"Be you never so high, the Law is above you."
Dr Thomas Fuller, 1733 (and others)
No sooner had Phil Woolas been stripped of his Parliamentary seat than politicians and the media started questioning whether it was right for judges to overturn the people’s choice. Democracy in danger? It is a fair question but one with an easy answer, so long as one respects the idea that power should be dispersed between the various branches of the State, the doctrine known as the separation of powers. New Labour, a totalitarian party, has no time for that sort of nonsense but others should have known better than to jump on the bandwagon.
The courts have a role in ensuring fair play because sometimes they are the only ones who can ensure it. If a candidate spreads lies about a rival’s character, it should not be left entirely to that rival to spend time and money putting out a rebuttal leaflet. That is a waste of resources and whose resources they are is irrelevant. There is a public interest in ensuring simply that seats do not go to cheats. Of course, if voters truly wish to be represented by a liar then their wish must be respected. The issue is whether they voted knowingly. If they did not, then annulling the result is what judges are for, as with any contract obtained by fraud. Banning the liar from standing again may be an intervention too far – there are arguments either way on that point – but it must be right that a result obtained by dubious means should not stand.
Decentralists will be delighted to see New Labour’s come-uppance. It was New Labour who created the Standards Board (now known as ‘Standards for England’), which the Coalition thankfully plans to abolish. This is a quango whose job it is to investigate complaints against local councillors. Councillors who have committed no crime but who are deemed to have offended against certain New Labour ‘standards’, for example by ‘speaking out of turn’, can be suspended from office. What this means is that if they do their job with passion and dedication, their constituents can be denied any representation. Not by the voters. Not by the courts. Just by committee folk, playing at being judge and jury.
Labour has always suffered from a pathological inability to distinguish properly between law and morality. For every case when it considers it acceptable to break the law, there will be hundreds of others where it seeks to impose sanctions for not doing things Labour’s way. In the light of Phil Woolas’ departure, calls for reform are inevitable, to re-assert these twin principles of infallibility and superiority. Election courts will be demonised as archaic and anti-democratic. In due course, the law will be changed to uphold the right to lie, at least if it’s your own team. And after that, honourable members will truthfully be anything but.