This blogpost will probably lose me a few readers, but, hey, that's life.
Like virtually everyone else, I was appalled by the leaflets Phil Woolas put out during his election campaign. They were wrong, racially inflammatory and totally indefensible. He deserved to lose his seat, and came perilously close to doing so. But he didn't, and that was the decision of the Oldham East & Saddleworth electorate.
His LibDem opponent complained about the tactics to an election court, which found in his favour. It ordered the election to be rerun and Woolas to be banned from parliament for three years.
The longer I have thought about this the more I think this decision is profoundly ill-judged. In my view it is for electors to decide who sits in parliament, not courts. If indeed there was to be a re-run, Phil Woolas should have been able to put his case to the Labour Party for continuing as their candidate.
And then on top of this, he has been told he can't appeal, but may be able to apply for a Judicial Review. Judicial Reviews can be prohibitively expensive and are way beyond the means of most normal people. Woolas has therefore set up an appeal to help fund a Judicial Review. I make no predictions as to what the outcome of this might be, but I do think it is right that he should be allowed to take the legal process to its conclusion, and that he should have the means to do so.
So that's why I have donated £100 today to his appeal. I repeat,I found his leaflets disgusting, and I would never in a million years vote for him, but I do think he has every right to take the legal case to its conclusion.
And after all this is over, we should look at the application of this law, because the long term implciations are quite stark for the way we conduct our election campaigns. We need to ensure that robust debate continues. To my mind, the way these kind of disputes should be resolved is not to take them to 'election courts', but instead through the libel courts. It's interesting that the LibDem candidate didn't go down that route. I wonder why not.