by Peter Watt
I have a very personal experience of what it is like to be brutally cast asunder by the Labour party. The circumstances were different than those which have led to the position Phil Woolas finds himself in – but I suspect that the personal impact was similar.
I was general secretary of the party when, in November 2007, the Abrahams 3rd party donation scandal erupted. It happened on my watch. I took responsibility and in a blaze of negative publicity I resigned.
I knew that once I’d resigned an important part of the “handling strategy” of the donation story would be to rough me up a bit. I wasn’t naive. I accepted it as part of the rough nature of politics. The more I was damaged in the short term, the less the party was going to be damaged in the long-term. That had to be the right thing for the “greater good”.
What I was not prepared for was the massive toll this took on me, my family and friends. I expected that the party would support me personally, behind the scenes. That they would caveat their attacks. Issue some statements of personal support that recognised my contribution to the party over many years. With a few notable exceptions, what I got was a character assassination. It went beyond being “roughed-up” to being a full blown assault. The personal impact was devastating.
In the space of seven hours on November 26 2007 I went from being part of a safe and familiar tribe to being a pariah. I was offered no support from the party from the moment I walked out of Victoria Street.
It felt like I had no friends and I was incredibly lonely. I was also scared and I think, with hindsight, depressed. I certainly wasn’t sleeping, couldn’t watch or listen to the news without feeling sick and was hardly eating. The party that had been my life, that I’d believed in – that had nearly cost me my marriage – had become my enemy. I scoured internet coverage desperate for a sign that the party was quietly briefing something a bit more positive about me. But it wasn’t there.
My poor family. We had to stay with a succession of family members over a period of weeks living out of suitcases as our home was being staked out by journalists. One of my children was bullied at school because of me; another kept reading the papers and crying at what was being said about their Dad. My wife, Vilma, had to try and keep it all together. As weeks became months and then years, life slowly settled down.
So what? Wel,l there will always be people who, for whatever reason, suddenly “become the story” in politics. Sometimes that will be their fault, sometimes not. Sometimes they may actually have erred and sometimes not. But the party, and I mean that in the broadest sense, has two options. It can respond to the situation with either cold, hard political thuggery, or it can do what it has to do politically but with a degree of humanity. To have no sense of duty of care, no sense of our basic values and no regard for the personal impact of whatever events are in play is cruel.
In the last few days we have seen a complete lack of humanity in our approach to Phil Woolas, the treatment of whom has been nothing short of disgraceful. And before anyone says it – yes I know that he was found guilty of a breach of the representation of the peoples act. The leaflets and stories that formed the heart of the case were controversial to say the least. I would not even attempt to question the outcome. It is for Phil to explain his case.
No, the reason that I say that he was treated disgracefully is very different. He has been a party member for 35 years, an activist since his days in NUS, an active trade unionist, an MP in a three way marginal seat since 1997 and a man who, until 11.00am on Friday was seen as a loyal member of Ed Miliband’s shadow ministerial team. He was abandoned by the party to which he had given much of his life in a callous act of political brutality that had absolutely nothing to do with our values.
Phil may not have been everyone’s cup of tea politically. He was definitely found guilty of breaching electoral law by telling untruths about one of his opponents. But does that overwrite his history and contribution to the party of so many years? Of course the party had to react and be seen to act in a tough way. But did it have to put the boot in? Did anyone stop and think before beginning a political character assassination of what the impact on Phil or his family would be?
He would have expected that the party would have to put some necessary distance – but abandonment? That is just cruel.
Personally I wish him and his family well, life must be tough at the moment.