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.
In May, Chaudhary Mohammed Iqbal, a Labour councillor for the Loxford ward of the Borough of Redbridge was charged with “making false statements in candidate nomination papers” during the 2018 local election. The Metropolitan Police revealed that the charges “relate to false declarations by Councillor Iqbal regarding his address.” From what is so far publicly known, they are very similar to numerous circumstances of false statements that the Metropolitan Police repeatedly failed to investigate in Tower Hamlets.
Following the 2019 general election, the government announced it was seeking to make changes to election law. Select Committees in both Houses of Parliament have examined election law and the Law Commission has made 106 recommended changes to existing law in a report that runs to 204 pages.
In the meantime, the Electoral Commission, which receives almost £18 million per year of taxpayer funding stumbles from one crisis to another. Worryingly, this dangerously flawed body is seeking to have enhanced powers of prosecution. As I will outline later it should be put out of its misery.
Some of the problems faced by the police, who are responsible for law enforcement, and the taxpayer funded Electoral Commission, which acts as a regulator, may be identified in this observation in the report of the Law Commission:
“The legal framework underpinning our electoral processes is ‘complex, voluminous and fragmented’ comprising 55 separate Acts of Parliament and 227 other pieces of legislation relating to elections.”
When one considers that these numerous changes have, in the words of the Law Commission “retro-fitted onto rules from earlier centuries.” Simplifying, updating, modernising, and consolidating electoral law is long overdue.
The last major consolidation of election law was in 1983, almost four decades ago. This was at a time when “fax machines” were a novelty, mobile phones were unknown, and “twitter,” “facebook,” “whats app,” “tik tok”and “snapchat” were not even imagined in sci-fi books, films, or episodes of Doctor Who.
The Law Commission itself describes the need for election law to be framed in precise and yet compelling language. This must be language that can be understood by the regulator, the police, election candidates, election agents, activists, and political parties.
The UK piecemeal approach to reform resulting in far too much diffuse legislation must be avoided. Currently the law identifies corrupt practices, which are done knowingly and illegal practices which may be done accidentally. To a contemporary ear the definition of corrupt practices may seem arcane. They are:
“Bribery, undue influence, treating, personation, unauthorised expenditure and falsification of accounts.”
Trying to prove to the police, let alone a modern court of law, bribery and undue influence, and treating it is a difficult if not almost impossible task. That is before we reach practices which the majority of the contemporary population would regard as illegal – and yet it is almost impossible to get these before a court.
Let me take one example. In 2014 there was much controversy in Tower Hamlets when a car was stopped in a routine police check and over 200 photocopies of completed postal vote applications, which include the applicants signature and date of birth of applicants, were found in the vehicle. The police faced enormous criticism for not arresting the driver. However, under existing election law this is neither a corrupt nor illegal practice, notwithstanding that the electors signature and date of birth are the proof required for a valid postal vote to be registered when submitted. A police officer later told me that had they found 200 applications for credit cards, it would have been a very different story.
Equally, there is no legal requirement for imprints, which identify the producer of the material and the cost centre for the posted material, to be included in Twitter and Facebook.
In 2018, a candidate of Aspire, the latest name of the Tower Hamlets Rahman party, was filmed visiting addresses and pressurising residents to hand over postal votes. The police passed over a file to the CPS who declined to prosecute. Amongst the reasons given for not prosecuting was the long standing get out of “public interest” and the absence of legislation preventing a candidate or agent of a candidate from collecting postal votes. In effect, a defence barrister could have argued that what was taking place was not illegal.
Where do we need change?
Despite the series of successful election petitions identifying corruption in recent years, the police, Electoral Commission, CPS, and election officials, are constantly playing catch up, particularly with regard to social media and digital campaigning and in some cases interpreting an election process that is dated and often (wilfully?) misunderstood.
Changes made by the Electoral Commission to the once simple process, such as the nomination of candidates and the return of election expenses are increasingly complex, involving not easily understood forms and procedures designed by the Electoral Commission. This does not assist transparency or assist voluntary election agents. The Law Commission note this deficiency in their recommendations regarding nomination papers.
