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There was a little bit about this in the press this week, but I was expecting more.

Let’s stress at the outset that the timing of the Electoral Commission’s decision to publish its report on vote fraud three days ago, given the Tower Hamlets election trial is due to start on Monday, was purely coincidental.

But because it honed in on the issue of potential fraud in British Bangladeshi communities, it made for particularly interesting reading.

Here’s the press release issued by the Commission:

The Electoral Commission has today laid out what is being done to prevent electoral fraud ahead of the May elections, including work by Returning Officers, the police and Crimestoppers.

The watchdog has also published two research reports – by NatCen and academics at the universities of Manchester and Liverpool – and a briefing paper on electoral fraud, fulfilling a commitment it made as part of its review of electoral fraud last year.

During this review the Commission heard anecdotal evidence and views that raised questions about whether fraud was more likely to be committed by, or in support of, candidates standing for election in areas which are largely or predominantly populated by people from British Pakistani or British Bangladeshi communities.

This raised concerns about whether people in these communities were able effectively to exercise their right to vote and participate in elections on the same basis as other voters in the UK. As a result, the watchdog commissioned further research with members of the public and political activists in eight demographically similar areas; four with histories of allegations or actual instances of fraud and four without.

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “Proven cases of electoral fraud remain rare, but it is important that no-one underestimates how serious it is when it does occur. We have long known that, when fraud is committed, candidates and campaigners are the most likely offenders and voters are the victims. The research we have published today confirms this.

“The research also provides a useful insight into some of the particular issues faced by voters in some British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities, and how these can be tackled. Although clear plans are in place to prevent and detect fraud ahead of the elections, there is also a challenge to campaigners. They must ensure their behaviour builds trust with all voters, and all those involved in elections must make it a priority to communicate what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at election time.

“As we approach the election, it’s important that anyone who has evidence of electoral fraud reports it to the police in their area, or, if they want to do so anonymously, contact Crimestoppers.”

What the research shows

A summary of the research findings is below, but further details are available in the briefing note or in the reports themselves.

Strong community networks provide valuable support to people, but they may also be vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous campaigners.

There can be low levels of public awareness about what is acceptable campaigning activity and what is electoral fraud.

Voters in some British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities can be unsure where to report concerns about electoral fraud.

Low levels of literacy or a lack of English skills can exacerbate electoral fraud vulnerabilities.

Reduced activity by political parties in some areas, together with a reliance on kinship networks or those perceived to be “community leaders”, may also exacerbate vulnerabilities by focusing on winning the support of voters as a single group rather than as individuals.

The Commission has also set out today how it is working with the police and local authorities to support their plans to prevent and detect fraud ahead of the May elections. Further details of these actions can be found in the attached briefing note.

Action ahead of the May 2015 elections

The Commission, Police, Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers have different roles in relation to electoral fraud but are working together to ensure robust prevention and detection plans are in place ahead of the May elections. This package of measures includes:

Guidance on electoral fraud for police forces – this was published in November by the College of Policing, with support from the Commission.

Partnership with Crimestoppers – The Commission is working with Crimestoppers to make sure that, although the police should be the first point of contact to ensure concerns about electoral fraud are swiftly investigated, if people are worried about revealing their identity, they can contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. A translation service is available for those whose first language is not English.

A national seminar for specialist police officers – the Commission will join specialist police officers in February to help them prepare ahead of the elections, and exchange knowledge and strategies.

The Code of Conduct for Campaigners – The Commission will be making campaigners / parties aware that they must follow this agreed code.

Materials for police and local authorities – The Commission is making these available in a variety of languages for police and local authorities to use to let voters know what electoral fraud is, how to report it, and what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable campaigning.

Monitoring postal voting during and after the May 2015 elections, to identify whether there is scope to further improve security processes.

Longer term work

Some issues raised in the research are already being looked at by the Commission:

Voter ID –We recommended in January 2014 that there should be a requirement for electors across Great Britain to present an acceptable form of identification prior to voting at the polling station by no later than the 2019 European and English local government elections. We are currently considering how to develop a proportionate and accessible scheme for verifying the identity of electors at polling stations, and expect to publish our detailed proposals by the end of 2015.

