Monday, November 29, 2010

Labour spend taxpayers' money blaming the coalition for the cuts

You couldn't make it up, could you?

But that's what the Labour council administration in Camden has done.

Here is a link to an article in the Camden New Journal,

Labour spend public money to show cuts are Coalition’s.

If a shortage of money means that "tough decisions" are needed, cutting back on propaganda first ought to be an easy one - for any honest and intelligent politician who cares more about services for the people they were elected to represent.

Clearly the administration in Camden, which is spending £1,500 on posters blaming the government for the cuts, has demonstrated whether any of those descriptions apply to them.

The local Conservative group leader, Councillor Andrew Mennear said: “The current government is having to make spending cuts owing to the previous Labour government’s reckless profligacy with our money during its 13 wasted years in office.

“Labour Camden’s decision to waste our money locally by putting up pointless and arguably political adverts of this nature will not go down well with local residents.”

He added: “We’ve entered a new era of ‘every penny counts’ austerity thanks to the profligacy of Gordon Brown and the negligence of Tony Blair. Even rela­tively small items of expenditure like this need to be held to account.”


Hat tip to Political Betting for drawing my attention to the story.

The dangers of declaring victory too early ...

One of George W Bush's worst mistakes was declaring "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq at a stage when Saddam might have been overthrown but building a stable and secure state to replace what US and British arms had overthrown was, to put it mildly, not complete.

I have similar concerns about the possibility that mainstream politicians may take the setback for extreme nationalist parties in this year's general election, and their low profile in most parts of the country since, as grounds for complacency. This would be a mistake.

Am email sent out this morning from the "Nothing British" campaign says that

"Undoubtedly the BNP as an institution has lost its momentum. The humiliation in Barking. The financial collapse. The EHRC trial. Griffin’s personal failings. And the tremendous work of anti-BNP campaigns. So we are closing down Nothing British at the end of the year. We would like to thank all those who have helped our campaign against the extremism and racism of the BNP, its surrogates and other fascist groups."

The BNP's high water mark was the 2009 County and Euro elections, and they have fallen back dramatically since then: their general election campaign in Copeland was badly mishandled and their vote here fell to a third of what they had polled the previous year. Overall their general election performance was lower than expectations and has been perceived as a failure.

Hence the danger that mainstream politicians may become complacent not just about the BNP but, far more seriously, about the thousands of people who feel sufficiently excluded from mainstream politicians to consider voting for parties like the BNP. To be fair to "Nothing British", they are not encouraging such complacency.

"Nothing British" have published a valedictory article which you can read here about the "Antis" who feel excluded by Westminster politics. As they say in the summary of the report,

"Most voters supporting popular nationalist parties and attitudes do not consider themselves as extremists and would prefer to be engaged in the mainstream parties, if only they spoke to them about their issues."

One aspect of the report which will infuriate both UKIP and the BNP is that it examines voters for both the nationalist parties as representing part of the same tendancy. The report recognises that UKIP is both far more moderate, and more respectable, than the BNP. Nevertheless it argues convincingly that voters who have deserted the three main parties for either UKIP or the BNP are often doing so for very similar reasons and hence support for both parties can be seen as a similar phenomenen. And since those reasons include a feeling of disengagement with a Westminster establishment which is perceived as not listening to or caring about these voters, it isn't disputing their democratic right to cast their ballots as they wish to describe this as a serious problem.

James Bethell of "Nothing British" writes of the report:

"Nonetheless, we remain concerned that the causes of the BNP’s recent surge in popularity have not been addressed by mainstream politicians. Until their legitimate concerns are addressed, those left out of the benefits of globalisation will remain outside the mainstream and a source of potential radicalisation. This report is meant to be a wake-up call to the Westminster parties to face-up to their responsibilities to those who have fought our wars, built our industries and are currently left behind."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rawnsley on the case for and against AV

Andrew Rawnsley has a very good piece in the Observer today, available on the Guardian website here, which is about the case for a Yes or No vote in the AV referendum but rejoices in the title Two-tribe politics is over. But the likes of John Prescott can't see it.

After an effective demolition of Prescott and the other "long in the sabre-tooth" politicians fronting the "No" campaign, Rawnsley sumarises the arguments on both sides in the referendum. He appears to be arguing on balance for a "Yes" while I will be voting "No" but it is a good summary and worth a read if you are interested in an intelligent discussion of the issues.

Now Winter has come ...

