As Lib Dem Voice reported last month, the election result in Oldham East and Saddleworth – where Labour’s Phil Woolas hung on by just 103 votes – has triggered complaints from the Liberal Democrat candidate, Elwyn Watkins, that Labour’s campaign broke the law.
The case is now heading to the courts. The BBC reports,
In the last few days of the campaign, Labour put out a small newspaper which was predominantly an attack on their Liberal Democrat opponent, Elwyn Watkins.
Mr Watkins believes the leaflet falsely portrayed him as a politician courting votes from militant Muslims; not a group known to be particularly supportive of British democracy …
Still-undecided voters had the option to read the backpage which moved onto financial matters.
This reported Mr Watkins to be personal assistant to Saudi Arabian billionaire, Sheikh Abdullah Ali Alhamrani.
It helpfully pointed out: “Political donations from overseas are illegal. Even the Ashcroft money can’t match a Sheikh.”
It was not entirely clear what Sheikh Abdulah’s interest would have been in Oldham East and Saddleworth. But putting that to one side, the clear impression was that Middle East money was oiling the Lib Dem campaign.
Such an arrangement would have been illegal.
Presumably Labour has some evidence for these serious allegations. But I haven’t seen it and Mr Watkins denies being anything other than a full UK taxpayer …
In legal language, the Liberal Democrats are claiming that Labour breached Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act, 1983.
In ordinary language, the Liberal Democrats are claiming that Labour lied to the electorate.
The last time an Election Court ordered the rerun of a Parliamentary election was in Winchester in 1997. But that was due to a technicality. The last time there was a rerun due to corruption was in 1911 in Ireland. So this will be a difficult case for the Lib Dems to win.
A more recent successful action under Section 106 was in the case of then Labour councillor Miranda Grell, who was convicted of smearing one of her Liberal Democrat opponents during the London local elections of 2006. She was fined and banned from public office.
Although it is a rare form of legal action, it is an easier one to secure a result under than the charge of ‘undue influence’, which has sometimes been tried in the past. A successful prosecution under those grounds in these sorts of circumstances requires proof that people’s votes were swayed by untrue information.
To succeed with a Section 106 prosecution over the acts of a candidate or an agent, it is the fact of false statements that has to be proved (subject to a defence that someone may have sincerely believed a statement they made was true) without the additional requirement of showing that specific individuals were influenced by them.