There are limits. As Phil Woolas, until recently the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, was confronted when the Election Court found that during his campaign in May 2010 he lied about his Liberal Democrat opponent. Rather more complicated and exciting, if the Court judgement stands there will be a succulently fascinating by-election which promises to expose the ruthless assassinatory tactics of the participating parties, including the fact that, for all their mock indignation at Woolas' methods, the LibDems are not noted for having any more scruples than the rest. It will also provide the LibDems with an opportunity to explain to their angry, bewildered supporters why, in their euphoria at being part of the Coalition, they betrayed the election pledges they made – such as on child benefit and university tuition fees. It is likely to be an ugly, if entertaining, experience in which it has to be borne in mind that the whole process, for example Woolas and his mangling of truth, happens in order to transform one of the mendacious, grovelling candidates into an Honourable Member who, for example, cannot henceforth be denounced as a liar because the worst that is allowed to be said about anyone who gets to sit on those benches is that they suffer from some confusion over reality. Those are the kinds of limits which Woolas is said to have offended against.
There are some significant differences of opinion about Woolas' conduct of his career as an MP and a Minister. On the one hand a Labour Party member who contested for the candidature in the 1995 by-election saw him as “...a hard-working member and a decent and conscientious person”. But a political correspondent prefers “a political bruiser, not universally liked, whom some colleagues think got what he deserved at the election court...” And in the Guardian Julian Glover weighs in with “...an unpleasant authoritarian and parliament will be better off without him...” That first election campaign in 1995 was notable for the rancour of Labour's personal attacks on the LibDem candidate as being “high on tax and soft on drugs”. This designed exploitation of some nasty, deep-rooted prejudices impressed even Peter Mandelson, who admitted “...not only our opponents but some in Labour would denounce our 'negative' tactics...For tactical reasons, I felt we had little choice”. Woolas won the re-arranged seat in 1997 and thereafter rose steadily up the greasy pole until in October 2008 he became minister responsible for Borders and Immigration. It was then, in May 2009, that he was trapped into a confrontation, before a horde of ravenous TV cameras, with the popular actor Joanna Lumley to answer for the Labour government effectively refusing Gurkha ex-soldiers to settle in this country. Woolas wordlessly squirmed in embarrassment – Lumley breathes rather than speaks and was using hazy concepts like fairness and gratitude while he had to have regard for his budgets – and agreed to re-open the matter.
One inconvenient outcome of Woolas' electoral misdemeanour was the stimulus it gave to the pressing question of why similar penalties are not unvaryingly applied to any MP who employs false promises to smooth their way to Westminster (although if that were the case there would be very, very few bottoms on the green benches). The actual response has been worked to exhaustion by LibDems fearfully insecure of their place in the Coalition. Here, for one, is Vince Cable in the House of Commons on 12 October: “Yes I signed the pledge (on university tuition fees). But the current financial situation is appalling, truly appalling. All pledges have to be re-examined from first principles”. But this is the man who was promoted to us by his party as not just an agile ballroom dancer but an economist so deeply learned as to be able to see beyond the economic horizon to what is approaching and to take the necessary steps to avert any crisis such as the one which is now gripping the world. So it is necessary to ask: are there any other disasters which Cable has failed to see? And from the prolix depths of this ignorance did he offer any other pledges, attractive to a spellbound electorate, which he is now about to renege on?
And what about the LibDem leader who, smugly satisfied at having outsmarted all rivals – including Cable – for the top job, felt able to patronise him as the most hopeful therapist for British capitalism? Since the LibDems slithered into partnership with the Tories Clegg has been under the most severe pressure about the party's disowned promises. This is how on 23 October he referred to child benefits and tuition fees: “I feel very bad. I have had to eat those words...this is not capricious, it is not ideological, it is not happening overnight, it is thoughtful and it is a plan over four years...” And in the Commons on 10 November: “I of course acknowledge that this is an extraordinarily difficult issue ... Because of the financial situation we have had to put forward a different policy...” But Clegg has been touted around the political scene as a hugely knowledgeable, clever operator. With such a glowing reputation how could he have been so insensitive to the gathering storm that he not only made those pledges but allowed the rest of his party to do likewise? Why should we have any confidence that he will become any more hopeful over the next four years?
Clegg and Cable now pose as serious politicians, relieved and grateful to have been put right about the election pledges which, they now admit, were recklessly ill-informed. Are their excuses really the best they can offer to cover their impotence and dishonesty? Are there any other pledges which they will betray in the hope of nurturing their sleazy ambitions? Should we, in other words, believe anything they and their like say? Is it not preferable to treat then all with the contempt they deserve while we work on for the revolutionary change in society.