Today is Advent Sunday, the first day of the Church's year and the beginning of the preparation for Christmas.

Rather appropriately, the first four words of the Advent Hymn with which many congregations will have started their services this morning are

"Now Winter has come"
You're telling me!

If you go out today, please do take care. Many paths and roads are quite treacherous.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

On childhood and snow ...

It doesn't often snow in Whitehaven. The majority of years we've been here the entire winter has passed without a single day's snow on the ground.

So when we woke up this morning with about three-quarters of an inch of snow everywhere, and the view over to Kells from our bedroom windows looking like a christmas card, the shrieking of happy children in my household could probably be heard over half of Whitehaven.

Funny how such things bring back memories of one's own childhood, though I don't know what my dad would have said if my brother and I had chosen the bonnet of his car as the ideal place to make a snowman ...

The adults are probably less inclined to celebrate, but it's the weekend and our children are only young once.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ed Byrne caught out on Question Time

Hat tip to Guido Fawkes and Guy News for pointing out a boo-boo by left-wing comedian Ed Byrne: last night on Question Time during a discussion on student fees, Byrne was asked by David Willetts

"Didn't you do some publicity on this under the last Labour government?"

and replied "No" and

"I think you're thinking of somebody else: I didn't do any publicity for the Labour party on anything."

It's usually a bad idea to tell "Two Brains" Willetts he's wrong: his memory turned out to be rather better than Mr Byrne's as this clip by Guy News shows.

After the clip appeared on Guido's site, Ed Byrne tweeted

“I hold my hands up. Completely forgot about it. Apologies to David Willets”

Warsi: getting Britain back on track

Conservative co-chairman Sayeeda Warsi writes ...

As Party Chairman, I spend a lot of my time on the road meeting people across the country and talking about how the Coalition is trying to achieve a better Britain.

Recently I visited Hyndburn, Derby and Doncaster where I spoke to supporters and members of the public about what the Government is doing and how we're doing it.

While we've got a lot more work to do, I think we've made a promising start:

We've brought Britain back from the brink by dealing with the deficit;
We're creating a new economic dynamism and bringing a pro-enterprise attitude to Government;
We're making tough but fair welfare reforms, meaning it will always pay to work. We're ending the absurd situation where some people can claim over £100,000 a year to live in large houses in expensive areas;
And we're protecting the most vulnerable in our society. We're ensuring real terms rise in health and 5-16 schools spending and we're introducing a new £7.2 billion fairness premium to support the least well off.
Our long-term approach is very different to what Mr. Miliband is up to. Ed Miliband was at the heart of the Labour Government that created this mess - but he has no credible plan to clear it up. Instead, he opposes almost every one of our measures to deal with Britain's biggest peacetime deficit.

He actually summed up Labour's position very well in an interview with the Guardian this week: "in terms of policy...we start with a blank page".

So please send this email on to your friends and family and let them know about the start we've made in building a better Britain - and together, we can hold Ed Miliband to account.


Sayeeda Warsi
Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Charles Hendry hints at reprocessing ...

Conservative energy minister Charles Hendry hinted during a visit to Copeland this week that the government may be taking a more positive view of the future of reprocessing.

He also talked about making West Cumbria one of the best placed parts of the world to take advantage of the nuclear renaissance and strongly emphasised the potential benefits to West Cumbria of the infrastructure improvements which will need to come with it.

Charles Hendry told The Whitehaven News that Billions of pounds may flow into West Cumbria, including substantial investment in infrastructure, as part of the development of new nuclear facilities.

Road improvements, transport, health and education services could all be involed, he said.

The minister was speaking on a visit to Sellafield just as Whitehaven was hosting a ‘drop in’ centre for people to give their views on underground disposal of higher levels of nuclear material.

And he said it was only right that local communities should benefit from future nuclear developments.

“We want to make this one of the most attractive places in the world for people to invest in new nuclear,” Mr Hendry declared.

A new nuclear power station around the existing Sellafield site and later the possibility of an underground repository would bring a substantial boost to jobs, enterprise and the economy.

“If new nuclear goes ahead there is four or five billion pounds worth of investment. Companies engaged in new (power station) build are emphasising to me the whole time how they want to use local skills, local services.

“Alongside this we are looking for the right place for geological disposal (of nuclear waste), trying to encourage communities to come forward, there have been three expressions of interest from local authorities in Cumbria; we are working with them to see how we can take forward that interest but there’s no doubt that in terms of marketing this is the Energy Coast which has a unique facility, a unique advantage with a whole range of energy mix.

