A few weeks ago, Andy Erlam, who stood and lost in Bow East for his Red Flag Ant-Corruption Party in May, launched an Election Petition challenging the result for the directly elected mayor poll.
That petition is being backed by a number of people from various parties and is currently going through the early court processes. The petitioners are having to do the very hard legwork of amassing evidence to present to a judge who must make a decision on whether there is a case to answer.
Yesterday, Andy wrote an open letter to John Biggs asking for him to “publicly back” the petition. Hitherto, John has welcomed the petition and the chance it might give to clear the air.
Andy copied me and other journalists into his open letter. It’s below. You’ll see he says this:
I estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were forged or affected by intimidation across the Borough in the Mayoral election
I asked him for examples of the evidence he’d gathered to back up that claim. He said that wasn’t possible at this stage because he wanted to protect people’s identities. So I asked him to provide the calculations behind his estimate and how he extrapolated to that number. He still hasn’t answered.
My personal view is that he risks looking silly. The figure of 15,0000 is huge: he’s saying that up to 40 per cent of the 37,000 votes for Lutfur Rahman were as a result of fraud or forgery. That really would be Mugabe-land. It’s also a bit of an insult to Lutfur’s electorate. Well, a bit more than a bit.
Anyway, the open letter has prompted a reply from John Biggs. In it, he uses his strongest language yet.
He, too, feels some of Andy’s claims might be somewhat outlandish, but he strongly believes the election was “bent”.
John goes beyond his previously stated belief that there was widespread postal vote fraud. He now also believes there could have been “organised fraud” in the counting of votes.
He does not state how, but I understand the allegation is this: counters deliberately undercounted John’s votes and over-counted Lutfur’s. Counters count the votes in bundles of 50. The belief is that some counters counted to say 47 or 48 for Lutfur’s votes and bundled them up into a pile of 50; meanwhile, the counters would count to say 52 or 53 for every 50 of John’s votes. So Lutfur’s piles of 50 votes overstated his true position, while John’s understated his. Or so the allegation goes. I understand that some counters were called up on this by party agents and other representatives on the night.
John, in his letter, also confirms he’ll cooperate fully with the petition and appear as a witness.
Here are the two letters.
I am writing to you to ask you to this week publicly back the Tower Hamlets Election Petition that was launched on Friday 13th June.
As you know, there is very deep concern in the community about the legitimacy of the Mayoral and local council elections held on 22nd May and the subsequent chaotic count. I do understand and admire the fact that you have been a “good loser” in the contest which you were said to have lost by 3,500 votes.
However, there is a growing mountain of evidence which points to the fact that you did not lose, because the election was grossly corrupted by industrial-scale irregularities ranging from “ghost voters”, multiple voting, intimidation at the polling station, the stealing, forgery of postal votes on a massive scale and deliberate miscounting of votes.
On the basis of reports received by me to date, I estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 votes were forged or affected by intimidation across the Borough in the Mayoral election.
If so, had the election been honest and managed properly, I believe that you would have won by a substantial majority.
As regards the count, the only issue in my mind is whether the chaos was just chaos or whether it was organised chaos. In 40 years in politics observing elections and counts, including a stint as an official EU International Election Observer in South Africa in 1994, I have never seen such intimidation, corruption and deception in an election and count.
Furthermore, the Council refuses to say where it held the ballot boxes following the election and a whole series of corrupt ballot papers have been kept from the police. I am now convinced that the current police investigation into cases where there have been arrests is not serious and that the police are simply going through the motions of investigating election fraud.
So the point is, that it is not John Biggs who is the real looser in Tower Hamlets, it is the whole voting population who have been cheated of a fair and democratic election and as such face next year’s General Election with absolutely no confidence that their vote will be honestly and fairly handled. If you continue to sit on the fence, this golden opportunity to clean up Tower Hamlets politics once and for all will be lost. People look to community leaders like you to show a lead when times are tough. Tower Hamlets is not presently a democracy area of Britain.
As you know, 4 individual voters have stuck their necks out for you in launching this Election Petition. We are free from political party influence and have no motive except to see justice down. Now is the time for John Biggs to stick his neck out for us and for Tower Hamlets.
I hope that you will be able to issue a statement this week publicly backing the Election Petition and urging all Labour Party members and all voters to make statements on irregularities that can be used in court. This open letter is designed to open up the debate much further.
And this is John Biggs’s reply:
I was very busy yesterday and only became aware of your letter when two of the media outlets to whom you had forwarded it asked for my comments! I am therefore replying on the assumption that you will share this reply with the media (and am pre-emptively copying it to one outlet). This is an important matter and so my reply is quite lengthy, with no apology to those seeking sound-bites.
My position is as follows:
I am a democrat and accept that the result announced by the Returning Officer must be treated as the proper result unless and until it is proved otherwise. To not do so would throw the foundations of democracy into dispute. However, I accept that there is a very widespread unhappiness with the election.
One needs however to be careful and to disentangle the strong antipathy that Mayor Rahman attracts from large sections of the electorate from underlying anxieties about whether the election was fair. By recent analogy, many people of our generation will recall that Margaret Thatcher was massively unpopular and polarising to many people but that she still legitimately won elections. The election, and administration, have both in my view been unhealthily polarising but we must disentangle that from anxieties about whether the election was fair. It is important to make that point.
You raise very serious concerns about the election, which have also been raised by others. My position is that I share most of these. I believe that there was a considerable amount of election fraud, principally but not only centred around the manipulation of postal votes. I am less persuaded about the allegations of intimidation, although conduct around, and in, polling stations was a disgrace.
This feeds however into the next point, which is that, separate from the comprehensive breach of the ‘election protocol’ by one party, conduct at polling stations being just one example of this, the administration of the election, both the management of polling stations and of the count, fell far short of being well-organised. I believe that we may also find that there was organised fraud in the counting of votes, albeit by a minority of those involved. All of these things need to be tested, with evidence. Without evidence they remain mere beliefs.
I am also angry about the smear tactics used in the campaign, by the Mayor’s supporters (and by nobody else), against me, as the only serious challenger to the incumbent. Specifically, I am not a racist and I was disgusted by the unprincipled use of this claim to try to polarise opinion and to secure support for the Mayor as a perpetual victim. Life does need to move on from this form of politics and if redress is available by showing that the result was improperly influenced by this claim, knowing it was false, then it should be available.
In other words I think there are comprehensive concerns, and I have shared these, as have other Labour members, with the police, the electoral commission, the council, the media, with yourself and your fellow petitioners and with your legal representative, Gerald Shamash.
You ask if I will ‘stick my neck out for us and for Tower Hamlets’. You need to understand that we must respect and work with our democracy and not make wild claims that will damage good community relations and which do not respect the proper democratic will of voters. However, there are continuing widespread concerns, and, short of criminal sanctions, an election court is the only way to test these concerns and I welcome you and your fellow petitioners in making this challenge. I will do all that I can to ensure that the case is properly considered, including making statements, appearing as a witness as necessary, and working with your legal team, and I will do all that I can to ensure that it is, and to encourage others to support you. I will do so in a way that is respectful of all the people of our borough.
There are two final points, which are that to succeed your petition must be supported by an adequate legal team, and that the partnership you seek with me and others needs to be a real one and not a maverick campaign, as it will otherwise fail. Your claims must be based on evidence which can be persuasive in an election court. You need therefore to use a serious legal team which inspires confidence and encourages others to come forwards, and you, working equally with your other three petitioners, must be open and clear with the people of Tower Hamlets, and respectful of all parts of our community, in making your claim. If you do these things, you will attract support and the likelihood that the truth will be known.