It would seem that Labour have stuck themselves with a liability this election after a letter between the Labour agent for Church Ward and Alison Swaddle was published on a candidate's blog.
It contains the usual outrage and bluster you expect from Labour. In it they appear to deliberately ignore the fact that you cannot libel a political party. We have a House of Lords decision in 1993 to thank for that. You would have thought that was a topic covered on Labour's agent training sessions.
Or maybe they know about the ruling but deliberately ignore that inconvenient fact for the purposes of perpetuating their bullying tactics.
Likewise, genuinely held opinions and comments during an election are perfectly permissible and guidance from the Electoral Commission reinforces that. If someone thinks the local Labour party has put out a dog whistle leaflet, then they are entitled to hold that opinion. If Labour supporters are of the opinion it's a smear, they are entitled to that opinion. It is not libelous to hold either of those opinions. On the other hand, accusing an individual of racism would be a different matter. As far as I can see, no-one has. Labour's threat to sue the Tories for libel est donc un canard mort.
But Labour couldn't help themselves and not only crossed the line in their reply but took a long running jump to clear it. You see, whilst libel is a civil matter, deliberately defaming a candidate by making a false statement is a criminal act, can result in a criminal record for the agent and those making the false statements, fines and see the results of an election being voided.
This is the point where they went too far:
"In Church, your candidate Azam Janjua is a political turncoat who previously represented the ward as a Labour councillor until he was disowned by the Labour Group following allegations of misconduct."
The sequence of events is wrong. In their letter it's Member-Disowned-Defected when actually it was Member-Defected-Disowned. It's an important distinction because it provides a reason for them to wish to attack him personally with unproven allegations.
Even so, maybe it is true to say that Cllr Janjua was "disowned" by the Labour group, because you would expect a party to disown a defecting member. Where they seem on the face of it to have broken the law is by linking it directly to allegations of misconduct, allegations which only surfaced after his defection. By linking it with unproven allegations they are implying guilt with the sole aim of defaming him to the electorate.
Except Labour have never presented any evidence to back up their whispering campaign. They have only ever spoken about it in the council chamber where reporting is covered by qualified privilege. Vikki Lloyd has not to my knowledge made any public statement or reported anything to the police, neither has the Labour Party.
So we are left with:
1) Something did happen and Labour covered up a criminal act in their offices by someone who was then a member.
2) They required something to smear Cllr Janjua with after his defection and cobbled together a bogus story which explains why they never went to the police.
In the absence of any report to the police and the failure to provide even a shred of evidence to back up their accusation, we are left with only the one conclusion that this is a clear attempt to defame an election candidate which is contrary to section 106 of the Representation of the People's Act 1983.
106 False statements as to candidates.
(1)A person who, or any director of any body or association corporate which— .
(a)before or during an election, .
(b)for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election, .
makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate's personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, the statement to be true.
Reasonable grounds would not be demonstrated by "Such-and-such told me" because that would make Mr. Such-and-such guilty of defamation and himself the subject of criminal proceedings by spreading the defamation in the first place. To uphold the assertion they have made by seeking to link disowning with misconduct would require actual evidence to be produced. They have said on many occasions that they have it.
So let's see it.
The act of publishing their agent's letter now leaves the Labour agent and members repeating it open to criminal action. The question is then raised as to whether their candidates were aware of this apparent lie. One of them by publishing it seems to think it is true.
For years the Reading Labour Party have been guilty of lying to the electorate on their leaflets. They published a knowingly false statement about my candidate in 2010 and relied on knowing that I didn't have the money to pursue them. On that occasion it was a civil matter constituting libel. However, this time they have ventured into criminal territory. Not a smart move.
In 2010 my candidate, along with the Tories and Greens signed a clean campaign pledge. Only one party refused to sign it... no prizes for guessing. After the election Naz Sarkar personally apologised for the nasty nature of his campaign. He wasn't steeped in the traditions of the Reading and District Labour Party so I think it is fair to say that he was a decent person duped by the local nasties and was genuinely embarrassed by what was being said in his name.
As I understand the law, the Conservatives need to inform the returning officer and report the committing of an offence under Section 106 of the Representation of the People's Act 1983 to the police for investigation.
I hope they do. It's time these bullies were stopped.