Phil Woolas defends campaign tactics as appeal fails

By Philip Kemp
BBC News

Image caption,
Phil Woolas maintains his innocence and says he will remain active in the Labour Party

Former Labour MP Phil Woolas has defended the campaign tactics that cost him his seat in Oldham East and Saddleworth.

The former immigration minister was found guilty in November of knowingly making false statements about his Liberal Democrat opponent.

In his first major interview since failing to overturn the decision of the special election court, Mr Woolas told the BBC the court ruling was bad for democracy.

A by-election must now be held in the constituency but Mr Woolas is barred from standing in a parliamentary election for three years.

End to career

It took just two election leaflets to end Phil Woolas' career as an MP, which began in 1997.

"Thirty years in public life, 13 years as a Member of Parliament, nine of them as a member of the government and I have never been accused in the House of Commons, or by a civil servant, of telling an untruth," he says.

"And I don't believe in my heart of hearts that I ever have."

But a special election court found in November that Woolas had knowingly lied about his Liberal Democrat rival, Elwyn Watkins in literature distributed to constituents in the weeks running up to the General Election.

The leaflets had accused Mr Watkins of pandering to Muslim militants and of refusing to condemn death threats Mr Woolas said he had received from extremist groups.

'Simply all untrue'

"One of my colleagues sat me down and said there are 30 criminal offences he's accusing you of here," says Mr Watkins from his campaign headquarters, where his party is already gearing up for the coming by-election.

"Since that time I've not been even spoken to by the police. They were just simply all untrue."

The Labour campaign team was concerned it was losing votes from the Muslim community which had traditionally voted for the party so it tried to mobilise local white voters who might otherwise stay at home or vote for other parties.

Image caption,
Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins stood against Phil Woolas

In an email disclosed during the hearing, Mr Woolas' agent, Joe Fitzpatrick wrote: "If we don't get the white folk angry, he's gone."

The court said that Labour's chosen method for achieving this was to suggest there were Muslim extremists who advocated violence against Mr Woolas and that Elwyn Watkins was attempting to seek their support.

Phil Woolas rejects this interpretation of the email.

"What that meant is make the low turnout vote angry - not at the Muslim people - but to make people angry at the Lib Dems for failing to distance themselves from those extremists."

The court ruled, however, that Mr Woolas knew his rival had not sought the support of Muslim extremists who advocated violence.

One of the Muslim groups which was active in Oldham during the election campaign was the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK or MPAC.

It urged Muslim voters to help unseat Phil Woolas, and targeted several other Labour MPs, who MPAC judged to have pro-Israeli positions and who supported the war in Iraq.

Threats of violence

At the special election court hearing, Phil Woolas relied on a leaflet MPAC had distributed in the constituency to support his claim that threats of violence had been made by Muslim extremists during the campaign.

The court said there was no reliable evidence that MPAC had advocated violence and that to describe the pamphlet presented by Mr Woolas' legal team as a 'hate' leaflet was 'extravagant'.

But comments attributed to some of its leading members could be considered extreme.

An All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism in 2006 said the group's rhetoric was frequently extremist and one of the group's founding members, Asghar Bukhari has said that any Muslim who fights and dies against Israel is a martyr who will be "granted paradise".

"Israel is in the middle of an occupation and if people fight back, then that's their prerogative to fight back," Asghar's brother and MPAC's web manager, Zulfi Bukhari says.

"People are so used to Muslims rolling over and taking one insult after another that the moment a Muslim group stands up and says: did you know this was said, did you know this person voted this way? - that's an extremist.

"We can't be more moderate than we are."

MPAC's campaign against Phil Woolas in Oldham followed similar efforts in 2005 in the north west of England to oust other Labour MPs.

Mr Woolas said he was very aware that MPAC had helped to unseat former MP Lorna Fitzsimons in neighbouring Rochdale, where it was criticised for sponsoring a leaflet which included the erroneous claim that she was Jewish, something for which it later apologised.

The former immigration minister says the same claim was being made about him on the doorstep in Oldham.

"There was vehement anti-semitism going on in the area, canvassing amongst the Asian population in the area saying: don't vote for the Jew," he says.

"As it happens, I'm not Jewish but the fact my son's Christian name is a Jewish name was used against me."

MPAC denies it was responsible for such rumours.

'Cockpit of ppolitics'

For his part, Elwyn Watkins says he made it clear to MPAC that he wanted nothing to do with its campaign.

But Phil Woolas believes that the context of fighting an election in such a febrile environment has been lost in the coverage of his case and in the special election court hearing itself.

"I think it's a failure to understand the cockpit of politics in an area like Oldham that has led to my downfall."

Despite being suspended from the Labour Party and facing three years in the political wilderness, Phil Woolas is not ruling out a comeback.

"I'll carry on being a member of the Labour Party certainly, and being active in the Labour Party. Whether or not I want to be in public life? At the moment I don't."

The Report is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 9 December at 2000 GMT. Or listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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