One of the most controversial councils in the country is facing an investigation by the Electoral Commission, after a local election vote count was finally competed Tower Hamlets in east London after five days of delays.
Local Conservative and Labour politicians claimed to have witnessed heavy-handed tactics and intimidation at polling stations in the borough, which only declared its full results on Tuesday evening – with two final seats in Bromley South going to the Labour party, making it the largest party on the council.
The attack on the “rotten borough” was led by Peter Golds, leader of the Conservative group at the council, who told The Independent that Tower Hamlets had been the stage for “third-world village politics”.
Mr Golds claimed he had witnessed crowds of supporters from the Tower Hamlets First party – founded by the local mayor Lutfur Rahman – shouting at voters and leaving leaflets inside polling booths, in the culmination of what he called a “vicious dirty tricks campaign”.
Tower Hamlets, which sits between the financial centres of the City and Canary Wharf, has been the scene of fractious election disputes since Mr Rahman swept to power in 2010 and formed a cabinet made up entirely of Bangladeshi Muslims. His party has won 18 seats in last week’s local election, but Labour’s success on Tuesday in the Bromley Wards means the party has 20 seats in total.
“It’s easy to be attacked as Islamophobic for making this point,” said Mr Golds. “But the intimidation at polling stations across this borough was appalling. There were four Bangladeshi men outside my polling station, all from Tower Hamlets First, and as you walked in there 11 people inside the polling station and they would pounce on you with a fake polling card in your face, calling on you to vote for Mr Rahman.”
According to Mr Golds, the Tower Hamlets First party has played on the “failure of integration” and “lack of community cohesion”, arguing it struggles to represent anybody outside the Bangladeshi community, in an area with the second-highest unemployment rate in the capital. “It’s a tragedy,” he said. “Tower Hamlets is within looking distance of the fourth-biggest financial centre on the face of this planet, but we have this terrible split in the community.”
The defeated Labour mayoral challenger John Biggs told The Independent the campaign in the area had been “asymmetric warfare”, fought in a “culture of intimidation” and that the major parties had faced challengers who were “not particularly democratic”.
Last Thursday’s local election count was suspended at 3am on Saturday after the processing of ballots for the borough’s mayoral election, won by incumbent Mr Rahman, ran over. Counting of the final ward’s votes only resumed on Tuesday night after two recounts and delays due to additional security checks.
Labour's Mr Biggs said, “I’m sure many members of the public will be making accusations to the Electoral Commission over crowds outside polling stations, the conduct of people within the polluting stations, allegations that people turned up to vote only to be told they’d already voted and continued rumours of irregularities around postal votes.
“It saddens me to hear the place I love described as a Rotten Borough… Tower Hamlets First is overwhelming an ethnically based party and the passion for the political in the Bangladeshi community is impressive, but I guess people are being led in a direction which is making them very inward looking.”
Sources close to Tower Hamlets Labour Party said it was considering its options with regards to making a formal complaint, while another local source blamed the count “shambles” on the “council’s inability to attract the serious officers it needs to run an election during a time that senior managers are leaving the council in flight.”
For his part Mr Golds said that it was telling that Mr Rahman “could not get any of his four white candidates elected” in the area, saying that Tower Hamlets First's 17 male and one female “Bangladeshi councillors” were not “representative of the 66 per cent of this borough which isn’t Bangladeshi or the 52 per cent of this borough which is female”. He added: “I’m a gay Jew from the East End, so I don’t think they can describe me as xenophobic for saying that.”
However, the claims from Labour and Conservative politicians were dismissed as “mudslinging” by one council insider.
Tower Hamlets First did not respond to the Independent, but Azad Ali, from the nearby East London Mosque and a long-time supporter of mayor Rahman, said claims of a Bangladeshi dominance were untrue, “as black, white, Asian, Arabs, Christians, Muslims and those of no faith voted for Lutfur Rahman”.
Security was tight at Tower Hamlets council offices on Tuesday, where the returning officer John Williams said the borough had the most stringent set of measures across London to combat electoral fraud, including police at every polling station. “We’ve received fewer complaints of aggressive campaigning than during previous elections. However, if people do have evidence of intimidation, we want to hear that and the police will investigate,” he said.
The Metropolitan Police Service confirmed there had been a “small number of reports of aggressive campaigning” but that “no arrests had been made”.
But the Electoral Commission said that “clearly there have been issues at Tower Hamlets counts” and that an investigation would take place, adding that “everyone should be able to vote free from intimidation”.