In terms of the conduct of elections, the Borough of Tower Hamlets is in a league of its own. The lack of action taken on fraud and intimidation can be laid at the police and election officials. However, the system itself must share responsibility.
In 2010 we had the combined general and local elections and in this borough a referendum as to whether there should be a directly elected Mayor.
On 1 December 2007 the borough electorate was 152,466
On 1 December 2008 it was 156,712
On 1 June 2009 it was 158,251
On 1 September 2009 it was 158,549
On 1 December 2009 it was 160,278
On 1 April 2010 it was 164,847
On 4 May 2010 it was 171,870
In one month, in the lead up to the combined elections we had a 7,000 person increase in the electorate. Officials, on the advice of the electoral commission, have to take the evidence of applicants, in their words “at face value”. The electoral commission, as we know, appears dedicated to increasing the size of the electoral register in pursuit of unidentified missing voters. However, there are problems in this.
My ward has an electorate of just under 13,000 voters. It has a population of some 23,000 people. Many of these residents are not entitled to vote. We have a sizeable US and Chinese population. US citizens often get annoyed if you deliver an election “flyer”. If they appear on the electoral register they tend to go ballistic. So we have many thousands of non registered adults; who are not entitled to vote. Yet the electoral commission somehow believes that they should be registered and therefore moans about missing voters.
After the 2010 elections I sent a detailed letter to the commission itemising examples of abuse and calling on them to investigate. The police conducted enquiries and surprise, surprise no action was taken. It would appear to have been as thorough as the initial investigation into phone hacking. I am not suggesting that Scotland Yard allows this to dominate their work as has happened with phone hacking. However, I do believe that investigations should be robust.
Let us look at the case of our most well publicised councillor Shelina Akhtar, currently resident in Holloway Prison and appealing against her sentence on the grounds that she is a “hard working councillor”. This woman is a benefit fraudster who illegally sublet a flat that she had been allocated and then did the same for the flat allocated to her sister. One may ask, how two single women, in a borough with 23,000 on the waiting list, were allocated these properties in any case?
In March 2010, she was nominated as Labour candidate for the Spitalfields ward of Tower Hamlets. She gave as her address, 37 Toynbee Street, E1. At the time this property was occupied by her mother. Immediately both Akhtar sisters were added to the electoral register . In early April two additional males were added and then in the days before election day another additional male name appeared, making six voters where six weeks previously there had been one..
This woman and her sister are corrupt. Yet the system has only convicted her for benefit fraud and neither the illegal sub letting or her electoral malpractice. A look at the current register indicates the adult population of 37 Toynbee Street has fallen once again.
In 2009 I handed over to the police copies of emails regarding postal vote farming. The police spoke to the sender who “promised not to do it again” and therefore indicated a prosecution would not be in “the public interest”, despite the fine for this being £5,000.
The electoral commission advises that concerned citizens approach the town hall, who then ask you to send your evidence to the police, who go back to the electoral commission on this merry go round of inertia.
However we also suffer from appalling intimidation at polling stations. Polling Stations are besieged by activists, overwhelmingly male, who harass voters on their entry to the polling stations, canvassing support and worse of all standing with electoral registers giving names to people entering the polling station – a kind of reverse telling operation. The numbers often reach 40-50 people at individual stations. I have numerous statements to this effect and it has been described by a journalist, Ted Jeory who lives in the borough and Andrew Gilligan who takes an interest in the borough. In the case of Andrew Gilligan, he was present at a polling station in Mile End, when some of these men have tried to turn away women voters for “not being modestly dressed”
At 19.15 on Thursday 21st October, the infamous mayoral election day, I was present at the Christ Church School polling station, Brick Lane. A man entered and approached the desk where electors from Brick Lane were being processed. He had in his hand a poll card and envelope. However, this poll card dated from the May 2010 general election and was for an address in Enfield, issued by Enfield Council. The officials asked his name and address and he gave a name and an address in Brick Lane. This name was similar to that on the poll card, but different to that on the register. He was quite unable to explain in any coherent way where he actually lived, or exactly his name as he tried to suggest that he was registered in Brick Lane.
Eventually he left, having been refused a ballot paper. The polling station was mobbed by large numbers of people who were canvassing voters and one had an electoral register and was pointing out names to people entering. In a poll of 26% this exercise was potentially significant.
There are well publicised rules about conduct at polling places, Tower Hamlets Council and the police are unable or unwilling to enforce them within this borough, creating an environment of intimidation.
As to who is entitled to vote and actually votes, one can but ask? A system designed in 1872 and relying on trust has broken down completely. When there are more secure precautions taken to borrow a library book than actually vote, then serious questions need to be asked and remedial actions taken.
Secret ballots to prevent intimidation of voters by landlords and employers have been enshrined in this country since the Ballot Act of 1872. The rules are routinely flouted in Tower Hamlets. Female Asian voters hand over ballot papers to males or are directed in public as to how to vote. This is an outrage to democracy and is the cause of ongoing hostility from amongst those who expect to vote in secrecy. It is not, and should not, be considered some aspect of “cultural awareness”.
One of the most extreme examples of this conduct of this was seen in Tower Hamlets during the 2008 Mayoral election when an election official in the Virginia polling station, Weavers Ward, was pointing out the position of Ken Livingstone on the ballot paper to Bengali women and then checking the paper after they had voted to ensure that it “was correct”. He was not removed until mid afternoon after repeated complaints to the local Returning Officer and Bengali speaking Conservative activists threatened a showdown in the polling station.
On the same day an organisation called Muslims4Ken were handing out thousands of leaflets at polling stations which had the message were Boris Johnson to be elected Mayor of London, he would ban the Koran. Again the police and officials did nothing.
This inertia and lack of action is damaging to democracy and helps engender the toxic atmosphere that poisons political life in this borough.