“As a government we have a strong nuclear vision for this area which we want to help deliver so people can be part of a nuclear renaissance and not just dismantling the old nuclear legacy.”

Asked by The Whitehaven News about the prospects of investment either from the government or the private sector, the minister said:

“I know what the roads are like coming down from Penrith, Oxenholme and Carlisle, so it’s very clear if we are going to see major construction work, the development potentially of a nuclear waste repository then there’s going to need a very significant investment in infrastructure.

“We’re working very closely with the local authorities, identifying what they see as the principle needs of the area. not just in terms of the roads but also in health and education: to see how we can respond effectively.”

On new reactor build, Mr Hendry said he was delighted that Sellafield was on the shortlist of the revised list of potentially suitable UK locations.

“We will do all we can to make it possible but at the end of the day it will be commercial companies who make the decision, we’ve made it quite clear there will be no government subsidy but the companies are saying they are not looking for any, my job is to remove the potential barriers which as the planning, legal and regulatory issues.

“This (Sellafield) is a very good site, you would be hard pushed to find anywhere in Europe which has the same degree of nuclear legacy terms of skills and the interest of people trying to secure new investment. This has to be one of the most attractive locations, you’ve got a workforce which has spent a lifetime working in the sector and with younger blood coming through as well with the skills new build will require.”

Bringing together business, local communities and local authorities was an important driving force but he stressed: “What comes back time and again is the infrastructure – it will need to be improved.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Hat tip to Tim Montgomerie and to Political Betting (not too often you find those two sources in agreement) for pointing out this clip of the shadow chancellor referring to his leader as "Red." Makes you wonder if that's what he calls him in private ...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Copeland Council and WRLFC, continued

There was considerable discussion when the Chief Executive's report to councillors on Copeland Council's involvement in Whitehaven Rugby League FC was presented to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee today.

The report highlighted a number of problems with the way the issue was managed and made a number of suggestions for improvements in council procedures to reduce the chance of some of these problems recurring.

One Labour councillor described what has happened as a "systemic failure" by the council, and I agree.

The council gave the club financial backing designed to protect the club, secure a development at Pow Beck. While it is too early to say how much of the £125,000 of taxpayers money CBC loaned to the club or guaranteed, it is pretty clear that some of the council's investment in the club been lost, not much progress has been made on Pow Beck, and the club went into administration anyway.

Failure on all three fronts: a worst of all worlds situation.

The CEO's recommendations for reform were supported by the committee.

Polly goes Paddy-bashing

Polly Toynbee accuses the Irish of "piracy" and being "bad neighbours" in the Guardian today, and opposes the bailout, saying that "Ireland shouldn't get a penny" until they abandon policies she appears to blame for spreading economic catastrophe over the face of Western Europe.

"Cameron says he is being 'good neighbours' with the Irish. Why, when they have been such terrible neighbours to us?" she asks.

Just imagine how the Guardianistas would react to those words coming from the pen of anyone on the Tory right.

Could it be possible that irony isn't quite dead after all?


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Copeland Council and Whitehaven Rugby League

The Chief Executive's report to councillors on the management of Copeland Council's investment in Haven RLFC will be presented to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee at 5pm tomorrow, Monday 21st November, in the Bainbridge Room at the Copeland Centre in Catherine Street, Whitehaven.

The meeting is open to the public. If you want to come along, allow a few minutes to get your security pass etc sorted out.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The sad death of Irony

* Remember when we used to joke at the expense of our cousins over the Pond that "The Americans don't do irony" ?

* Remember when someone who put an argument really badly ran the risk of getting disowned by the side of the debate they were trying to support, or receiving unwelcome congratulations from the side they disagreed with, because their argument was taken for irony?

* Remember that once apon a time, brilliant satirists like Jonathan Swift could parody a view they disagreed with by writing essays like "A Modest Proposal" in the knowledge that everyone who read the article would know perfectly well that the actual message was the exact opposite of what it appeared to be saying.

Well, it now seems that Britain doesn't "do irony" either.

The process has been going on for a while. Shortly after I left Bristol University, there was an attempt by the extreme left to take action against that University's TRG society - yes that's right, not the old FCS hardliners but the "wets" - over two or three cartoons copied from a certain national humour magazine. The person who brought the complaint presented the cartoons as promoting certain violent actions which it should have been obvious to anyone capable of winning a place at University that the cartoons concerned were actually ridiculing the mindset which might lead to anything close to those actions.

