It’s nine years now since a deputy High Court judge, Richard Mawrey, ordered new elections in two council wards in Birmingham after finding “electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”. One consequence was a rather leisurely attempt to tighten procedures for postal voting. The reported goings-on in the London borough of Tower Hamlets this time round suggest that not enough has changed.
Among the allegations are intimidation of voters outside and inside polling stations; leaflets inside voting booths; disorder and discrepancies at the count. All this – even though problems were anticipated and police posted at polling stations.
We are far too complacent in this country about the integrity of our elections. We still regard the UK as a model democracy with a mission to teach others how to do it. An inquiry has been announced into the vote at Tower Hamlets (with the non-urgent gentility that characterises the Electoral Commission). But what is beyond dispute is that the count was suspended at least twice in the early hours of the morning; and the last results were declared a full five days after the election. To paraphrase Stalin, it’s not who does the voting, but who does the counting, that matters.
Peter Golds, leader of the Tory group, spoke of “third-world village politics”. A clean election is a pre-condition for any democracy worth the name. If Tower Hamlets were a school or a hospital, it would be put into “special measures” and run from Whitehall until it shaped up. All results in Tower Hamlets should be cancelled; the electoral register verified, house by house if necessary; and the elections re-run.
If no one turns up, direct rule goes on until an election can be held that reflects the best of British rather than the worst of Bangladesh. And when, as happened this week, an ex-adviser to Lutfur Rahman, the borough’s re-elected mayor, warns of riots if the results are not allowed to stand, concerns about what has been going on in Tower Hamlets are only reinforced.