Martin Bright

The chilling effect of the Phil Woolas case

The chilling effect of the Phil Woolas case
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We Spectator bloggers are now living under a new regime. Rather than posting our blogs ourselves, we now have to go through the editors. This is all very sensible. Libel is a serious business and you can't be too careful these days. The Spectator has been a stalwart defender of freedom of speech and I know Fraser Nelson feels particularly strongly about this. 

The closing down of debate – especially on the subject of radical Islam – is something that hits at the heart of democracy and liberal thought. This magazine has been as courageous as it is possible to be in this area without putting the publication out of business and everyone who works for it on the dole.

But there is a wider problem within the body politic as demonstrated by the Phil Woolas case in Oldham and Saddleworth. 

Politics is a dirty business and general election campaigning is politics at its dirtiest. Labour's former immigration minister stands accused of telling lies about his Liberal Democrat opponent, whom he accused of pandering to Muslim extremists. Judges have intervened to strip Mr Woolas of his seat and Ed Miliband has said he is  no longer welcome to stand as a Labour MP. 

Now, I don't know if Mr Woolas is guilty of misrepresenting his opponents' views. But this surely isn't really the point. What if he has said that the Lib Dems were planning to overturn their pledge on tuition fees? He would have had no evidence for this, but he would have been right. Would that have been a lie or a good guess? 

As Ed Howker has said, the Woolas campaign was not untypical in northern politics. And nor are the Liberal Democrats as they like to suggest, as Lorna Fitzsimons discovered in Rochdale in 2005 when she was unseated by an alliance of the Lib Dems and the deeply unpleasant Muslim Public Affairs Committee (who also sit at the centre of the Woolas case). 

I spent an hour or so in Court Three of the Royal Courts of Justice today to watch this strange spectacle play itself out 

I was not comfortable with Phil Woolas's "robust" approach to immigration policy. And I cringed at his election leaflets. His attempt to scare white working class voters was distasteful to this north London liberal. But the gleeful way in which he has been hung out to dry by the Labour Party has been more so. How quick were Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman to reject him – and how slow to condemn Ken Livingstone for backing a non-Labour candidate in the Tower Hamlets mayoral election in London. 

We will find out in the next few days whether Phil Woolas will be able to appeal the original judicial decision to strike out his election. 

He is fighting for the future of dirty street-fighting politics. The Liberal Democrats who are the dirtiest street fighters of them all should be cheering him on.