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This is the first of two contributions by Cllr Peter Golds, Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council
Having been critical of the Electoral Commission in the past the report published last week is a step in the right direction. In my submission to the commission, I identified a number of improvements that will repair the damage and reputation of the electoral system.
The inertia of our police forces in dealing with election fraud, and it is not just the Met, enables those that condone fraud to say it does not happen, because there are so few police prosecutions. The series of high profile election courts in Birmingham, Slough and even Woking, presided over by Judge Richard Mawrey QC, have exposed the fragility of a system that is now 140 years old, and almost unchanged in that time. These courts are all the result of very expensive legal challenges from individuals. Yet the conclusions are so damning of the system and the corruption revealed one must again ask why the police do not step in an actually charge those responsible for corrupt practice in elections?
Let me begin by producing two paragraphs from a letter I wrote to the Tower Hamlets Borough Commander in October 2010, following the October 21st election of Lutfur Rahman:
“On Tuesday 19 October 2010, information was given to me regarding registration at an address in London E3. The resident currently and for the past 28 years was a European lady.
In advance of this election this lady received five polling cards with Bengali names. At 16.45 on that afternoon, 19th October, I raised this with the Tower Hamlets electoral services. The manager looked at the registration form and called the number of the person who had submitted these names. In fact this person resides in the same block. The manager asked for the names of voters. He was unable to give these names, despite several requests. These are relatively small flats. If I shared a small flat with five adults it would be crowded and if I were mindful of registering my flatmates to vote I would know their names. This man could not confirm names but was very keen to receive the poll cards, for people whose names he could not remember.
This is a cut and dried example of packing the electoral register; an obvious indication of electoral fraud identified by Judge Mawrey repeatedly.
The Town Hall had at the time and the name, full details, including a signature, details and contact number of the person who had added names to the electoral register, names he could not remember, but asked for poll cards for an election two days later. Yet the police did nothing about this.
Here is the second incident, one that I have written about previously, but deserves being considered again:
The incidents described above were both included in a letter that I sent to the Tower Hamlets Borough Commander. The letter gave names and addresses which I have removed from this article. Three years and three months later I await an acknowledgement. Six months having passed, any investigation would now be impossible, however an acknowledgement would have been appreciated.
As I said above, much of our electoral process was designed in 1872 when the Ballot Act was passed into law to prevent intimidation of voters by landlords and employers. However the idea, dating back to those days, of receiving a ballot paper by merely giving an address, followed by a name is ridiculous in this day and age. When there are more secure precautions taken to borrow a library book from a local authority library than actually to vote, then serious questions need to be asked and action taken by parliament to remedy this situation, as was done in Northern Ireland.
In modern Britain, voting once a private act in public is becoming a public act in private. A reversal of everything the Ballot Act was designed to prevent.
Vote Early; Vote Often – The historic Northern Ireland experience
It is well documented that voter fraud was one of the products of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. There is a very detailed account of the 1951 Westminster General Election in Northern Ireland in David Butler’s “The British General Election of 1951”, written by the late Desmond G Neill, the then leading electoral and government academic in Northern Ireland.
In his analysis there is considerable space given to voter fraud and the extraordinary polls achieved in certain of the Northern Ireland constituencies. The 93.8% poll in Fermanagh and South Tyrone was the highest poll recorded anywhere in the UK since the advent of universal suffrage, second being the 91% poll recorded on the same day in Mid Ulster, on an electoral register that was eleven months old in an era with no rolling registration, limited postal voting and due to rationing, severe limitations placed on the use of cars in which to go and vote. Dr Neill on page 235 of the study quotes the response by one commentator after Belfast West was eventually decided by just 25 votes who mused:
“Wouldn’t it have been exciting to have been one of the twenty five.”
He was told:
“Ah But how much more exciting to have been all of the twenty five”.
At this time there were two descriptions for vote fraud in Northern Ireland, described by Dr Neill, whereby:
“Personators satisfied their consciences by making an ethical distinction between voting for somebody known to support their own side, which is perceived as an extension of postal or proxy voting and personating an opponent, which was known as “flogging” and thus ethically reprehensible”
Dr Neill continues:
“This is mere rationalisation, in defence of a deplorable practice, the continuance of which can only lead to a widespread cynicism about the purpose of democracy”.
