Why I Will Not Be Helping In The Old & Sad By-Election

(Batman posts will come tomorrow, I had to say this now).

I am, despite my unease with some (many) of the coalition’s policies, still a member and supporter of the Liberal Democrats, and still want to see as many Lib Dems as possible elected. I also live relatively close to Oldham & Saddleworth. However, I will not be helping out in the coming by-election.

The reason is simple. In the run-up to the General Election, Elwyn Watkins was quoted in multiple sources as saying, publicly, that he would ‘rip up’ the Geneva Convention and the European Convention On Human Rights. According to these sources, he actually managed to attack the odious, race-baiting Phil Woolas *from the authoritarian right* on the issue of immigration.

I, and many other Lib Dems I know, all contacted both his team and Cowley Street as soon as we were made aware of this, asking him to clarify his position, but until today we got no response. However, after several increasingly angry emails I finally got a reply today – a form email that has been sent out to many others.

In this email, Mr Watkins notably does not deny that he said those things. Nor does he deny that they are his views. Nor does he say they were in any way taken out of context. He does, however, talk about how “the position of the minority who abuse asylum is a genuine concern for local people” and how Labour have “swept the issue under the carpet”.

As I have been very, very vocal in my belief that the party is already too illiberal in its immigration policy, and as the Coalition is even more illiberal than that thanks to the Conservative dominance, I cannot in good conscience bring myself to spend time supporting this campaign, though I still wish good luck to my Lib Dem friends who will be doing so, and I certainly don’t endorse any other candidates.

I also hope very much that me saying this publicly does not lose me any friends within the party – a party of which I remain a loyal supporter. I feel very, very conflicted and upset about posting this (not least because I know many good people who have devoted huge amounts of time and effort to this campaign, without knowing of or endorsing Watkins’ views). I’m shaking and tearful, in fact, because my party loyalty and loyalty to my friends has come into conflict with one of the very small number of principles on which I really cannot remain silent. If you think it wrong of me to post this publicly, because of the damage it may do to the party, please forgive me. I hope I can forgive myself…

ETA David Matthewman has more on this, including the full text of Watkins’ email.

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36 Responses to Why I Will Not Be Helping In The Old & Sad By-Election

  1. Alistair Rae says:

    To be honest I think that’s entirely fair. We elect individuals, each of whom may have their own party allegiance. Personally I’d have some considerable difficulty acting on behalf of someone that I either didn’t get on with or whose views were radically different to my own.

    When I joined the party I did so knowing that I disagreed with several policies, but the same could be said about any party. I differed with my PPC in a couple of areas, but nothing significant.

    There is both the philosophical issue of acting on behalf of someone that one disagrees with, but there is also the more practical issue about being honest with those that one engages with. If you can’t in all honesty take a similar position as the candidate when engaging with an elector then I’m not sure that would be fair for either candidate or elector.

  2. Andy Hinton says:

    Well done. A political party’s internal democracy means nothing if members cannot reserve the right to reject a candidate whose view is completely alien both to them and to the party’s settled position. “Ripping up” the Geneva convention is a perfect example. I can’t say I feel much inclination to make my way to Old and Sad either.

  3. Holly says:

    I know I said this already, but I want to say it here too.

    One of the things I love about being a Lib Dem is that dissent doesn’t have to be quashed, that non-conformity is a goal we embody as well as strive for. And here I mean yours, not Watkins’ :) His is hideously illiberal and deserves castigation if he cannot distance himself from it. Yours is about going along with your party only as long as it fits your views, not the other way around.

    I am proud of you for standing up for your principles, above your party or your friends, though you clearly value those things almost as highly.

    Being a Lib Dem is not about just blindly voting (or canvassing) for a pig in a yellow rosette.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thank you, love

    • Russ says:

      “One of the things I love about being a Lib Dem is that dissent doesn’t have to be quashed, that non-conformity is a goal we embody as well as strive for….His [Watkins] is hideously illiberal and deserves castigation…”

      Brilliant :-)

  4. Eve says:

    I think you have done the right thing. Watkins stated views do not, IMHO, reflect that which I would call liberal.

  5. burkesworks says:

    While the Party is in Coalition, it can expect no help from me, and if the LibDems continue to pick candidates like Watkins they won’t even be able to rely on my vote any more.

    The Party as it stands is now damaged goods and will continue to be while Clegg and Alexander are in charge. People think they’re Tory enablers, and with good reason. Best thing to do is sit tight, concentrate on the Yes to AV campaign, and hope that the Party splits into two factions along the lines of the D66/VVD split in the Netherlands.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I can see why you think that, but there are still enough good people in the Party, and in Parliament, that I’m just on the side of staying…

  6. Dave Page says:

    I’d actually consider contacting the Parliamentary Candidates Association and asking them how somebody with views that far out of whack with Liberal Democrat policy and philosophy got to be an approved candidate in the first place…

  7. Paul Walter says:

    Respect you for this Andrew. I also respect Elwyn’s reply and am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – not having met him yet.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks. I can see why you’re taking the view you are, even if I disagree with it. Group hug! (Maybe not…)

  8. James says:

    I quite agree with you, Andrew. I’ve worked in immigration and asylum and from personal experience, I’d say the Geneva Convention and the ECHR are both invaluable.

    You’ve been faced with a really difficult decision and for what it’s worth, I agree with your choice.

  9. pillock says:


    Choosing to be an ethical person has rarely been as easy as this — Andrew, you’ve been through the swamp, welcome to to the high solid ground.