(I suppose those who wrote the magazine should be grateful that the idiot responsible didn't have the imagination to get them into much more serious trouble by reporting them to the magazine for copyright infringement but there you go.)

It has always been the case that no responsible person should ever use irony where there is a material danger that some idiot taking the comment literally might use it to justfy some crime or evil act, and no wise person should use irony where there is a significant possibility that a reasonable person might take the comments literally.

However, the judgement of what makes for a material risk, and of what a reasonable person might take literally, appears to have shifted.

So that now, if there is any possiblity at all that an ironic comment might amount to incitement to violence if some cretin takes it seriously, or if there is the least chance that it might amount to a career-destroying gaffe if someone on the other side of the argument pretends to take it literally, nobody in the public eye can risk deploying irony as an argument.

Which means that between political correctness, risk aversion, and an almost universal willingness to put the worst possible construction on what anybody says, irony has been put off-limits as a tactic in intellectual debate.

Two recent events have inspired this line of thought.

The first was an item in the small print of the court judgement and press reports of the Oldham East and Saddleworth case is that Phil Woolas may yet end up on the wrong end of a libel case, not from his Lib/Dem opponent, but from the publisher of a Muslim magazine which the Phil Woolas campaign team produced at the election court in an unsuccessful attempt to justify their allegation that death threats had been made against him.

The judgement noted that the reference to death threats in the magazine concerned did not mention Phil Woolas, and it appeared to the justices that the publisher could equally be making an ironic joke about the possiblity that he might be on the receiving end of death threats himself. That publisher has subsequently said that this is indeed what he was doing, and he is apparently threatening to sue Phil Woolas for falsely accusing him of making death threats.

Another case of disastrous misunderstood irony followed what appear to have been some extraordinaryg comments on a BBC programme by "Independent" journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

The feed to her Nicky Campbell interview is no longer running, but it was widely reported in the press that Ms Alibhai-Brown had said that those Western politicians who supported the Iraq war had no right to criticise human rights violations in Iraq or China.

I agree, as I am sure all decent people agree, with the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, when he said in response to a request for a debate on stoning in Iran which followed her statement that

"Stoning to death is a barbarous form of punishment which the Government, and I am sure every honourable member of this House, deplores."

I don't support the death penalty, but if I did I still would not condone stoning as a means of executing even someone convicted of murder after a fair trial and on the most unimpeachable evidence. That would be bad enough, but stoning someone to death on the grounds that they have been accused of adultery on very dodgy evidence is a truly appalling thing to do.

There is a lady in Iran who has been sentenced to that fate, of which she is still in danger, and it is very possible if the rest of the world had not protested about it, the sentence might by now have been implemented.

Both Sir George Young's comment, and mine above, about stoning being wrong amount to implicit or explicit criticism of human rights in Iran, and therefore by her own logic Yasmin Alibhai-Brown appears to be saying that we have no right to make those comments.

Because I believe in free speech within the law, I consider that we do have the right to make those comments: equally, Ms Alibhai-Brown has the right to lawful expression of her opinions, and those who think she is wrong should have the right to lawful expression of their opinions.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Cumbrian tragedy

I am almost speechless at the report of Michael Redfern QC's inquiry into the postumous removal of body parts from deceased Sellafield workers.

The tragedy is that treating the families of the deceased in this underhand and shabby way was so unnecessary.

If it were possible that I had been exposed to radiation, and I was asked by a duly authorised person for permission after my death to remove parts of my body and check for contamination, so as to help protect people from future hazards, there is a very strong possibility that I would agree.

In fact the decision would rest with my heirs, and again, if they were properly asked in a sensitive way, I would hope they would similarly give permission.

I'm not going to go into detail, but a close relative of mine did indicate during their lifetime that they would be happy for parts of their body to be used after their death to help others. When that person died the rest of the family gave consent and those wishes were carried out. It actually helped us in our grief to know that the person concerned was for one final time helping someone else.

That is not what happened at Sellafield. If those who were conducting the research had done the decent thing, and asked the families concerned, some might have said no, and that would have been their absolute right. It is, however, very likely that provided proper assurances were given - and seen to be kept - that the bodies would be treated with respect, enough co-operation would have been forthcoming to enable the research to take place. We will now never know.

But even those who would have agreed to the research if asked are fully entitled to be furious that parts of their loved ones' bodies were effectively stolen without their permission.

Indeed, part of the tragedy is that the loss trust which this disgraceful episode may cause is likely to make it harder for more ethical researchers to gain such consent in future.

The Secretary of State has apologised for what happened and said that what happened to the bodies of Sellafield workers would not be permissible today. Both this givernment and all future governments must make sure that it does not happen again.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Government moves to keep referendum promise

EU lock means powers cannot be transferred without referendum

The Government has introduced a new bill to the House of Commons which is designed to provide an EU lock and ensure that any further handover of powers from Britain to the EU will require a national referendum.

The Conservative Party fully understands that many people within Britain feel disconnected from the EU and this is a way of ensuring that politicians have to consult the public before handing over further powers. Only the British people will hold the key to the referendum lock.

The EU Bill places on a statutory footing the common law principle that Parliament is sovereign and that EU law only takes effect in the UK by virtue of the will of our Parliament expressed through Acts of Parliament.

To date, case law has upheld that principle. This Bill will put the matter beyond speculation by placing this principle on a statutory footing. The provision is declaratory, affirming this common law principle. It does not alter the existing relationship of EU law and UK law.

Minister for Europe, David Lidington said: "The Coalition government is committed to being an active and activist member of the European Union. However, many people in Britain feel disconnected with how the EU has developed, and the decisions that have been taken in their name".

"That is why we are introducing this EU Bill, to give people more control over decisions made by the Government in the EU in their name. This Bill ensures that if there is any further handover of power from this country to Brussels, the Government will have to seek the British people's consent in a national referendum."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Remembrance Sunday

Tomorrow, 14th November is remembrance Sunday and I will be taking part in the commemoration in Whitehaven for the fallen.

The parade will leave Copeland Council Offices at about 10.40 and there will be a minute's silence at the war memorial at 11 am.

Friday, November 12, 2010

After the riots

Forty one police officers injured, and a number of other people. Eight required hospital treatment. Fifty people arrested.

This is not a trivial incident. Nor is it one which any government can afford to back down in response to.

I fully accept that the great majority of those who took part in the demonstration wanted nothing more than a peaceful protest. As well as by government ministers, those who orchestrated and took part in the violence have been condemned by Ed Balls on behalf of the opposition and by the president of N.U.S.

Their right to take part in a peaceful protest has been taken away, not by the government (which is in the process of relaxing some of the restrictions on protests near parliament which Labour had imposed) but by the thugs.

I note that a few idiots have attempted to semi-justify the violence by saying that as politicians have broken their promises on student fees, the protesters had been deprived of a way to obtain their wishes democratically. I would not endorse violence against any party headquarters, or indeed against police officers and employees of other bodies which happen to be in the same building. But even if one did, the flaw in that argument is in which party was attacked.

* In 1997 Labour was elected on a platform which included not introducing student fees, and then introduced them.

* In 2001 Labour was elected on a platform which included not increasing student fees, and then raised them with "top-up" fees.

* In 2010, the Lib/Dems signed the NUS pledge to vote against increasing student fees, a promise which it looks like most of them are about to break. (For the avoidance of doubt, in my view their mistake was making a promise which they should have known it might be impossible to keep.)

So which of the three main parties had the building housing their party HQ smashed up? That's right, the one which hasn't broken a promise on student fees.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lest we forget ...

Today is Armistice Day, the 82nd anniversary of the end of the first world war.

It is a day to remember all those who were killed or injured in wars, particularly those who were hurt while fighting to keep this a free country and oppose evils such as nazism.

They must not be forgotten.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mob rule at Millbank

When I was a student I frequently took part in peaceful student demonstrations against national or local policies which I disagreed with, but I always opposed protests those which looked violent or intimidatory, or were likely to give people a disgust of students.

I suspect that the National Union of Students were not expecting when they called today's demo what has just happened at Millbank. They are probably intelligent enough to realise that smashing windows, injuring policemen, and terrorising office workers at a building where most of the people who work have nothing to do with any political party, because it also houses Conservative Campaign centre, does not advance their case.

As so often, the entire body of two million students is in danger of being given a bad name by a relatively small number of extremists.

Anyone who imagines that what happened at Millbank today will make it more likely that government policy will be changed to help students - as the peaceful protest NUS was presumably planning would have - is wrong.