Earlier, Dr Neill says with regard to Vote early, Vote often “because the necessity for such procedure has disappeared from (mainland) Britain, little attention has been paid to the loopholes that remain in the law”.
Sadly 63 years later, this situation has moved to mainland Britain whilst, by closing loopholes, it has been eliminated in Northern Ireland; whereby electoral regulations now require voters to produce ID when attending a polling station.
In 2008, a Joseph Rowntree report stated the following:
“Numerous convictions for election fraud since 2000 have concerned postal and proxy ballot fraud in specific inner urban wards, where a large concentration of voters originate from the Indian subcontinent.”
The former Labour MP, Tony Wright, a specialist on constitutional matters encapsulates this situation by saying:
“This represents importing cultural practices from one place to another”.
Another former MP, Paul Goodman, a Conservative, who has expertise on this subject, says:
“It is largely South Asian in practice. Very simply, customs have been imported from countries that aren’t liberal democracies, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, and which have no tradition of free and fair elections. Voting often takes place on the basis of clan loyalty rather than individual choice, and what matters is winning the contest, not simultaneously obeying its rules”.
This is the crux of the matter in Tower Hamlets and the similar areas named as vulnerable in the latest report. However, the actual lack of power given to a Returning/Electoral Registration Officer and the failure of the police to take this seriously, indicates that until Parliament takes action it will be business as usual. Only those with access to substantial sums of money can afford an election petition and whilst the police can imply no prosecutions means no problem, then Dr Neil’s concerns of 1951 live on 63 years later.
I do not regard producing some simple identification in order to receive a ballot paper as an intrusion of liberty or bringing in ID cards by stealth. There must be very, very few citizens without some form of ID. In fact, I read recently that this simple idea is supported by 92 per cent of voters.
Certainly, at every election in Tower Hamlets I meet residents who simply cannot understand why anybody can walk into a polling station and ask for a ballot paper. In fact this example, included in another unanswered letter to the police is an extraordinary example of what can go on. This was witnessed in mid-afternoon in the closely fought Shadwell by election of 2007.
During the afternoon a very tall (six foot plus) figure wearing a full Islamic Burka and noticeable for large feet and distinct red trainers, entered the polling station and voted three times. On the third occasion, representatives from two political parties drew this to the attention of a policeman, who had been present all along. He said he could do nothing, despite being a witness to every time the person entered the polling station.
The two representatives approached their respective election agents and were told of the statutory questions and raised this with the presiding officer. On the fourth visit, the questions were put and the person hitched up the garb and ran down the street as fast as possible, not to return – yet the police on duty still did nothing.
The introduction of postal voting on demand has done nothing to improve the electoral process. We should return to postal votes being issued to those who cannot attend the poll due to business, health or holiday.
It should also be made a criminal offence for anybody, other than the voter, to handle postal votes.
I would also stop the creeping process of interpreters being inside polling stations “to assist” voters. In 2008 we had a council officer in the Virginia polling station, who speaking in Bengal, pointed out Ken Livingstone’s name to female voters and after they left the booth, checked the ballot to ensure that it was correct! It took eight hours to get him marched off the premises.
Anybody who interferes with any voter inside a polling station, should be subject to existing law. In this borough it is not uncommon to see the head of the family collect ballot papers from women voters and attempt to complete them.
The police must maintain law and order outside polling stations. In a recent election self appointed guardians were attempting to turn women voters away from polling stations because they were not “modestly dressed”. This was reported, those who witnessed it offered to make statements. They are still waiting for a response from the police.
The police and the Electoral Commission must accept that there is a problem. The public is aware of the problem and expresses concern. By enforcing election law we will all be the winners. Continuously the police and the Electoral Commission hide behind “perception”.
Let’s get a short bill through parliament, based on the Northern Ireland model, to stop the farce of anybody being able to get a ballot paper.
For my next report I will provide readers with more on our local problems.