Posts Tagged ‘campaign literature’

What now after Woolas? Is the campaign playbook facing a re-write?

11/11/2010, 12:00:00 PM

by Dave Collins

FROM the glorious revolution onward, “anything goes” has been the default position for British election literature, subject principally to the deterrence provided by England and Wales’ notoriously plaintiff-friendly defamation legislation. The Oldham East & Saddleworth judgement asks a lot of questions about whether this is going to continue. British political communications could be transformed.

UK election campaigns have a long record of controversy and allegations of skulldugery. A classic was the 1784 Westminster election in which supporters of the prime minister, William Pitt, backed by the palace, organised to oppose the return of star Whig politician, Charles James Fox, in the seat with the widest popular franchise in Great Britain. According to the Wikipedia entry, “both sides spent heavily, campaigned bitterly, allegedly libelled and slandered their opponents relentlessly and resorted to all kinds of tactics, including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire touring the streets and, according to the opposition, kissing many voters to induce them to vote for Fox”.

Subtle. But does it constitute misrepresentation?

Following Fox’s victory by 6,233 votes to 5,998, a prolonged scrutiny of the votes (similar to Florida’s ‘hanging chads’ dispute in 2004) was used by the high bailiff as a pretext to delay making the return. Until finally, 10 months later, the House voted 162-124 against the government, in effect finding Pitt guilty of illicit intriguing against his leading opponent.

More contemporary controversies include Smethwick (1964), in which the Conservative candidate who defeated Patrick Gordon-Walker ran an openly racist campaign, employed the slogan “if you want a nigger for your neighbour – vote Liberal or Labour”. Victorious PM Harold Wilson promptly elevated Gordon Walker to the peerage and made him foreign secretary, while calling for the new MP, Peter Griffiths, to be made a “parliamentary leper”. Griffiths lost the seat in 1966, being kicked out by the voters rather than as the consequence of legal action.

In 1992 Gerald Malone, defeated in Winchester by just two votes, did go to court arguing that 55 ballots voided for lack of official mark should have been counted. He won the case and the election of Mark Oaten for the Lib Dems was voided. Oaten however went on to win the resulting by-election with a handsome 10,000 majority. This swing against Malone was taken by many as evidence that voters tend to react against attempts to overturn election results via the courts on technicalities and the 1992 Winchester by-election result, together with the costs incurred by both parties, have generally served to discourage similar cases ever since.

In the 1997 New Labour landslide, the election of Fiona Jones for Newark was overturned after she and her (volunteer) agent were found guilty by the high court of failing correctly to declare some costs on the expenses return and thereby exceeding campaign spending limits. Neither Jones nor her agent had expected to win and ran a rather shambolic campaign, directed equally toward the concurrent local elections in which the local Labour party did expect to be able to make gains. Not anticipating victory, they failed to budget for the campaign properly, or to track spending once it had started. Exactly like Phil Woolas, Fiona Jones was initially defended by Labour party solicitors, but dropped like a stone once convicted and disqualified on March 19th 1999. (more…)

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