ruled void by the courts in these limited circumstances – it is, after all, the first case under this law and its similar precursor since 1911. The only question is whether it should then be for the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth to have the final say, by allowing Woolas to contest the re-run election. I think that the three-year disqualification is wrong, and that he should be allowed a final appeal to the court of his constituents.

John Rentoul is chief political commentatorfor 'The Independent on Sunday'; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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