    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I agree, of course. The problem is, the party are currently polling around 9% and the media ‘narrative’ is that we’re evil Tories of evil evilness who like taking babys’ toys off them and punching old ladies in the face. And this *should* be an easy win for the party – this candidate lost by only 103 votes in May, and that was against an opponent who’s since been convicted of election fraud (and who used a lot of race-hate stuff in his materials).
      By publicly announcing my lack of support, there’s a very real chance that I will personally make the difference between Watkins winning and losing – which doesn’t bother me in itself, but that in its turn may make the difference between a couple of dozen good liberal candidates winning or losing in the local, Scottish and Welsh elections next year. The difference this makes to the ‘narrative’ might even, conceivably, make the AV campaign that much more difficult to win (though I don’t think so).

      So there was a very good argument in these circumstances for just shutting up and not letting the best be the enemy of the good. But if even after dozens of people contacted him, he still couldn’t bring himself to say “I do not want to rip up the Geneva Convention”, well, that argument wasn’t good enough…

  10. Linda Jack says:

    Andrew, I know just how hard this was for you. Being outspoken on points of principle is not easy, even in our “Liberal” party. We cannot on the one hand castigate Woolas and then on the other condone Watkins. He has to apologise, but at least on one thing he may earn my respect, if that the reason he is not apologising is because that is his true belief and he is not going to lie just to appease those of us who don’t like his views. However, if that is the case, he is surely in the wrong party. We may divide on economic and social issues within the party, but on liberal issues – hardly ever!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks for that. And I agree – we have economic liberals and social liberals, but we’re all liberals…

  11. pillock says:

    Sorry about being so screaming. Shikes. My apologies.

    • Yeah, but you’re right! You either care about people or you only care about a certain type of people, and if it’s the latter, well… “Fuck off!” is too kind, really.

  12. Richard F says:

    Andrew, stop beating yourself up! Your loyalty to your friends and your principled stand are pulling in the *same* direction, not opposition. True friends give criticism when its warranted. True friends take it too.

    If you think that the Party has got something wrong, by all means shout it from the rooftops – if we keep silent, the Party learns nothing.

    Did thirteen years of Labour tribalists sitting on their hands “for the good of the Party” teach us nothing? That silent assent literally led to Blair tearing up Magna Carta and murderously invading Iraq!

    The Liberal Democrats are supposed to be different. And the only way to make sure we ARE different is to jump up and down and make a lot of noise so that the Leadership can’t get away with (pardon me) shit.

    A small example: I know that a LOT of us have privately and publicly given Nick Clegg a piece of our minds over the tuition fees pledge. And now he’s talking the language of regret rather than “owning the coalition” and the Party is beginning to say these goof things are Lib Dem things; these nasty things are Tory things. It’s a small change but it’s a start.

    And frankly Elwyn needs a bloody sight better answer to this question than “Labour were rubbish”.

    So keep on speaking out. No friendships will be lost here.

  13. Simon says:

    This is a good post, but as well as opposing what Watkins may or may have said about immigration it is of course also important to oppose the coalition immigration policy which the LD leadership is helping to implement – not least the deeply illiberal policy of effectively refusing entry to all jobseekers from outside the EU, regardless of their skills and qualifications.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      True, but that wasn’t the point of the post. I have, however, attacked Lib Dem policy on immigration as too illiberal even before the election, and did make a point of saying in the post itself “I have been very, very vocal in my belief that the party is already too illiberal in its immigration policy, and as the Coalition is even more illiberal than that thanks to the Conservative dominance, ”

      I’ve also worked quite a bit within the party to change our policy to a more liberal one. That said, I think the Lib Dems are the least-worst of the major parties on this issue, and while that’s not the same as being *good*, at least it’s something…

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  15. Dave Page says:

    Having thought about this some more, while I remain concerned by Elwyn’s opinions on this matter and respect your decision, I’m still going to help out in the by-election.

    I’d rather have a Lib Dem MP who believes in tearing up the Geneva Convention in Parliament and subject to the Lib Dem whip, than a Labour MP in the Woolas mould who wouldn’t be challenged by the Labour party for holding similar opinions (or indeed promoting them as a Minister).

    I am going to contact Elwyn’s campaign as a local party chair organising volunteers, to ask for more clarification – and if I don’t get an unambigious answer, I’m going to raise it with PCA. But in the mean time, it’s not like there’s another seat nearby with a by-election where I can dedicate some efforts instead.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      That makes sense – and I would definitely choose Watkins over Woolas, or the Tory candidate.

      As it is, though, I’m going to put the effort I would have put into the by-election into the Yes campaign for the referendum in May, which I think will do Lib Dem ideals more good long-term, even though it won’t do as much good for the party electorally short-term.

      But my post wasn’t an attempt to persuade anyone else not to help, just me saying my own reasons…

  16. I have met Elwyn and I think he is a decent Liberal in the mould of Cyril Smith, ie I do not agree with him on everything but he is coming at things with the right approach, ie grassroots first.

    He does genuinely care about his community. I was shocked to see the racial divisions in Oldham and the extreme differentials between rich and poor. He has to be Oldhams man in parliament not the other way round and his views would be very moderate compared to many in the area.

    All this makes the claim of Woolas that he is somehow some kind of Taliban supporter all the more ridiculous! Of course you are ok to not help if you don’t want to but don’t expect to agree with PPCs on 100% of all issues all the time.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m sure his views *are* moderate compared to many in Oldham – I know what Oldham’s like. And I’m not saying he wouldn’t be the best candidate for the job – he probably would. But immigration and human rights issues are the most important things as far as I’m concerned, and I’m not campaigning for anyone as far right on those subjects as he is. For the record, I wouldn’t have campaigned for Cyril Smith either, because of his views on the death penalty and asbestos.
      I think I can do more good for liberalism and democracy in the long term by using the time on the AV referendum instead.

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