The public perception of electoral fraud has increased in recent years. Voting which was once “ a private act in public” is now, as a result of postal votes on demand, often seen to be “a public act in private.” Unfortunately, politicians appear to be unwilling to rectify this. As it stands, the law can do little or nothing even when faced with evidence of dubious practice regarding postal votes. The Law needs to be strengthened to reduce levels of corruption.
There is overwhelming support for voters to produce a form of ID when voting. This was introduced in Northern Ireland by the Blair government earlier this century and was one of many changes which added to community cohesion. When joining the Labour Party, ID is required for proof of address and two items of ID are required to attend a Labour Party selection meeting. Why Labour has recently become opposed to voter ID in elections is a matter of curiosity?
In the aftermath of the 2017 General Election, there was a flurry of interest resulting from claims on social media of people boasting how they voted more than once and providing information on this. Unsurprisingly, there was little or no police action with regard to this easily proven voter fraud. Why?
In the modern age, with extensive postal voting on demand, there is no reason why any person should have dual registration for Parliamentary elections. If an elector is fortunate to have two or more homes then they are entitled to a local government vote for each different local authority. In such a case the voter should indicate where they vote for parliamentary elections. This is not a dramatic change. Many people are surprised that it is possible for some people to choose in which constituency they vote.
The Law Commission has excellent proposals for streamlining the challenging of an election. They do not make proposals as to the prohibitive expense and the financial consequences of challenging an election in the Courts, even when successful. The Tower Hamlets petition was a landmark decision. However, despite winning the case, the petitioners lost huge sums of money. In the circumstances where a petition is not vexatious, and the petitioners are successful, then there should be a treasury fund to underwrite costs, or the petition should be taken over by the CPS.
An increasing problem in inner cities is crowding polling stations by supporters of candidates and parties. This was an issue in the 2014 Tower Hamlets petition and the problem has not gone away. In 2018 the report by Democracy Volunteers in Tower Hamlets noted the numbers of people crowding some polling stations. Below is a paragraph from the report:
“The most problematic polling station was in Poplar, just off Poplar High Street, which we visited during the afternoon. There, a group of around fifteen 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.”
By the time an elector reaches a polling station they must know for whom they are voting. There can be no need to canvass them at the entrance, force literature into their hands, and even as I have seen here and unfortunately elsewhere in London, escort them inside. Legislation should include the uninterrupted passage of voters to polling stations. Nowadays, fewer political parties have tellers collecting numbers and increasingly fewer voters are willing to give numbers where telling still takes place.
Democracy volunteers also express concern regarding “family voting.” This same survey indicated that in 58 per cent of polling stations they visited they witnessed as many as 19 per cent of voters communally voting. In most cases this involves a male voting for or supervising a female. Women have had the parliamentary vote since 1919 in the UK. The right of women to vote in private must be secured and legislation must reflect this.
Entry to polling stations should be restricted to voters, officials, those permitted by The Returning Officer to attend the polling station (candidates, election agents and polling agents) and anybody escorting a disabled voter. This should not include journalists seeking stories and there should be restrictions as to filming inside polling stations.
It should be illegal to photograph and publish completed ballot papers. The reason for the latter point is a dishonest voter can prove to a candidate or political group how they have voted.
The growth of “social media” has introduced unregulated, brutal, and threatening behaviour into the political process. The threats suffered by women, minority candidates, and political opponents, have scarred elections in recent years. References to rape and physical violence against women are disgusting, yet are the tip of an iceberg floating in a political sewer.
The situation under Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets where his opponents were routinely described as “racist”, “alcoholic”, “unislamic” and “zionist” in social media and spread by his canvassers was an ongoing problem.
Making false statements as to a candidate is covered under S106a of the 1983 Act. This needs to be reviewed and re-introduced with reference to social media and enforced by the law. The Metropolitan Police excuse of “having words” with those who undertake such action is not acceptable. On one occasion I was told by the police that a Rahman activist who had tweeted “Let us salute Hitler the Great,” and a lot worse, was making “political comment.”
