« Creative destruction and job flows | Main | Poverty & the power of growth »

December 04, 2010



"Herein, though, lies my problem. Imagine a candidate lies about his political position - say by claiming to oppose higher tuition fees. Being a statement about a political position, this is permissible. His opponent then responds by calling him a liar."

Is the point not just that he'd have to phrase that accusation in policy terms, rather than personal ones? So a candidate might say that he doubts his opponent will be able to keep that promise given many of his parties other commitments, without having to comment on whether his opponent actually believes what he's saying.

CS Clark

Possibly the intention is that there's a difference between saying someone is lying (or, for safety's sake, that you don't believe them and neither should anyone else) and saying they are a liar.

That said, it could be much clearer and still have a chilling effect in favour of people with deep pockets and no shame. Oh Charles Foster Kane, that you were alive today, and British, and not a fictional character.


Well, if you won, you would expect your party to fund your defence in any election court, while a loser would be rather less certain of such funding. This suggests that threatening to bring an election court action is not the best silencer out there, especially as an election court can award costs.


I should add that "won" means "won the election".


This just makes me think you don't read much radical journalism. There's a whole range of ways to suggest someone's a liar without actually asserting it (or asserting anything at all), starting with the obvious device of quoting two mutually contradictory statements. From there we can go to "he said... and yet he now supports...", and on to "his party's manifesto said... and yet he now says...", and so on.

David Boothroyd

The statute of 1895 under which this case was brought specifically refers only to "false statements of fact" concerning a candidate's "personal character", and all case law up to North Louth took the view that questioned statements could only be classified as being about political stances or about personal character - they could not be a mixture. North Louth put a slight chink of light in the Chinese wall, and the original Oldham East and Saddleworth election court judgment demolished it completely. The High Court has simply returned to the original legal interpretation (which is supported by a reading of the original Parliamentary debate in 1895).

It has been observed that a false statement of fact concerning a candidate's personal character may catch a candidate who falsifies their own background to make it look more impressive, although no case has yet been brought.

The remarkable finding in the High Court was that where a candidate lives is political, but how they view Muslim extremists is not.

You're right that it isn't certain whether a statement that a rival candidate had lied about their political stance would come within the statute. I suspect the context and background would make a lot of difference.


very good article, best regrards from Poland :]

Niklas Smith

"Imagine a candidate lies about his political position - say by claiming to oppose higher tuition fees. Being a statement about a political position, this is permissible. His opponent then responds by calling him a liar. Is this response a statement about his opponents’ political position (permissible) or about his personal character (impermissible)?"

If you read paragraphs 117-119[1] on the accusation that Watkins had broken his promise to move to the constituency I think you'll see that you're worrying about something that won't happen.

The High Court judges write: "A statement that the candidate has reneged on his promise to live there does, we accept, cast an imputation on the candidate's trustworthiness, as the Election Court held, but it is in respect of his trustworthiness in relation to a political position. To hold that such a statement fell within the prohibition would have a significant inhibiting effect on ordinary political debate, as candidates, particular those who have been MPs, are sometimes criticised for going back on promises on a political issue."

Because of this they rule in para 119 that Woolas should NOT be punished for implying that Watkins was POLITICALLY untrustworthy. This is a very close allegory of your example of tuition fees, as that is even more self-evidently a political question than where a candidate lives.

It's worth looking at the context of this claim: before the Labour "Choose" leaflet was published, the local newspaper published a letter complaining that Watkins had reneged on his promise to move to the constituency. Watkins wrote an answer (which was published) clearly saying where he lived in the constituency and even inviting the correspondent "to go round to the house, have a cup of tea with him and discuss politics."[2] Woolas' election agent Fitzpatrick acknowledged that he had seen this letter but said he believed Watkins was lying.

Despite the ease of checking up on whether Watkins' claim that he lived in the constituency was true (a Labour representative could simply have made an unannounced visit to the house late one evening), Woolas' campaign chose to publish a leaflet accusing Watkins of living outside the constituency contrary to his promise. If such a flagrant case of a negligent false statement (not dishonesty, according to the election court: see para 81) can go unpunished because it is considered political, then there is NO risk that someone could be punished under section 106 of the 1983 Act for accusing a candidate of lying when they say they want to abolish tuition fees.

[1] http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2010/3169.html
[2] http://nickthornsby.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/oldham-east-and-saddleworth-day-3-part-3-joseph-fitzpatricks-evidence/


Because of the consequences for the loser, ie the invalidation of his/her election, the Judges are always likely to require a high standard of misconduct to be made out. There is also a defense in the Legislation about having no reason to believe false statements may not be true. Which seems to mean that a statement criticising your opponent in an election can be very forceful provided you make it in good faith. You may make many incorrect criticisms about your opponent without peril in that event.

In woolas' case the Judges obviously did not think he or his advisers were acting in misguided good faith. Rather the exact opposite was proved by evidence adduced by the Lib Dem Candidate.

Andrew Smith

The problem of dishonest or needlessly abusive candidates who subsequently become elected representatives could be dealt with by voter recall procedures, but the ones the poliutical class are suggesting (namely that a recall vote is allowed after his friends have condemned him) is utterly unacceptable and a complete waste of time.


Isn't it the case that by standing for elections a candidate invariably puts his policies as well as his character - and trustworthiness- on the line? If a person is untrustworthy in his personal affairs why should it not be an area of legitimate comment? If he is untrustowrthy in his personal affairs should it not reflect on his public persona?

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad