Election Petitions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:17 am on 18th July 2011.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw 12:17 am, 18th July 2011

No.

Clearly the candidate needs to take responsibility for their publicity, but the reason that question rings so true to me is that in 1997, I was sent by the Labour party to oversee the last five days of the campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth of Mr Phil Woolas. I wrote the leaflets in the last five days, and Mr Woolas, as a good candidate, was not consulted on them at any stage.

In the parlance of the Labour party agents—it is no different among the other major parties—candidates have been known for decades as “LNs”—legal necessities. My leaflets were beyond reproach, but if they had not been, who would have been responsible? Would it have been the writer of the leaflets, the legal agent appointed by the candidate, or the candidate? It seems to me that some flexibility of sanctions is needed in the law, to take that question into account. The matter could be further complicated, of course, if leaflets were put out jointly with local election candidates, potentially involving two agents and different candidates.

It seems to me that there is a fundamental weakness in the law. In essence, the question available to the election court, as demonstrated in the case of Mr Woolas, is yes or no, guilty or not guilty. If guilty, the sanction must be the ultimate one of striking out. No other option was available in Mr Woolas’s case. There was no option of looking to see whether the leaflets influenced the campaign. Therefore, a leaflet that is written but never distributed—a copy could be obtained—could be used to overturn an election result.

There is a second principle: there is no right of appeal—the press coverage at the time of Mr Woolas’s case perhaps confused that. The Fiona Jones case in 1999 was a criminal prosecution. Because of that, she successfully appealed and was reinstated as a Member of Parliament. In the civil case against Mr Woolas, no appeal was possible, as was recognised when he attempted a judicial review, and therefore it was not possible to look at the statements of fact as determined by the election court judges. Natural justice in any other place dictates that there should be an appeal. A murderer of the worst kind has a right of appeal, and yet a parliamentarian who has lost his seat because of an election court ruling—as others could—does not. That anomaly needs to be changed. It was changed in relation to criminal cases because of the Fiona Jones case, but it was left out of the 1983 consolidation Act.

It is essential that the Government move quickly to change that before lots of similar cases are brought to attempt to change results. I put it to the House that in the internet era, there is a greater possibility of more cases being brought, because there are more outlets for things being stated as part of a campaign. The candidate— rightly and honourably—must accept ownership of those things, but he might not have direct control of them during the campaign. I put it to the Minister that we are all at risk.

My final point to the Minister is a separate one that relates to my election. I estimate that a wealthy benefactor in the other place, Lord Ashcroft, put in £250,000 to try to win my seat in the election, and he did so quite legally. Many photographs of the then Leader of the Opposition, the now Prime Minister, were sent by direct mail. One household received 29 direct mails, and mine received six. It was a waste of money—it may have increased my vote—but there is an unfairness in the system. If I had £250,000 to spend, I think I could increase my majority.

That also needs to be looked at. A review of fairness, honesty and integrity in elections is imperative—a review that does not excuse certain behaviour or give candidates of any party anywhere to run; and that allows honourable, fair and just campaigns and outcomes; but which leaves fair, just and reasonable remedies for those who wish to challenge them. The internet, e-mail, texting and Twitter age dictates that the Government must introduce legislation to change the foundation of electoral law in the UK, which is described by Roger Morris and David Monks, in “Running Elections 2003”, as

“Victorian in construction and tone”.

We need to modernise, and for all our sakes, we need to do so quickly.