Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London Councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.
I had intended to write my first piece of the year on the failing electoral process in the UK. The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service, and various police forces may claim to be caught in the trap of election laws that are decades, and indeed in some significant areas, over a century out of date. This, however, is not an excuse to ignore right from wrong. In 2017 there were incidents, across the country, of people posting on Twitter that they had voted from different addresses in the general election. Nothing happened.
In 2018, a Labour candidate, now councillor in Rochdale, Faisal Rana, voted from two different addresses. He claimed that he did not know that it was illegal to vote from two addresses in the same authority. As he declares some thirty two properties in Rochdale on his council declaration of interest, one can be relieved that he did not try and vote from a further 30 addresses. His punishment was to attend a police station and accept a police caution. Had he appeared in Court and been found guilty, his penalty could have been a custodial sentence and disqualification. Instead, he remains a councillor.
For the Police, CPS, and the Electoral Commission, no prosecution means nothing of note in any report and another excuse to say how well the electoral system works, when it does not.
How can the UK criticise the system in other countries when a man continues in office after voting twice?
The other multiple failures of the Electoral Commission, Police, and CPS over the past year will be considered in a later article.
On Friday 21st December, a sudden flurry of tweets in Tower Hamlets indicated that Cllr Muhammed Harun, a solicitor, was standing down from Lansbury ward with immediate effect. Labour announced that his conduct had fallen below what was expected and there was to be an investigation into three properties, one in the borough, another in Barking, that according to land registry records he owns, and a social rented property in Poplar where he was the tenant. Former Cllr Harun had been appointed to chair the council’s Pensions Committee which manages an enormous portfolio. For this he also received an additional responsibility allowance of £6,000.
The next working day was Monday 24th December, during which the by-election had been called for Thursday 7th February. However it was not possible to obtain an election pack and the town hall was closed until Tuesday 2nd January. Then, at 10.35 pm on New Years Eve, Cllr Ruhul Amin of Shadwell ward resigned with a flurry of reasons on twitter, one of which involved leaving the UK. On Tuesday January 2nd, Andrew Wood and I were at the town hall and called a by-election for Shadwell on 7th February and obtained the nomination packs for both wards.
Seven months after the May election two Labour councillors resigned and a third is under suspension after it was revealed that, in his words, “he was responsible for re-posting material which included anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and in one case a link to something which included some extreme religious content.” In the latter case he had circulated to children the suggestion that Smurfs were “demonic.” It should be added that he, along with former councillor Harun, are affiliated to Momentum. Both Lansbury and Shadwell are wards where Lutfur Rahman and his political support are strong.
Momentum fought to secure the nomination of their favoured candidates for both by-elections, failing in each case. In Lansbury a mainstream former councillor was selected and in Shadwell the nomination fell to the local party chairman. In Lansbury, Aspire, the party supporting Lutfur Rahman, immediately fell behind Ohid Ahmed, a Rahman loyalist who had been his deputy Mayor for four years and then served as a portfolio holder in his Cabinet. They distributed their first leaflet before the new year. In Shadwell they announced another loyal Rahman supporter who had been councillor for the ward between 2007-18, first elected as Respect and fighting the 2018 election as Aspire.
For the Conservatives, our Association quickly selected Mumshad Afruz for Lansbury and Daryl Stafford for Shadwell. Both had stood in 2018 and both are local residents. The Liberal Democrats had put an effort into Lansbury ward last year and have some activists with a profile – including one who had fought two parliamentary elections and three borough wide mayoral elections.
Very quickly into the new year came the first Liberal Democrat leaflet in Lansbury. Printed in red it was headed “Labour councillor in housing fraud scandal.” Details of this covered three quarters of the leaflet. The very last part, in yellow, introduced the Liberal Democrat candidate, Abdul Asad, a familiar name to those interested in Tower Hamlets politics. A Labour councillor between 1990-2010, he was an enthusiastic Rahman supporter and served in the Rahman Cabinet cabinets, without demonstrating any noticeable ability.
His activities and service to the Rahman administration is best summed up by Commissioner Mawrey in Paragraph 500 of his landmark Judgement of 2015.
“It follows that the court is satisfied that the conduct of Mr Rahman and his agents Mr Asad and Mr Choudhury in making grants does amount to the corrupt practice of bribery under s 113 of the 1983 Act.”