Human rights in China

If there is one major moral issue which is just about impossible to get right, it is whether, how, and to what degree the West should speak out about Human Rights in China.

Chinese governments have a long history, which goes way back before the present communist regime, of treating all outsiders as "Foreign Devils." Unfortunately, all too many of their past experience of foreigners gave them justified reasons to be very cautious of outsiders, from the depredations of Ghengis Khan through the Opium Wars to the rape of Nanking.

The sad fact is that when China is criticised by outsiders, particularly by foreign governments (most particularly of countries like Britain which have some unfortunate history with China) the default response of successive Chinese regimes has not just been to dismiss the criticism as coming from enemies of China but to crack down on anyone who the foreigners are trying to help as traitors.

To Chinese eyes a government which failed to respond in a manner which looks tough would be in danger of losing face. And unless they happen to have a mentally handicapped British citizen in one of their prisons who has been accused of a serious offence, the dissidents themselves are usually the easiest people to kick so as to look tough.

Consequently, the wrong kind of criticism can be actively counter-productive - and there appeared to be a lethal demonstration of that point within the past year.

Equally, to refrain from making any attempt at all to protest against human rights violations is not going to resolve the problem or do much for our self-respect.

Which leaves Western governments with a very difficult balance to strike, in making the point to China that greater respect for human rights would be in their own country's interests without triggering the kind of negative reaction which is likely to include greater hardship for the very people we are trying to help.

I believe that David Cameron was right to raise the issue of human rights when he visited China today, and that he was also right to do so in tactful and carefully restrained terms. Raising the matter at all was a risk. But one he was right to take.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

A lesson in irresponsible behaviour

There is a very good piece in today's Guardian by Inayat Bunglawala, "Phil Woolas: a lesson in irresponsible behaviour" in which he asks

"What was the local Labour party thinking of when it allowed this incendiary madness to take place?"

It's a good question and gives rise to a further one.

I had to run every word of every leaflet my campaign team put out during the 2010 election, and the run up to the election, past Conservative HQ because the party was determined to avoid precisely the kind of debacle which Labour has now fallen into over Phil Woolas's campaign. I'm fairly certain that the Labour party had similar arrangements.

So one can also ask, what was the NATIONAL Labour party thinking when it allowed this incendiary madness to take place?

You can read Inayat's piece here.

Yesterday I posted a link to a summary of the judgement on the BBC website. Hat tip to Mike Smithson at Political Betting for pointing out a link to the full judgement here. In spite of the fact that there are 57 pages, this is something that all parliamentary candidates and their agents and literature directors would be wise to read.

I would also defy any open-minded person to read the full judgement without coming to the conclusion that

1) The judges had good reasons to find Phil Woolas guilty as charged

2) The Crown Prosecution service has good reason to consider whether criminal charges should be brought against both Phil Woolas and his agent.

And anyone who is tempted to defend Phil Woolas - or indeed, any voter in Oldham and Saddleworth who is considering casting a ballot for the Labour candidate in the by-election - might usefully ask themselves this question.

What would you say about a Tory or Lib/Dem candidate who fought this sort of campaign? And what would you think of Conservative or Liberal HQ for allowing it?

Friday, November 05, 2010

A Landmark Ruling

Making a false statement about a candidate during an election is a serious offence. It is very rare for charges to be brought for this offence, and rarer still for a court to rule that the charge is justified. But that has now happened.

A court has found that the Labour election campaign in Oldham and Saddleworth, where former Labour minister Phil Woolas was the candidate, put out leaflets making statments about his Lib/Dem opponent which were untrue. They have quashed his election, which unless this decision is overturned by Judicial Review, will mean a by-election.

Until a few years ago, if you had asked me to predict which party was most likely to be accused of dirty tactics, I would have said the Lib/Dems. It had been my experience that there is a majority of decent people and a minority of unprincipled rascals in all the parties, but that the dirtiest election campaigns were usually fought by the Lib/Dems.

But smearing your opponents, whether personally or politically, is wrong whoever does it, and I have been seriously unimpressed by some of the material Labour has put out over the past two elections.

And in particular, some of the leaflets which Labour put out this year in Oldham and Saddleworth were pretty extreme. When I saw them reproduced in press coverage of the case, I recall thinking "If Woolas's people cannot substantiate these charges, they richly deserve to be taken to the cleaners by the courts."

They couldn't, and they have been.

Some of the reaction to the news by Labour spokesmen have been interesting to say the least. Harriet Harman said that

"I don't think this is a reflection on the Labour Party as a whole."

