Political battle in Tower Hamlets sees police called amid claims of threats of violence

 

To Abjol Miah, the intense battle on polling day in the "politically hyperactive" Tower Hamlets area of east London is the sign of a healthy democracy. "Everyone wants to come out and vote. There is competition but people want ownership of the area's governance," he said.

Some might have thought the competition had gone a little too far , though, when police were called to intervene in an altercation between rival candidates and party activists amid allegations by a Green Party candidate that a rival supporter threatened to "punch his lights out".

Chris Smith, who is standing for the Greens in the London Assembly elections, said he was threatened after complaining about the other parties' activists handing out flyers at one of the busiest polling stations.

The area has gained a reputation in recent years as a hotbed of some of the darker electoral practices, with the Metropolitan Police launching an investigation into alleged electoral fraud during this election campaign. Residents told the Independent this week of their frustration at the ease with which the postal voting system could be hijacked. And an anonymous party activist admitted  that collecting postal ballots from the homes of voters - an illegal practice used to boost the vote in hard-fought constituencies - is commonplace. "Once one party has started it, what choice do the others have?" he asked.

While many of the smaller polling booths were quiet  afternoon, manned only by a single security officer from the council, a coterie of activists - mainly from the Labour, Respect, Liberal Democrat and Green parties - vied for the attention of a steady stream of voters at others, lining the streets outside.

Some voters leaving the polling stations said they found the experience intimidating. Sayeda Begum, 20, said: "they are all in your face as you come up the street, it is intimidating.

"If you come out of the house you have already decided how you are going to vote so I just tell them what they want to hear to shut them up."

Kunu Miah, 58, said he was pleased the police and council staff were there to keep order. "You never know how it is going to go when the different parties are campaigning on the street," he said.

Mr Miah added: "if you are going to have candidates walking around the we need police around; you don't know what could be next."

Tower Hamlets council has made cleaning up the election system a priority as reputation of the Borough - one of London's most financially impoverished - has worsened. Security staff man the stations, in some cases with police, to make sure the activists do not harass voters.

The council has begun electronically scanning each postal ballot and rejecting any with signatures which do not appear to match.

One activist for the Respect Party admitted that the Borough's reputation could make it more difficult to canvass but said he believed media reports had picked up on negative stories and insisted that people were keen to engage.

"Here you have to be seen in the community more than in other places, you have to become very well known and it is a case of building up loyalty over a long time," said Green candidate Alan Duffell, who added: "I think (the reputation) drags down people's motivation to vote but, now that there are police around, maybe people will think it is safe to come out without being harassed."

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