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Phil Woolas and Lutfur Rahman: extremism, defamation and the Labour Party

Two former Labour elected representatives, Phil Woolas and Lutfur Rahman, have something in common. Both are from areas with histories of BNP activity fomenting racial strife. Both find themselves prevented from being a Labour candidate and excluded from the Labour Party, as a result of accusations of association with Islamic extremists. Both have supporters in the party who believe they have been treated harshly, as well as detractors who support their exclusion. And yet one is the accuser and the other the accused. One has been found guilty as charged and one has not, because no investigation has taken place.

Phil Woolas, in the opinion of Mr Justice Teare and Mr Justice Griffith Williams, as set out in paragraphs 64 to 104 of the court judgement, accused his Lib Dem opponent of wooing the votes of “extremist Muslims who advocated violence” and suggested that he was “willing to condone threats of violence“, including alleged death threats against the Labour candidate. In fact, the judgement was unconvinced even about the existence of death threats from any Muslim source (paragraphs 170 to 173), and concluded that Phil Woolas “had no reasonable grounds for believing (his accusations – Ed) were true and did not believe (they) were true.” Phil Woolas was not being tried for defamation, but the implication of this judgement is that he was guilty of it. Nor was he being tried for stirring up racial tensions, though Labour members (including some who believe he has been treated harshly by the election court) mnay well conclude from looking at his leaflets that he had. But he was judged by the Labour Party, as Harriet Harman said, on the basis of:

the facts that were found by the election court, which was that he said things that were untrue knowing it, and that is what we are taking action on – because it is not part of Labour’s politics for somebody to be telling lies to get themselves elected.

It is more difficult to analyse the accusations that were the basis of the Labour Party’s action against Lutfur Rahman, because they were not made public nor even disclosed to the accused. Labour’s national executive had no notice of them when it took its decision, had only 15 minutes to read them (although they had been received at least several days before)  before voting on recommendations which were presented only verbally. However, even Rahman’s sternest critics admit the so-called “Abbas dossier” might be pretty weak. According to NEC member, Christine Shawcroft, they amounted to allegations made months earlier by Andrew Gilligan and allegations about membership application and voting irregularities (in spite of the fact that Regional Officers had been been responsible for scrutinising these).

The most serious allegations are therefore likely to be those made by Andrew Gilligan in his various columns or in the Channel 4 Dispatches programme that he made. Mr Gilligan is no friend of the Labour Party, having worked at the Spectator, London Standard and Telegraph since his sacking  from the BBC, and having run a vituperative campaign against Labour in London. He is also accused in the Guardian of “sockpuppeting”, namely “the act of creating a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one’s self, allies or company” (as defined by the New York Times). His allegations have also become increasingly extreme of late, like his suggestion , described by the Guardian as “irresponsible”, that Tower Hamlets has become an “Islamic Republic” since Rahman’s election, inspiring American right-wing blogger, Pamela Geller, to describe Rahman as a “vile Islamic supremacist”. However, Gilligan’s specific allegations against Rahman in respect of Islamic “extremism” amount to very little – guilt by association at best. Readers may judge for themselves in the transcript of the Dispatches programme, described by the Guardian as “a TV documentary of questionable worth“.

The point about the accusations against Lutfur Rahman is that they have not been properly investigated by an independent person. Whether or not he has excluded himself from membership of the party, he is entitled to have those accusations investigated. And if they are rejected, he, and those of his supporters who have also been excluded, are entitled to a pathway back to the Labour Party. That is the ay to reunite the party and the community in Tower Hamlets.

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