Practically everyone reading this will now know Phil Woolas, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth was found guilty of making false statements against his LibDem opponent during the general election. The result that saw him returned with a 103 majority is now rendered null and void by the court judgement. Woolas is now an ex-MP pending appeal. If this fails he will be turfed out of parliament, fined five grand and barred from re-standing for three years. For good measure he's been suspended from Labour. It couldn't have happened to a nicer man.
Most Labour people I've spoken to are happy to see Woolas out on his ear. There's a few shedding tears and lamentations for their ideological bedfollow on the hard right of the party, but they're very much out of step with mainstream Labour opinion.
Dan Hodges (also from the right of the party) makes one of the most interesting comments on the Woolas affair so far. He rightly argues Woolas is a product of the Labour machine, a machine that has pandered to racism and anti-immigration bigotry (aided and abetted, as always, by the tabloid press). As Dan puts it, the case highlights "the Labour Party’s shameful failure to adopt a coherent, let alone moral, stance on any of these issues". Quite right. Though I dispute his claim everyone in the party is responsible for this, New Labour created the conditions that allowed the likes of Phil Woolas to happen.
How did we get here? As well as being thoroughly authoritarian and contemptuous of civil liberties at home and abroad, Blair and Brown were pragmatic leaders. Not in the sense of ideology - they were/are neoliberal down to their bones - but in terms of responding to public opinion as filtered by medialand. The idea that political leadership is sometimes about swimming against the stream, about asserting your politics in the face of opposition from elites was alien to them both. New Labour's response to press hysteria around immigration and terrorism (a link it did nothing to challenge) was accepted as a reality to be adapted to, not fought. Instead of taking on the BNP's lies when it looked like they were getting some traction, New Labour tacked further and further to the right. Labour and the Tories were locked in a race to the gutter to see who could be most beastly to immigrants. Woolas was an obnoxious but not untypical example of this ugly Powellite trend that has colonised the "common sense" of the party's upper echelons.
It shows Ed Miliband in a very bad light. Not only has he remained silent on the issue - leaving Harriet Harman to hang him out to dry - but he appointed Woolas as a junior shadow minister with the race and immigration brief. Not only did this bode ill for his stated position that immigration is a lightning rod for concerns around housing and jobs, and that Labour should challenge it, but what does it say about his political nous when his chosen man for an important and sensitive job stood a good chance of losing his seat amid a storm of lies and racism? Not a lot.
It seems to me there are two reasons why Ed Miliband took the risk. First, internal politics. As this blog has noted before Ed peppered his team with Blairites to head off the possibility of future treachery. As a Brownite he is keenly aware of the cack-handed plots to depose Brown - so you can't blame him for trying to cover his bases. Second, and related to this is Ed's aversion to challenging consensus politics. By sticking Woolas in race and immigration he could deflect press and Tory criticism by simply pointing to the continuity in personnel. Both make some sort of sense in a craven and insipid sort of way, but they hardly speak of a "new generation" committed to new ways of doing things.
One last point, the manner of Woolas's suspension from the party has been fair. He was presumed innocent and action was only taken after the special election court found him guilty. The question has to be asked if this procedure was good enough for Phil Woolas, then why wasn't it for Lutfur Rahman?