Cllr Andrew Wood is the Leader of the Opposition on Tower Hamlets Council.
We all claim to be believe in democracy but it is a system of government that requires no sacrifice of its citizens. We are not even required in this country to occasionally spend a few minutes in a polling station.
Well, four brave people have and continue to pay a much higher price to ensure the safety of our democracy. They stepped in when those institutions meant to protect us failed, they exhibited in the words of Judge Richard Mawrey “enormous courage” But their courage has not been repaid by this country.
They are Andy Erlam, Debbie Simone, Azmail Hussain and Angela Moffat. They challenged the May 2014 election of Lutfur Rahman and on the 23rd April 2015, Richard Mawrey, an Electoral Commissioner, voided Rahman’s election under the Representation of the People Act 1983 on the grounds of corrupt and illegal practices by him and his agents.
My colleague Peter Golds has written extensively in these pages for the last few years of what happened in Tower Hamlets.
But three years later the costs of that legal action are still expected to be borne by ordinary citizens. Rahman has declared bankruptcy and they are left to foot the bill of around £1.1 million. Their barrister, Francis Hoar, also remains largely unpaid.
Earlier this month the government lifted its final restrictions on Tower Hamlets Council imposed as a result of the mismanagement of Rahman, we had made sufficient progress (even if there is a lot still to do). But the speed of that process was critically dependent on the removal of Rahman in April 2015 and the subsequent election of a new Mayor, John Biggs, in 2015.
Tower Hamlets is the third most important borough in the country in economic terms. It is the fastest growing borough in the country and leads London for the most new jobs and homes. That Tower Hamlets quickly became a more normal council could not have happened without the actions of the four petitioners, they saved the country substantial sums of money by making Tower Hamlets a more normal place and shortening the period of time that it required supervision. Given that Tower Hamlets generates approximately £12 billion a year in taxes, the £1.1 million cost of the legal action is chicken feed by comparison.
So, the state has benefited financially from their bravery and yet the state has done nothing to help them. Not even Tower Hamlets Council will do it, my attempt to have the four petitioners given the Freedom of the Borough was rejected.
Now the Cabinet Office has also declined to help with the fees.
This is a mistake. It sends a clear signal to other citizens not to undertake such risks themselves in the future. If the Cabinet Office won’t help defend democracy, why should ordinary citizens do it? Only the truly rich or the really mad will challenge electoral malpractice in the future.
As Judge Mawrey said in his judgement “The Petition system is obsolete and unfit for purpose. It is wholly unreasonable to leave it to defeated candidates or concerned electors, like the present Petitioners, to undertake the arduous and extremely expensive task of bringing proceedings and pursuing them to a conclusion entirely at their own expense and with the risk of bankruptcy if they fail to surmount the Grand National sized fences placed in the path of Petitioners.”
If the Cabinet Office won’t help them then an urgent reform of our electoral system is required whereby another authority takes over the responsibility for prosecuting electoral malpractice. Again, to quote the judge: “First and foremost, this case highlights to an even greater extent than previous election cases I have tried, the unsatisfactory nature of the election petition as a way of protecting democracy.”
If we do not do something expect more Rahman’s in future (and he himself could stand again for Mayor of Tower Hamlets after 2020).
If we do not fix this, we send a signal to our enemies, we preach democracy, we criticise its absence elsewhere, but we are unwilling to fund its defence in our own country. We lack the courage shown by the four petitioners to defend democracy.