Cllr Peter Golds is Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council.
We in the UK have an electoral system that dates back far into the past, and is based on trust – a system that functioned during World Wars and was trusted whilst much of the world lived under dictatorships. Sadly, it is now dated and needs an update. Europeans who cast votes here in the European elections are often taken aback at how they are handed a ballot paper merely by giving an address. Likewise they, and many UK citizens, are amazed that postal votes can be sent out simply on demand.
As has been said before, what was once a secret act in public is now increasingly a public act in secrecy. Voting in secret is something that we should treasure and preserve.
Over the past nine months there have been two academic studies on electoral malpractice. First, last October, Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky published a paper for Policy Exchange entitled “Electoral Omissions”. This identified many worrying aspects of our creaking electoral process.
In January this year the Electoral Commission itself published an academic study entitled “Understanding electoral fraud vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin communities in England – A view of local political activists”.
Both are extremely well-researched, thoughtful and shine a light on a depressing but accurate picture of an electoral system that is no longer fit for purpose. Both identify serious problems relating to clan-based voting that has entered this country from Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are not the first to identify this problem. Former Labour MP Mike O’Brien has written on this topic, as has our own Paul Goodman, another former MP.
Interestingly, page 8 of the Electoral Commission study shows that many within the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities accept there are problems relating to voter fraud within their communities and are calling for a tightening up of the legislation.
When even the President of the United States, possibly the most famous person on the planet, signs a register to receive a ballot paper, then we are somewhat lagging behind in handing out ballot papers on demand.
Electoral fraud is one of many issues that poisoned community relations for decades in Northern Ireland. The cry of “Vote early and vote often” seemed comic on the mainland but was a grim reality in the Province. Yet by simply requiring prospective voters to produce an item of ID before being handed a ballot paper lanced that particular aspect of electoral poison.
I am identifying some pressing problems which can and should be resolved quickly and easily.
The election petitions starting in Birmingham and then continuing in Slough, Woking and Tower Hamlets show just how fragile the existing system is.
Previously, it has been too easy to register to vote, fortunately this has been changed, with Individual Voter Registration, a change introduced with the initial support of the Electoral Commission, but we must be wary of calls for a return to the system of one person completing a form and including names for the electoral register. My concern is that the Electoral Commission seems to care more for an increased turnout and will withdraw support for this process.
We have had too many well-documented incidents of “ghost voters” identified in election petitions in recent years for this matter not to be resolved. It is a criminal offence to include false names on an electoral register and should be treated as such.
In 2012 a Tower Hamlets councillor from the Rahman group was jailed for benefit fraud. She illegally rented out the flat provided by Swan Housing for her and claimed benefits whilst using her mother’s address.
The police claimed that there was “no public interest” in pursuing her falsified electoral registration. Why? Indeed why were the other Tower Hamlets First activists regularly named and shamed with their actual addresses, as opposed to those that they give in our borough, never prosecuted?
One must ask as to how the police can keep a straight face when confronted with an extraordinary figure who contested two elections in six weeks, using two different names and two addresses neither of which he lived in, and still claim that there is no case to answer.
Judge Mawrey thought otherwise and on the evidence presented to the court identified this man as a corrupt voter.
Defending the secrecy of the ballot
We must tackle the ludicrous situation of being allowed to receive a ballot paper simply by giving a name and an address. When it is easier to cast a vote than take out a library book, then change is needed.
I am told the concern is that this may deflect older voters. I would say nonsense; my experience is that this is the very group that tends to express the most concern about voting malpractice, and most people from the teens onwards have wallets bulging with ID of one kind or another.
In addition, there are now too many incidents of people interfering with voters inside a polling station. Guidance on voting is printed in different languages; candidates have a symbol on the ballot paper. Frequently men (and it is almost always men) are involved in directing how women mark their ballot paper inside a polling station. On May 7th I saw my first such incident within minutes of visiting a polling station in the early afternoon.
This is illegal but once again the police and often election officials ignore it.
There are increasing complaints of polling stations being mobbed by supporters of candidates in areas with high Pakistani or Bangladeshi populations. Again, the communities themselves accept that this is a problem. However, the police and election officials need to be prepared to enforce the limited existing rules as to what is acceptable. It may be necessary to legislate on how near a polling station supporters can intrude and in what numbers. In the recent Tower Hamlets election petition there was detailed evidence of twenty or sometimes more supporters of Lutfur Rahman appearing and escorting Bangladeshi voters into the voting booths.