Hm. Even though the new leader of the Labour Party recently appointed Woolas to the Labour front bench?

To be fair, she also annouced that Woolas was being suspended by the Labour party, that it was "no part of Labour's politics to try to win elections by telling lies" and that the party would not support any appeal.

Phil Woolas's lawyer said that

"Those who stand for election and participate in the democratic process must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching scrutiny and inquiry," he said.

"They must accept that their political character and conduct will be attacked.

"It is vital to our democracy that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear that they may be found to have breached electoral laws.

"This decision will inevitably chill political speech."

It is worth making clear that for a challenge to be successful under this law, the petitioner has to show not just that the accusations are untrue but that the person who made them had no reasonable grounds to believe them to be true. Woolas lost the case, not just because two High Court judges found that his campaign had made false statements about his opponent, but because they found that he knew that his campaign was making accusations for which there was no valid evidence.

To directly quote the court judgement,

"Having considered the evidence which was adduced in court we are sure that these statements were untrue. We are also sure that the respondent had no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true and did not believe them to be true."

You can read a summary of the judgement for yourself on the BBC website here.

If Labour got away with saying the kind of things they said in Oldham and Saddleworth, with so little evidence to support them that the Lib/Dems were able to persuade two high court judges, in court, to rule that Labour didn't believe what they were saying, it would have been a licence to tell lies with impunity.

Hence the statement by Mr Woolas's lawyer is equivalent to an argument that it is "vital to our democracy" that candidates should be able to tell lies about their opponents and that if you stand for election you are fair game for the filthiest muck that your opponents can think to throw at you.

Former Labour Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer said that this ruling will change the way future elections are fought.

If that means that people of all political parties have to make greater efforts to be certain that what they say about their opponents is actually true, I think that is a thoroughly good thing.

I have always believed in free speech within the law, but that is not incompatible with having and enforcing laws against libel, slander, or telling lies against rival candidates in an election, provided that to those laws are not drafted and enforced in a way which stifles reasonable expression of opinion.

There have been libel cases - those brought by the late Robert Maxwell and by Jeffrey Archer being the most notorious examples but by no means the only ones - which make me wonder whether it is far too easy to use this country's libel laws to suppress hostile views. But the Oldham and Saddleworth action was brought under different laws which required the complainant to achieve a much higher standard of proof.

Assuming that the decision is not overturned by judicial review, the by-election will be interesting.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Nihil Nisi Bonum

To clarify the comments policy on this blog

If you want to criticise a living person who holds public office, appointed or elected, and the attack is not actionable or worded in offensive language, I will usually leave the post up even if I strongly disagree with it.

This blog operated for many years with no comment moderation and very few posts indeed deleted, and I wish I could continue to run it that way because I believe strongly in free speech.

However, when an obit thread, is posted on someone who has just died, comments critical of that person which might have been regarded as within the bounds of decency during their lifetime are likely to give offence.

I am not going to ban all criticism on this blog of any decision taken by someone who has since died - for example, if we had a post on pensions policy and someone says that part of our problem now is because the late Prime Minister X was wrong to do Y on pensions twenty years ago, that's within the area of legitimate debate.

But when I post a thread which is intended to pay respect to someone who has just died, posts critical of that person will not get through comment moderation.

Copeland hit by more floods

Please take great care if you are out on the roads in Copeland this evening

There are at least six flood warnings in Cumbria this evening, several of them in the Copeland constituency.

Traffic is being affected by water on the roads in many areas including Keswick, Distington, Frizington, and Muncaster/Holmrook. There is also a flood warning in Egremont and there have been reports of the River Duddon bursting its banks.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Bransty & Harbour Neighbourhood Forum

Despite the filthy weather there was a reasonable turnout for the Neighbourhood Forum meeting at Bransty School at 7pm

Agenda items included

1) The new system for allocating social housing, which is due to be adopted in Cumbria before the end of the year, whereby people on the housing waiting lists can apply for social homes of their choice rather than wait to be allocated something by the powers that be

2) The scheme which provides supported lodging for young adults leaving care

3) Feedback from the Bransty school youngsters who presented a petition to the council on dog fouling.

(This provoked a fierce but polite and constructive argument about whether the council is doing enough to keep the streets clean and whether this should be higher on our priority list. Most of the residents who spoke appeared to think it should.)

4) Grants applications.