Phil Woolas, one of the harshest of immigration ministers, has lost his parliamentary seat for distributing misinformation about immigration to tar his opponent.
The ejection of Phil Woolas from Parliament, and suspension from the Labour Party, on 5 November 2010, for untruthful and inflammatory statements made when campaigning in the general election earlier in the year, has been widely reported. His electoral opponent, the Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins, brought a case against him for breaching provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983. A specially convened court heard how the Woolas campaign team intended to ‘get the white folk angry’, by distributing provocative leaflets to voters in Oldham, of which one stated: ‘Extremists are trying to hijack this election. They want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration. The Lib Dems plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay. It is up to you? Do you want the extremists to win?' In the first decision of its kind since the beginning of the twentieth century, the courts ruled that the election, which Woolas had won by just over 100 votes, was invalid.
A chequered history
Phil Woolas has a controversial history where ‘race’ is concerned. He won his first seat for the Labour Party in 1997 and was made minister for local government in 2005. The following year, a representative of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee alleged that Woolas told him that his concerns about British foreign policy were ‘illegitimate’ and representative of an ‘extremist view’. Months later Woolas called for the sacking of a Muslim teaching assistant for wearing a niqab in classes.
He was appointed immigration minister in October 2008 and, within a month, attacked organisations and lawyers providing support to asylum seekers as an ‘industry’ with a ‘vested interest’. Most people seeking asylum, he claimed, were not in need of protection, and soon after, he made clear his intent to stop appeals to high court judges from refused asylum seekers who were going to be removed from the UK.
As immigration minister he was accused on a number of occasions of making claims which were disingenuous. Speaking on behalf of the Home Office in 2009 he stated that from ‘time to time we are accused of expecting gay men and lesbians to be discreet, effectively to suppress their sexuality in order to avoid persecution. This is not an accurate representation’. Yet a year later, in a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court allowed the appeals of two gay men against their negative asylum decisions; they had initially been refused asylum on the basis that, according to the Home Office, they could hide their sexuality.
Later that same year, Woolas defended the policy of detaining children for immigration purposes – a policy described as ‘state sponsored cruelty’ by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg – by suggesting that incarceration was for the child’s own benefit. Without producing any evidence to support his claims, he stated that detaining children protected them from falling into the hands of traffickers. Not detaining them, he maintained, ‘ends up with dead bodies in lorries in Calais’.
This, in turn, came months after he announced plans to build a detention centre in Calais, in order to appease those demanding increased deportations. ‘We want to increase the profile of the deportations’, he said, ‘because we have to get the message back to Afghanistan and Iraq that Britain is not the Promised Land’. Afghanistan, in particular, appeared to be recurrent in his thoughts and in November 2009 he told the Home Affairs Select Committee that the invasion and ongoing military occupation of the country was, in part, ‘to help us control immigration’.
Perhaps it was the fact that he had already got away with so much fast and loose talk on immigration that made him think he could malign his electoral opponent with impunity. Within weeks of being ejected from Parliament he sought to appeal the decision and maintained that his treatment by the courts was an attack on free speech. His lawyer suggested that the freedom to make claims such as those that Woolas had made were ‘vital to democracy’.
Freedom to offend?
The basis of Woolas’ appeal, according to his legal team, was that the courts had misinterpreted the law. They alleged that this misinterpretation rested on the fact that he had been charged for making attacks on the ‘personal character or conduct’ of his electoral opponent with ‘no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true, and did not believe them to be true’. Woolas claimed though that the attacks had been on the ‘political’, rather than ‘personal’, conduct of his opponent and, consequently, were exempt from the legislation. That the electoral strategies deployed were offensive and inflammatory was not disputed; and it is this factor which explains the interpretation of freedom of speech being defended. The freedom to capitalise on hostility – so as to question the political conduct of his electoral opponent – was something which he was prepared to fight to preserve in the courts.
The full extent to which Woolas’s campaign tactics were based on offensive stereotypes and fabrications is made clear in the transcript of the proceedings in the specially convened electoral court. Correspondence between members of his team was presented which indicated that they were wholly aware of the nature of their attacks and their potential to cause insult and create tensions: one person questioned whether they were ‘attacking Muslims too much’. Yet only a few days later this momentary wavering appeared to have been resolved and it was decided that: ‘I think that we stick with the game plan all the way now… we have to get [constituents] voting for Phil, rather than Lib Dem. Repeat the target, the mad Muslims. Ask the question Stand by yer man?! For evil to succeed etc. Reuse the photo of the mad Muslims and the behead sign.' This ‘game plan’, it is clear, prioritised electoral victory over the potentially negative consequences which could occur when demonising certain Oldham constituents. It was a game plan which exploited anti-Muslim racism in order to secure votes. And, as a result, the expulsion of Woolas from politics could have very real implications for how freedom of speech is interpreted in future elections.
On 3 December 2010, the High Court upheld the earlier decision of the electoral court and argued both that Woolas had lied, and that these lies had underpinned attacks on the personal character of his opponent. At least some sections of the judiciary refuse to accept that freedom of speech equates to freedom to deceive and foster tensions. In a written submission to the electoral court Helen Mountfield QC, for Elwyn Watkins, summarised this perspective when stating: ‘It is no part of the law to protect freedom of expression where that freedom is abused to make one section of the community angry about, and fearful of, another on the basis of falsehoods.'
Continuing political support
Notwithstanding the decisions of the courts, a groundswell of political pressure, which seeks to legitimise Woolas and his tactics, appears to have built up some momentum. In order to meet his legal fees he reportedly received over £30,000 from well-wishers including Gordon Brown, Cherie Blair, members of the Labour Party, and constituents in Oldham: a level of support which, he said, made him feel ‘humbled’. His backing spread through the party and culminated in what some MPs and ex-ministers have termed a ‘mutiny’ against the Labour leadership for their decision to expel him.
Such support may indicate the extent to which some politicians echo Woolas’s sentiments that it is acceptable to exploit tensions for parliamentary gain. Worse, it suggests the extent to which open hostility to Muslim communities in the UK is legitimised in some spheres of mainstream politics. For Woolas himself though, as he admitted, it is the ‘end of the road’. A man, who, as immigration minister, stated that part of his job was to ‘sift out those who want to break our rules’, has himself been ejected from politics for having not being able to stick to them.