Ed Howker

Phil Woolas, four investigations and a funeral wreath

Phil Woolas, four investigations and a funeral wreath
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It may take another week to discover if Phil Woolas has the right to challenge the election court ruling that destroyed his career. To the delight of his cadre of supporters in the House, judges have said there are "difficult questions to resolve" - not about the evidence of Woolas' campaign making "false statements", but about the specific application of the Representation of the People Act (RPA).

Before the last die is cast, here are two quick contextual points. First, it is not just Harriet Harman who is keen to shut down this episode - many folks on all sides of the House of Commons would like to pretend skulduggery of this kind is exceptional. It is not - Phil Woolas' behaviour is far from untypical of northern politics.

Examine the record for 2010 in the marginal constituency of Halifax, for example, where some Conservatives are alleging that postal ballots were used to swing the election in Labour's favour. Meanwhile, Labour are merrily pointing out that two Tory councillors in the town were arrested on charges of postal ballot fraud just weeks before the election.

Across the Pennines, police were called to investigate four elections in Greater Manchester this year. Rochdale returned Simon Danczuk for Labour but, earlier in the campaign, disaffected members of his own local party spread vicious rumours that he was involved in domestic violence. Danczuk's experience of selection for the seat was even dirtier: when he put himself forward he received a funeral wreath with his name picked out in white carnations as well as threats from an anonymous caller who explained that "his body-parts will be found across the motorway" if he did not withdraw. Woolas' constituency is next door.

Second, this election court ruling must give pause for thought to all those who turn blind eyes to nasty campaigns. As Dennis Kavanagh put it when I spoke to him, ‘Each party is holding a stick of dynamite on this one’ – each one contains some rogue operators. I hope that the Woolas’ ruling serves to check their behaviour. But another outcome could be the encouraging of third party campaigners during elections.

Already, the NUS threatens to insert itself into the election re-run in Oldham East and Saddleworth and there are plenty of campaigning groups that could get active in subsequent campaigns. They would find their spending capped at £100 but what they say would be difficult to control - unlike mainstream political parties, they're unlikely to fear the RPA.