In May 2014, I asked a police officer supposedly guarding the St Edmunds School polling station in my ward what he was intending to do about the fourteen Rahman supporters in the playground. He said that he could only act when there was a complaint. I told him that I was complaining only to get the response that it needed to be an official complaint.
On April 23rd Judge Mawrey took a somewhat jaundiced view of this describing the police response as “akin to the three monkeys.” Sadly it was the genuine voters who were put off.
Postal voting on demand has done much to damage the integrity of the electoral process. Evidence in Birmingham, Woking, Slough and Tower Hamlets showed how open the system is to corruption.
Perhaps the nadir was reached in Birmingham in 2004 when early one morning six officers of the West Midlands Police, entered a “postal vote factory”, and asked the fraudsters what they were doing. Satisfied that they were voting, the police returned to their police station, where it was suggested that they returned to the “postal vote factory.” By this time the corrupt candidates, who were happily completing several hundred postal votes, had finished their task and the police took them and handed them over to the City Council for inclusion in the count. Nobody amongst the six officers suggested that the fraudsters should be arrested and the forged votes kept as evidence.
I am not making this up! The whole, extraordinary episode is described in detail in the judgement as to the Aston and Bordesley Green election petition.
In April 2012 there was a shambolic by-election in the Spitalfields and Banglatown ward of Tower Hamlets. This was two weeks before the London Mayoral election. There was extensive media coverage across the spectrum as to this chaotic election.
When postal votes were opened, 135 (14 per cent) of those returned were rejected because signatures and dates of birth did not match or were not properly completed. Two weeks later in the GLA election the borough-wide total of postal votes rejected on these grounds was 7 per cent, still above the London average and well above the national average.
If we see men interfering with women voters inside a polling station what on earth happens in the home, when there are postal votes?
Forensic evidence in the Tower Hamlets petition indicated incidents of postal votes being completed in the same hand. We know of Rahman activists collecting postal votes, indeed a photograph of one of them was taken whilst he was going door-to-door on the Hollland Estate.
Last year, the car of a Rahman supporter was stopped by police and the driver had with him photocopies of over 40 postal vote applications, details which could well ensure that signatures and birth dates matched.
As so often, the police found no reason to take any further action.
What can easily be done?
To prevent personation, there should be a requirement to produce a form of ID when receiving a ballot paper.
Officials must prevent any interference with voters inside a polling station.
The gathering of groups of men outside polling stations must be regulated.
The political parties must reach a consensus as to the qualifications for a postal vote.
However, the problem remains of the police and the Electoral Commission locked into a deadly embrace of inertia as the situation deteriorates.
In 2004, before the Birmingham petition, the police codenamed their “investigation” Operation Gripe. This appears to typify their view on similar investigations even now.
The Electoral Commission base their rosy view of the situation by saying there are few police prosecutions and so there is not a problem.
A corrupt politician such as Lutfur Rahman can use his multi-million pound communications machine in Tower Hamlets to announce, “It’s official – the police and Electoral Commission say there is no fraud”
The electorate and an election court know otherwise.
Many of these problems are related to integration, or the lack of. My heart sank seeing Labour candidates in the recent election addressing a political meeting with segregated seating. I wonder what happened to postal votes in those households.
The police need to investigate voter fraud and lead prosecutions, not take action after an election court has found in favour of residents.
The Electoral Commission needs to be revaluated. It combines the task of regulating political donations and registering parties with somehow representing the public. It ends up acting as the mouthpiece and supporter of election officials.
Producing lamentable reports such as those published recently covering Tower Hamlets achieves nothing, except provide cover for fraudsters.
If the police and commission are required to undertake their jobs then the government must make funds available to use the specialist media to explain election law and that it will be rigidly enforced. This means action to be taken with regard to ghost registration, postal vote fraud and intimidation at polling stations, and that this can and will result in prosecution.
As things stand, those who are corrupting the electoral system know that they have a very good chance of getting away with their corruption, and that this corruption is being sidelined by those who should be enforcing and promoting free and fair elections.
Why it took four brave electors to ensure the removal of Lutfur Rahman, when the police long had all the information provided to the court, I cannot fathom.