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'Oldham East was unnecessary'

Graham Stringer MP on what happens when judges interfere with democracy

Published on January 20th 2011.

'Oldham East was unnecessary'

ANYBODY remember Ossie O’Brien?

Ossie O’Brien was famous for eleven weeks and had a profound effect on the late twentieth century political history of this country. In March 1983 Michael Foot’s leadership of the Labour Party was under threat and Ossie O’Brien unexpectedly won a Darlington by-election.

This saved Michael Foot’s political skin and in June he went on to lead Labour’s most disastrous General Election campaign ever. Labour were reduced to 209 seats, Ossie O’ Brien lost his seat and Labour was out of power for eighteen years.

Had Labour not interpreted the by-election result so optimistically and changed the leader, the Tories eighteen years of power may have been much reduced.

A law that doesn’t allow an appeal is a bad law. Courts that make judgments about what are in essence political arguments are likely to be wrong.

The normal laws of politics are suspended during by-elections and their interpretation is fraught with difficulties. So it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I attempt to analyse the significance of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election.

In one sense all three main parties won; Labour increased its majority with its winning candidate Debbie Abrahams, the Lib Dems held their percentage of the vote and therefore the Conservatives are secure in the Coalition Government. This contrasts with the General Election when all three Parties lost; Labour and the Lib Dems lost seats and the Conservatives failed to win a majority when facing the most unpopular Prime Minister since opinion polls began.

Although the Lib Dem’s percentage stayed the same, Labour canvassers detected a switch of Lib Dem voters to Labour and of Tory voters to Lib Dem. This could be good news for the Coalition if the supporters of the two Parties are willing to vote for each other or a complete disaster for the Lib Dems if they can’t replicate these switches. We need more electoral tests to be certain.

However, the voting trends in this by-election may not be why it is remembered. This by-election took place because an electoral court removed Phil Woolas from the House of Commons. The last time this happened was nearly 100 years ago, in Louth, Ireland.

Phil Woolas was found guilty of telling lies about the character of his Lib Dem opponent. He firmly disputes this but the law allows no appeal (if such a law was proposed now it would not get past the first parliamentary stage as it would be considered to be in contravention of the European Convention of Human Rights).

Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley
Although no appeal was allowed a High Court considered whether or not the electoral court had applied the law correctly. They found in part that it had not. If they could get the law wrong they could also get the judgement wrong but Woolas was not allowed to challenge this in the appeal court.

I guess there is no sympathy for politicians who accuse their opponent of seeking the support of violent extremists and a court finds this allegation to be untrue in fact. A closer look at the detail of the judgment however shows that the courts would have been happy if Woolas had accused his opponent solely of extremism. This then becomes a fine judgment, particularly when talking about Middle East politics of whether extremism implies violence.

I do my best to represent a large Muslim community and a large strictly orthodox Jewish community. Their view of whether or not Hamas for instance is an extreme violent organisation will be completely at odds with each other.

A law that doesn’t allow an appeal is a bad law. Courts that make judgments about what are in essence political arguments are likely to be wrong. Courts should not attempt to take the place of the electorate. This by-election may be seen in the long perspective of history as the start of the courts imposing themselves on the democratic process At one end they have thrown out a properly elected Member of Parliament and at the other end they are accruing powers to undermine the sovereignty of Parliament.

When the validity of the Hunting Act 2004 was challenged by Jackson, three law lords indicated that in certain circumstances the courts had power to strike out Acts of which they disapproved.

I found that making these arguments in the media was not a popular project but I think there are sufficient trends from the legal system and Europe to make those of us who are democrats, wary that the courts think they are more important than the electorate and Parliament.

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

HelpfulJanuary 15th 2011.

"At one end they have thrown out a properly elected Member of Parliament." The court found that he wasn't properly elected otherwise he would still be the sitting member. There was nothing to stop him standing in the by-election but the Labour party cut him adrift once the court decision was available. It is a good thing that candidates in elections realise that there are laws which restrict their actions. In the longer term it is likely to the Limp Dems who get caught out by this.

AnonymousJanuary 16th 2011.

Mr Stringer was part of an administration which wanted ID cards.

Duke FameJanuary 17th 2011.

The Labour candidate ran a racist and false campaign. Perhaps that is the norm when it comes to Labour, I'm not surprised they lacked the class to step away from the bi-election.

Come the general election, the vote will be decided on ht eeconomy. Let's hoe it's recovered by then and hope we'll never have a Labour government in my lifetime

M30January 17th 2011.

Elwyn Watkins: Sore Loser.

ADJanuary 17th 2011.

If the Law is bad then perhaps Graham Stringer would be better served writing a Bill for parliament to change the Law rather than writing an article for Mancon? But then parliamentry Bills probably dont get read by quite so many of his constituents.
I also think a human rights argument from a man who voted for 42 days detention is a little weak.

Get your facts rightJanuary 20th 2011.

'Helpful' writes: 'There was nothing to stop [Phil Woolas] standing in the by-election but the Labour Party cut him adrift once the court decision was available.'

Not so. As well as being found guilty of lying about his opponent, Mr Woolas was prevented from standing for parliament for three years. He couldn't have stood in the by-election even if he wanted to.

There's little point commenting when you have such a loose grasp of the facts.

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