Postal voting – New security measures for postal voting were introduced for elections in 2006, and voters now need to give ‘personal identifiers’ (their signature and date of birth) when applying for and casting their postal ballot. In addition, the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER) in Great Britain in 2014 further limits the scope for fraud in the postal voting process. Under the new system voters need to have their identity verified by providing a date of birth and a national insurance number. IER therefore makes it much harder to create fictitious electoral register entries, which could be used to commit postal voting fraud. The Commission is continuing to monitor campaigner behaviour and has not ruled out the need for the law to be changed to make it an offence for campaigners to handle any postal voting materials.

But this press release omits many other solutions proposed by the academics. Let’s hope they’re won’t be ignored.

The research was carried out by four academics from Liverpool and Manchester universities. Entitled ‘Understanding electoral fraud vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin communities in England’, the report was based on 37 interviews with community and political activists in eight local authorities where there was a high concentration of voters from those groups.

It’s not clear whether Tower Hamlets was one, although it’d be surprising if it wasn’t.

One of the main issues they found was the existence of influential kinship networks that can help deliver what some call bloc votes, ie ” male elders” calling the shots, telling family members how to vote. In essence, the researchers blamed political parties and activists for exploiting these rather than placing too much fault on the voters themselves.

They also said these closed networks often result in the selection of poor political candidates, ie the elders choose puppets in their circles who then get the bloc vote.

“These networks tend to be…hierarchal and patriarchal, which may undermine the principle of voters’ individual and free choice through a range of social pressures such as respect for the decision of elders at its mildews extreme, through to undue influence where in some instances access to individual ballots of women and adult children can be refused by elders,” the academics note.

The report is 55 pages long, but its executive summary and its conclusions are particularly interesting.

Although Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, says in her quotes above that proven cases of fraud are rare, the academics suggested the actual level of fraud might well be under-reported – in part because those defrauded may not know they have been.

They write: “In some areas where fraud allegations have not been raised, the local activists do not feel they receive enough support to combat fraud, especially from the police and local political parties.”

However, they suggest there is hope. They think the elders through generational change will lose their influence and that younger people are “reported to be resisting the influence of their kinship networks”.

Fast forward to p44 of the academics’ report here and you see a raft of proposed solutions.

For example, on voter registartion (which applies all voters of course):

..our first recommendation is for a system of automatic voter registration (or at least an opt-out system) where at point of contact with NHS, and/or any government service, the individual is prompted to register/asked to opt out.

And there are others which didn’t merit a mention in the Electoral Commission press release, and which may or may not have relevance to Tower Hamlets and the impending trial next week. I’ve italicised those I found more interesting.

  • Stricter and more transparent guidelines to political parties and candidates on postal vote handling as the Electoral Commission has already proposed
  • The information whether a person has a postal vote should be included in the secrecy of voting – ie activists and parties should not be allowed to collect this information;
  • Tightening the rules on voting at polling stations by increasing the radius safe from political pressure, enforcing the law already specifying that the tellers must not be present in the polling station.
  • Introducing some form of identification to cast a vote.
  • To compensate for the increased difficulty of voting, new registration laws should be introduced to either automatically enrol voters, for example via other points of contact with the state, or create an opt-out system.
  • Given the weakness of parties as inclusive agents for political participation, the government and local government must fund more direct voter information, registration and turnout efforts at the individual voters in these communities.
  • Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers should receive greater and ring-fenced funding in areas where additional needs are present to deal with severe under-registration, lack of knowledge of eligibility or poor English language skills.

The academics hope the following cultural changes should take place:

  • Political parties should take a greater responsibility for not accepting the bloc vote delivered or promised by community leaders
  • Political parties should aim to strengthen their support for diversity of elected representatives. Widening access to standing for elected office to all minority groups, regardless of whether the candidate’s ethnicity matches those of voters, should be one of the parties’ main objectives.
  • Both parties and communities should strongly encourage women of all ethnicities to participate more in politics, including making this participation easier for women and more relevant to their daily lives.

I suspect Richard Mawrey QC, who is due to preside over the Election Court at the Royal Courts of Justice from Monday, will have read this report with some interest.

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This is a guest post by Kazim Zaidi, Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s adviser who was Political Assistant to the Tower Hamlets Labour group when Lutfur ran the council as a member of the party between 2008-10. He lives in Bethnal Green.

