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November 06, 2010

Comments

Duncan Stott

Woolas only sent out the offending leaflets in the closing days of the campaign, so the LDs didn't have a chance to counter the smears.

Rob

There are plenty of reasons why voters are poorly placed to judge lies by political candidates. As Duncan says above, there's often a severe time constraint (there's a memorable moment in The Wire where the candidate is similarly smeared the day before the polls by a badly-Photoshopped picture). Also, it's hard to judge before an election whether a particular lie is likely to have swung the vote. In this case, a majority of 103 suggests that Woolas' campaign's lies may have been enough to swing the result, which would not have been true of he had won by 10,000. But there's no way to know that until after the election.

One might imagination a completely different electoral system in which voters can retrospectively withdraw or transfer their votes, which would get around the time constraint problem. In such a case, a public hearing into the allegations of lying might be held, but would not have to be binding; it could simply provide information to voters, allowing them to transfer their votes. However, this would probably lead to chaos in other ways, as marginal MPs would end up being deselected every other week.

Alex

Why would duller, more sanitised campaigns be a bad thing? Personally I hate the innuendo and vitriol that currently characterises elections. If elections are won more on 'dull' facts and policies, so much the better.

I also don't agree that 'The purpose of election campaigns is to test candidates’ claims.' Whose purpose? Not the candidates. Election campaigns are run to win elections, just like companies are run to make profits. In both cases leaving everthing to the markets leads to abuse, and in both cases we should regulate (as lightly as possible) to make sure the actors aren't lying and cheating their way to success.

David

The last case of this kind was, apparently, 99 years ago. That suggests that the Act of Parliament against which Woolas offended is at least 99 years old. So this is hardly a case of recent 'lawyerisation' of politics. Parliament decided, a century ago, that a candidate who lies about an opponent to gain electoral advantage shall forfeit the election. Parliament decided, in its wisdom, that, in this circumstance, the electorate needs to be protected against the risk of making a mistaken choice by being lied to. If blame is appropriate, don't blame lawyers, blame Parliament - and blame the members of the late Parliament who failed to amend or repeal this law.

Niklas Smith

I agree with Alex's sensible comment. The fact that we need laws and regulations to ensure that (for example) supermarkets sell food that is not adulterated does not mean that the market economy is seriously flawed, it means that consumers need some legislation to protect their rights. (I have never regarded "caveat emptor" as a liberal or free-market principle - it essentially encourages fraud.)

Section 106 is a political equivalent of such a regulation: it protects the right of the voter to vote on the basis of truthful information, without restricting the voter's choice of candidate or preventing any candidates from putting forward their political position and criticising other candidates' policies.

And it is important to remember that Section 106 only covers false statements about a candidate's PERSONAL character conduct. It is still perfectly legal to say "David Cameron wants to abolish the NHS"*, even though it's almost certainly not true. It is not legal to say "David Cameron eats babies for breakfast". British election campaigns are nasty enough already without allowing a free-for-all of personal smears.

As I wrote in a comment on Lib Dem Voice, Phil Woolas managed to make even more of a fool of himself by misquoting the relevant legislation in his after-court statement, saying he was found guilty of making false statments about Mr Watkins' "political conduct": http://www.libdemvoice.org/phil-woolas-loses-court-case-over-his-election-21941.html (see comments thread)

*And indeed, saying "The Conservatives want to abolish the NHS" is more or less privileged speech since political parties are barred from suing for libel.

chris

@ David - by lawyerization I meant the increasing tendency to have recourse to the law - as evidenced by trivial calls of the police and the worst aspects of compensation culture.
@ Alex - a "dull" campaign that rationally discussed policies would be a good thing. But this is not what we'll get. More likely would be even more managerialist pretensions.
@ Niklas - surely, there's a distinction here. When we buy food, we assume (reasonably) that it is no adulterated. But surely, no-one's naive enough to believe that what politicians say is the truth? More, likely, they know they lie, and like the lie.

charlieman

One good reason why not to worry is that this is the first case in c.100 years. My counting is bad at the weekend but that is about 27 general elections contested in a rough average of 600 seats, then toss in an extra 5% for by-elections. That is about 17,000 parliamentary events (we'll ignore the millions of council events that are governed by the same rules).

In 17,000 events, one defeated candidate uses a particular law to challenge another. That sounds to me like candidates cope very well with rough and tumble campaigns.

I might change my mind if there are similar challenges in the immediate future. A Black Swan event?

Keith

Most of these laws were introduced by Gladstone. A Victorian. Mr. W E Gladstone would say corruption must be rooted out and deliberate lies are corruption. You are too influenced chris by relativism. To lie and defame with impunity during an election is immoral and denies the electorate a honest choice and so is undemocratic. And the Rule of Law is the conerstone of Representative Government. So the Queens Judges "learned in the Law" may and must vacate Elections won by corrupt practice.

Also it is a dangerous policy to talk about compensation culture, whatever that is, as access to the courts is an essential protection for Human Rights and civil Liberties. How else are rights to be enforced? "compensation culture" is a lazy term without meaning. unless it means I can beat you up or rape you without you having any right to redress through Law.
That is Fascism.

CS Clark

Other defeated candidates with money. It wouldn't even be a level playing field.

alastair harris

"The purpose of election campaigns is to test candidates’ claims"

it might be to test the voters views on their policies in order to secure a mandate, but not to test their ability to smear each other.

There is a line - he went over it - time to get over it.

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