Intimidation must be included as an election offence to ensure when reported that it is considered by the police as a criminal activity relating to an election. It must be included amongst those offences which can, as a last resort, be included in an election petition.
Commissioner Mawrey QC ruled that Spiritual Influence was a factor in the 2014 Tower Hamlets election. The evidence was an event at which a gathering of Imans and Scholars stated that it was the “Islamic duty of Muslim voters” to support Rahman. This was published widely in newspapers circulating in Mosques.
Rahman sought to contest this decision of the Court by Judicial Review but he did not proceeded.
This is a problem in which the law needs to be bought up to date and reflect contemporary circumstances to ensure that this does not occur in the future.
Candidates must have recourse to deal with threats and intimidation via social media and the legislative framework should recognise this and cover promotional and negative posts. There is a difference between saying a political party is incorrect or follows the wrong policies and sending deeply personal and threatening abuse to an individual candidate.
Finally, there is the use of false names to abuse opponents via facebook and twitter. In Tower Hamlets during the Rahman era there were numerous postings on social media being directed at local people from a long-term local resident and member of the Labour Party. By mistake the author was identified as a 20-year-old undergraduate, paid by the council to do work for Rahman, using a computer address from his University.
As I completed this article, I read Jon Moynihan’s masterful critique of the Electoral Commission. He is absolutely correct in identifying how the Electoral Commission makes law when none exists.
In 2019, whilst researching a potentially fraudulent voter, I was refused permission, for the first time, by the electoral registration officer to examine archive electoral registers. This change took place without consultation or an alteration to the law. Adrian Green of the Electoral Commission wrote to all local authorities saying that the law has remained “silent on what to do with electoral registers” and this has been unchallenged since 2001. He goes on to say:
“Unfortunately, the law is silent as to what is done with registers that are 2-10 years old. Because the law is silent on this, the Commission have interpreted that libraries and archive services may provide access to registers between 2 and 10 years old, but there is no duty for them to do so.”
So Adrian Green, whoever he might be, decides to change the law without recourse to parliament or even a consultation exercise. Needless to say he was supported by Robert Posner.
For two and half years the country was convulsed over the possibility of a second referendum on membership of the EU. Had such a referendum been called, the Electoral Commission would have played a major part in approving the question, the timetable and deciding who would be the representative body of each campaign. The decisions on this would have been made by a body chaired by Sir John Holmes, who was a fervent and public supporter of one side of the argument and involved a compliance officer who tweeted support for a political party and managed by the hopelessly compromised Robert Posner.
The lawyers would have made a fortune before the campaign even started.
A few years ago I was approached by colleague outside of London with concerns that there was a Birmingham/Tower Hamlets situation in his area. I arranged a meeting with the Electoral Commission. A well presented dossier was handed over but nothing happened.
In the notorious Tower Hamlets election of 2014, the Electoral Commission were repeatedly warned in writing about fraud, intimidation, false addresses, false returns of expenses and the certainty of a chaotic count due to the unsuitable venues and unique counting process. They ignored every single warning, concentrating on a “protocol” which was ignored by everybody concerned including ultimately, the Electoral Commission itself. After the election they never met the petitioners or made any attempt to attend the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee for our comments.
The Electoral Commission serves no useful purpose and must go.
I have proposed a reduced, renamed body which should exist only to record and publicise political donations to political parties. Jon Moynihan suggests Companies House. That is certainly a possibility.
The process of management of elections should be in the hands of Returning Officers and supervised by governmental departments which can be bought before select committees.
In line with recommendations by the Law Commission, election forms should be made easier and these should be produced by a government department, in line with legislation, as happened prior to the Electoral Commission.
Finally there should be a dedicated unit of trained officers at the National Crime Agency to investigate electoral fraud. One of the problems that has affected police investigations from Birmingham to Tower Hamlets is the lack of understanding by police officers as to how elections are conducted. One officer once wanted to interview me on an election day and could not understand why I would be busy. When I did meet him (three months later) he was more interested as to whether I was legally entitled to a copy of the electoral register than looking into the dubious entries that I had identified.
I am wrestling with three other problems where legislation will be difficult, which will be the basis of my next contribution.