Oldham East & Saddleworth – elections & election law

UPDATE (half an hour after I wrote this): Phil Woolas’ appeal dismissed, the full judgement can be read here. Byelection expected in New Year.

First a brief history, although this has already been covered in the media.

There was a general election in Oldham East & Saddleworth in May. The Lib Dem candidate came 2nd to the Labour candidate Phil Woolas by 103 votes (with 14,083 votes).

Following the result the Lib Dem candidate took the Labour candidate to court and won over lies he’d told about the Lib Dem candidate over the election campaign. This court case was held in November (after Phil Woolas had been an MP for 6 months). The election was declared void, Phil Woolas was thrown out as an MP, barred from standing as a candidate for three years (and banned from the Labour party).

So for the last month the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth have not had an MP because Mr. Woolas decided to drag things out (supported financially by Labour MPs). Interestingly the legal argument being used is anyone should be able to say anything they like in a leaflet (even libellous) to win an election.

Whereas I believe in freedom of speech; this country does have laws to prevent people being elected through lies, “buying an election” imposed through spending limits and all sorts of other restrictions. However for some time political parties of every colour have turned a blind eye to electoral malpractice (especially the “grey areas”) as legal action following an election is rare & expensive. For a case similar in ways to what Phil Woolas did one only has to look at ex-Labour Cllr Miranda Grell and the lies she spread about her opponent which helped her win her seat.

The police and CPS are from my past experience always reluctant to investigate crimes surrounding elections due to accusations that they’re taking one political party’s side over another. The view I got from one police officer after pointing out a breach years ago was that it was for political parties to police themselves. His view was that it wasn’t a crime to break the law and as such shouldn’t be recorded as such.

When is it not in the public interest to investigate crimes against our country’s democracy?

The only time I’ve known crimes be investigated is either when it’s extremely flagrant such as when Labour councillors tried to rig the vote in Birmingham, when the media shows an interest or similar situations where the police feel they have little choice.

Of course some of the complaints each year are down to official error. I know of a story of a person going to vote, to be told they’d already voted. A polling clerk can quite easily cross the wrong name off the list.

However this year I was not only told in my local polling station I wasn’t allowed to vote on polling day in both the local election & General Election (that took about 3 hours to sort out) but when I got the list of people that’d voted in the election after I finally got to vote I wasn’t on it!!!

I brought this up with the Returning Officer (who’s recently been awarded Freedom of the Borough), he said that there was a list of postal voters and those who voted at a polling station. However those who handed in a postal vote at a polling station weren’t recorded on either list!

At the end of polling day, eight people had voted this way and there are six polling stations in this ward. How can the public know where these fifty or so votes appeared and who they were from? How can we tell if anyone voted by post twice (eg voted then asked for a replacement ballot pack which they took to their polling system) under this system?

Clearly there are problems that Wirral Council has with elections ranging from postal votes that weren’t received this year. These people were then told at their local polling station they weren’t allowed to vote or to go to Wallasey Town Hall to get a replacement ballot paper.

The strangeness of the situation was that between 7am and 9am the polling stations were open, but Wallasey Town Hall wasn’t; so how could people get replacement ballot papers?

There weren’t enough people at the count to count due to the increased turnout.

My agent also tells me (which is a legal requirement) that she wasn’t invited to the opening of the postal ballots.

Initially at the counting place (Pacific Road Theatre) there were no people to count the votes for Bidston & St. James ward as they’d been diverted to count Prenton ward! It was only thanks to my agent being persistent that the count wasn’t held hours later.

These problems desperately need to be sorted out by next year if anyone is going to have confidence that the result reflects how people voted.

I can fully understand the view of the police (although when I made a complaint the inspector pointed out the policeman hadn’t followed procedure); however all parties are unlikely to take their own elected members to task over illegal practices, but such practices need to stop if people are going to have confidence that our councillors, MPs and other representatives are elected legitimately.

Birkenhead, Merseyside, UK

Author: John Brace

New media journalist from Birkenhead, England who writes about Wirral Council. Published and promoted by John Brace, 134 Boundary Road, Bidston, CH43 7PH. Printed by UK Webhosting Ltd t/a Tsohost, 113-114 Buckingham Avenue, Slough, Berkshire, England, SL1 4PF.