An interesting choice to fight corruption and “demand better for Lansbury.”
The Liberal Democrat nominee for Shadwell is equally of interest. He is Abjol Miah, a resident of Bow and an early supporter of George Galloway. He can be seen in numerous clips of the notorious 2005 election in Bethnal Green and Bow, and Galloway paid particular tribute to him after the count.
In 2006 he was elected as Respect councillor for Shadwell, defeating the Labour leader, whereupon Galloway kissed his feet at the declaration. Becoming Respect leader, he watched his initial group of twelve melt into different factions. In 2009 he presented the petition for Tower Hamlets to move towards an elected mayoral system. In 2010 he was George Galloway’s chosen candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow. After his defeat he became close to Lutfur Rahman, fighting a by-election in Weavers Ward in 2012 on the Rahman ticket. In 2014 he was elected for St Peter’s ward on behalf of Tower Hamlets First (THF). After the disqualification of Lutfur Rahman, and the striking off of THF as a political party he sat as an Independent; independent of the Independents who were the rump of THF. Failing to join the Labour Party, he joined the People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets under whose banner he lost in St Peter’s in 2018. If you think this political journey is confusing, the philosophical one is even more obtuse. Over the years Abjol Miah has attracted much media attention regarding his views and connections.
The founder of People’s Alliance was Rabina Khan who was elected for Shadwell by just two votes for Labour in 2010. She quickly joined the Rahman administration becoming easily the most able of his Cabinet, standing as Mayor on his behalf in 2015 and then for the People’s alliance in 2018 on the same day that she was elected for a third time for Shadwell. She joined the Liberal Democrats shortly afterwards.
How either of these candidates could be selected by a mainstream party for a by-election must cause concern. The Liberal Democrats were happy to tweet pictures of Tom Brake and their London mayoral candidate on a platform with both of them. The Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate made, in the circumstances, a somewhat unfortunate statement about “Tower Hamlets feeling like her second home.” That I fear has been a problem with too many of those in Tower Hamlets politics. Both Shadwell and Lansbury wards featured extensively in the 2015 petition. Despite considerable evidence of malpractice and a willingness to make statements by potential witnesses, police investigation was limited.
The electoral process in this borough remains fragile, with public concerns ignored. Last year a voluntary group, Democracy Volunteers observed the election and published a report. They attended 39 polling stations across the borough and observed 764 voters attending the polls. In answer to the question “Are there political leaflets in sight within polling stations” they noted this was the case inside 24 per cent of polling stations, saying “In the vast majority of cases this was acted on quickly and efficiently by polling staff to remove them.” What happened in the minority of cases? They blame this on “excessive party activity at polling stations.” Writing “there was a great deal of party activity outside of polling stations, this would not be defined as telling, but campaigning. In some cases our observers stated that they believed this could be intimidating to voters.”
The description of a polling station in Poplar caused concern, “ a group of around 15 men, not wearing any party identification, had gathered on the pavement opposite the school entrance. When asked whether they were there for any party, they said they were but were clearly unhappy to have been asked the question, they made us feel uncomfortable.” The situation inside the polling stations is worse. They identify so called “family voting.” Continuing, “women, especially, are unable to choose for themselves who they wish to cast their votes and / or this is done by another individual entirely. It is a breach of the secret ballot.” They noted this taking place on 74 separate occasions in 58 per cent of the polling stations visited; “19 per cent of all the voters we observed were either engaged in, or affected by this practice. This took place in public. What goes on where whole families have postal votes?
Voting is a process that is virtually the same world wide, ballots are marked with candidates or parties identified by name and symbol. In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced to prevent open voting. 137 years later, and a century after women were granted the vote in parliamentary elections, the United Kingdom cannot guarantee a secret ballot in a public polling station in the capital city.
The Electoral Commission and the police have long known about this situation. They have been inside polling stations and witnessed it. By ignoring this they are able to claim how well our elections work. I know that Tower Hamlets is not unique. I have seen this in polling stations elsewhere in London.
Why has it taken Democracy Volunteers to produce a report that shames the Electoral Commission with its multi million pound budget? Why are they not looking at this? Why do the police push it aside?