*NOTE: Thursday, May 29, 4pm: Kazim Zaidi has asked me if he can clarify that while he continues to advise Lutfur Rahman on a voluntary basis, he has not been a paid adviser (in receipt of public funds) since March.

Kazim ZaidiIn 2010 it was the infamous “dodgy dossier” submitted by his 3rd placed rival that claimed Lutfur Rahman had been “brainwashed” by fundamentalists. These claims led to Rahman’s summary deselection as Labour’s candidate but have never been investigated.

Then there were claims of electoral fraud in two by-elections in 2012. Over 160 separate reports were investigated in one of the most comprehensive investigations ever conducted by the police and the Electoral Commission. Not a single one was found to have merit.

Not long after came claims that Rahman had been using “bogus” canvassers pretending to be from Tower Hamlets Homes. Another investigation was instigated at public expense and once again no evidence was found.

And then there was Panorama, aired just two weeks before the purdah period. Panorama claimed dodgy dealings with grants; it cited the Mayor’s car as an example of his profligacy and highlighted his apparent reluctance to attend scrutiny meetings and answering questions in council, failing to point out that Rahman has attended more scrutiny sessions and answered more questions in council than his Labour counterparts in Newham and Lewisham.

As for the car (now scrapped) it is a shame it was a Merc, but Mayors and Council leaders across the UK use similar transport. As for the rest, police found “no new credible evidence” of fraud and there are serious questions as to the process followed by the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles in sending in the inspectors.

Pickles claims to have had long-standing concerns about Tower Hamlets but chose to act weeks before an election. Not only that, these concerns were never raised with Rahman directly and repeated offers to meet went unanswered.

And now, despite securing 36,000 first preferences to Labour’s 27,000 on a high turnout, Rahman is again under the cosh with his beaten opponents claiming voter intimidation, harassment and fraud. Their hook for the story is the delayed European Election count – delayed, it appears, by the stringent Electoral Commission protocols put in place at the behest of opposition candidates to ensure the count was absolutely accurate and fair.

Those complaining in such lurid terms are beaten opposition politicians with a direct and vested interest in the story they’re selling to the national media. The fact they are complaining to the media, not the authorities, speaks volumes as to their motivation.

As Labour Group Political Assistant from 2008-10 I witnessed first-hand the party’s descent into civil war. The racial element has been massively played up, but for me it was a battle between Old and New Labour, between ex-student politicos, lobbyists and machine politicians on the one side and grassroots local campaigners who could actually mobilise a the vote on the other.

The fact that the middle class Blairites were almost exclusively white and the working class activists mainly Bangladeshi is an accident of history, as is the fact that Rahman came to power at a time when fear of Muslims and “Islamisation” is at an all time high.

It is these accidents, not his policy achievements that have dominated the narrative of his time in office, along with a resolute refusal by the Labour and the Tories in Tower Hamlets to work with him.

Lutfur’s not perfect by any means but all he’s asked is to be judged as any other local politician, with fair comparison to his fellow mayors and for people to judge him on his record. That has never happened or come close to happening.

In May 2010 as Leader, Rahman led the Labour Party to buck the national trend and gain councillors. He then won the Labour selection by a landslide. He won again as an Independent in the mayoral election in October of that year and last Thursday 37,390 people voted for him to be Mayor.

Rather than trying to ignore these facts or blaming the electorate or the system or making common cause with the Tories that are our natural foes the Labour Party needs to think hard on why that many natural Labour voters have consistently supported a man they so vilify.

One thing I can say for sure is that it isn’t an ethnic thing. I’m not a Bangladeshi and neither are many of the “Lutfurites” I know. I’m a middle-class north Londoner with Pakistani parents, a degree from a good university and a social conscience. I came to the East End wanting to work for the party I loved. I wanted to do some good. I wasn’t expecting a civil war, but when it happened, I went with my conscience. I’m still a party member and put my X next to the rose for the Euro ballot.

The last six years in Tower Hamlets has been nothing more than a civil war that got out of hand; it spilled out of the Labour Group room and into the Council chamber. If those who still seem unable to accept the result continue as they are, it will spill out onto the streets where even the cleverest machine politicians will not be able to manage it.

Lutfur has again said he’ll work with anyone who will work with him. One side in this ridiculous conflict has paused to stop and think.

It is time for the other to do the same.

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