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Monday, June 02, 2014

A threat to our democracy

Following my post on Saturday in which I referred to Charles Moore's concern that we are sacrificing the security of the ballot at the altar of engagement, the Telegraph carries a piece by Andrew Gilligan, looking at the chaotic and questionable conduct of the local elections in Tower Hamlets. It is a very disturbing account.

He tells the story of how 2,000 supporters of the borough’s mayor, Lutfur Rahman, gathered outside, effectively barricading Mr Rahman’s Labour opponents in the building. The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, was told by police that he could not leave for his own safety.

He says that declarations were delayed as the Mayor ordered recounts and that when these took place the following day Lutfur Rahman supporters were everywhere, leaning over the count staff, shouting at them, intimidating them. In one case a Labour candidate found that his vote had fallen by more than a fifth overnight:

For more than four years, The Telegraph has been following the extraordinary career of Mr Rahman, a man thrown out of the Labour Party after this newspaper exposed his close links to a Muslim extremist group, the Islamic Forum of Europe. 

Yet Mr Rahman has gone on to win two mayoral elections as an independent, his latest, last week, even though his council is under a police investigation for corruption and a government investigation for misuse of funds. How did he manage it? Khales Uddin Ahmed, another Labour councillor, claims he knows part of the answer. “There are so many fake voters,” he says. “I keep finding houses where there are people registered for postal votes who do not live there.” 

In Bow, The Telegraph found two flats where postal votes were obtained, and cast, by people who did not live there and had never lived there, according to the real residents. 

Helal Rahman, a businessman and former Labour councillor in Spitalfields, says that “several hundred postal votes” in that one ward alone were cast on May 22 by people “who used to live here but have moved out to the suburbs. They rent their properties to eastern Europeans but keep their electoral registrations and convert their votes to postal,” he says. This is, of course, illegal. 

No evidence links any of this to Mr Rahman at this election, but there has been clear evidence of postal vote malpractice involving his close allies in the past. In April 2012, on a suspiciously high turnout, Gulam Robbani, Mr Rahman’s agent in the 2010 mayoral contest, narrowly won a council by-election. 

Only 14 per cent of people in Tower Hamlets then had postal votes, but 36 per cent of votes at the by-election were postal. 

Days before polling, the number registered for postal votes in one large council block doubled. Seventy-seven per cent of those votes were cast. 

Residents and their families told The Telegraph that Mr Robbani’s supporters blitzed the building, signing them up for postal votes, then returned a few days later to collect the blank ballot papers. Mr Robbani has repeatedly refused to deny it.

He says that the council has received 20 complaints of voter intimidation, and that twenty-one of the borough’s 74 polling stations, disproportionately those in non-Rahman wards, were moved to new, unfamiliar and sometimes harder-to-reach locations:

One, in the not very pro-Rahman territory of Canary Wharf, was placed on a traffic island in the middle of a four-lane road. Turnout there was 19 points behind the Rahman stronghold of Shadwell, where the polling stations were not moved.

Mr Rahman’s winning margin, after second preferences, was 3,250 votes, or 4 per cent. “My gut feeling is that there were enough [fraudulent votes] to have affected the outcome,” says one senior figure in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party. “But I don’t know whether we will be able to evidence it.” 

In reality, though, the campaign was only the last phase. For several years, with the untrammelled power of a directly-elected mayor, Mr Rahman has been buying votes with public money. Almost uniquely, his council publishes a weekly newspaper, delivered to every house, each issue containing as many as a dozen pictures and articles praising the mayor. Thousands of pieces of direct mail have been sent to voters at public expense. 

Mr Rahman pays tens of thousands of pounds to Channel S, a London-based Bengali television station influential with his Bangladeshi base. It gives him fawning coverage. He pays £50,000 a year from council funds into the personal bank account of Channel S’s chief reporter.

Mr. Gilligan adds that Ofcom regularly censures Channel S, but it appears to make no difference and that the Electoral Commission refuses to act on suspect voting, despite its own report admitting it happened in 2012.

The police broke their promise to stop crowds outside polling stations, he says, whilst many officials are afraid of being branded racist for criticising Mr Rahman.

This is not the birthplace of democracy where I was born and grew up. In my view the real threat is not so much the alleged manipulation of local elections by a particular group, though that is bad enough, it is the apparent impotence of the Electoral Commission and other authorities to do something about it. I hope they prove me wrong.
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