At one o’clock in the morning of 9 June last year, two days before the local council elections, Police Sergeant John Rattenberry of Erdington police station, Birmingham, was called to investigate something strange going on inside a warehouse. Here’s what he witnessed, in his own words:
‘I entered the first floor of the warehouse and went into a room where I saw approximately five Asian males along with four police officers. I could see a large table on which there were a lot of miscellaneous papers and A5 unsealed envelopes. I could see that the envelopes contained several pieces of paper including marked ballot papers. I was informed by a Mr Zulfikar Khan, who identified himself as a Labour councillor, that the numbers on these documents were being matched up and that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing.’
Sergeant Rattenberry mulled this over for a bit and decided he wasn’t so sure. The transcript above comes from his appearance before an election court in Birmingham, which is investigating alleged systematic electoral fraud perpetrated by the Labour party on what we might call an industrial scale. It is alleged that of the 7,000 postal votes cast in Bordesley Green ward, some 3,000 were stolen or altered or falsified: Labour subsequently or consequently won all three seats.
Judge Richard Mawrey QC heard the last of the evidence this week and has already denounced the postal system as an ‘open invitation to fraud’. He will deliver his judgment on 4 April: six Labour councillors from two wards in the city could be disbarred and the elections deemed null and void. The court was convened through a petition from four local electors and has heard tell of residents bribed or threatened with knee-cappings to hand over their ballot papers; on two occasions Royal Mail postmen were at first offered bribes and then threatened with violence to part with their sacks of ballot papers, which they refused to do. ‘There were a lot of other unsubstantiated incidents as well,’ a Royal Mail spokesman told me. There have been reports of thugs in balaclavas, letterboxes and postboxes set on fire, sundry intimidations. Three ‘unexplained’ ballot boxes containing 300 papers turned up late at the count on election night in Bordesley Green. Elsewhere within the city, there were stories of ballot papers being dragged from safe houses to the count in black plastic binliners.
The most fun, though, has been the story of the five Asian men — at least two of whom were indeed prospective and now sitting Labour councillors — found in a warehouse with 300 or so ballot papers spread out on the table before them at one o’clock in the morning two days before the poll. Sergeant Rattenberry ordered that an immediate dip sample vote be taken, there and then, and charged two of his officers with the task of contacting the name on the sample ballot paper. It may be that the court concludes that the police were a little naive, to judge from what happened next:
Mawrey: Did you warn this chap you were going round or did you bang on his door at 1.30 in the morning and say, ‘Is this your vote?’
Policeman: Unfortunately, sir, that is what I was directed to do.
Mawrey: I am just anxious to get a flavour of it. So, you go round to this address, you knock on the door. Did you get any impression that the person who answered the door was expecting you?
Policeman: He would not have been expecting me, I would not have thought.
Mawrey: Unless of course somebody phoned him saying, ‘By the way, the police are coming round to see you.’
Policeman: He was up. I remember that.
Mawrey: Fully dressed?
Or even worse than naive: perhaps even dilatory. When the complaints flooded in after election night, West Midlands Police wearily set about ‘investigating’ the business. You may choose to judge their commitment to the process, and their view of the complainants, by the official name they gave the inquiry: Operation Gripe. In fact, perhaps the most worrying thing, aside from the threatened knee-cappings and so on, is the apparent level of obstruction placed in the way of those who have attempted to investigate past misdemeanours and prevent them happening again this May.
John Hemming is the Liberal Democrat deputy leader of Birmingham City Council and therefore, you might expect, well placed to gain access to pretty much whatever information he wants. However, he has been obstructed at almost every stage by the returning officer’s department. Huge, sardonic and affable (he will most likely be a Lib Dem MP come 6 May), he has spent countless hours poring over the court transcripts and following up allegations. I padded along behind him as he attempted to view the relevant postal voter lists in the Electoral Registration Office — he didn’t have much luck, despite being armed with multiple letters attesting to his rights. After much negotiation, it was revealed that they ‘didn’t have’ the lists he wanted. But he’ll be back. You would forgive him for becoming suspicious at the somewhat defensive posture of the returning officer, Lin Homer — and indeed, he has threatened her and her department with a judicial review.
‘There’s been jiggery-pokery going on for years,’ he told me. Hemming reckons that there was Labour-instigated fraud in 15 to 20 of the council wards. And much, much more in cities up and down the country.
‘How many cities?’ I asked him.
‘How many cities are there? It is inconceivable that Labour, nationally, does not know about it.’
The process for investigating such criminal malpractice is expensive, time-consuming and complex, which is why only two wards have been the subject of petitions this time around. He has the air of a harassed man, Mr Hemming. Why bother with all this haring around after voter lists, why bother with his ‘stolenvotes’ website and his petitions? There’s not much party or personal advantage to be gained.
‘I want the law back in our electoral system. People do not realise how important it is, how damaging corruption can be.’
There is a certain demographic pattern emerging in the places where electoral fraud has been proved to have taken place, or where investigations are pending: Birmingham, Bradford, Burnley, Oldham, Blackburn. And there is a certain demographic pattern emerging in the names against whom the allegations are made: Khan, Islam, Hussein and so on. Hemming reckons that this is simply because first-generation immigrants are rather more easily gulled by dishonest politicians than the rest of us might be — and the candidates in those areas tend to be of Asian provenance. ‘If you tell a first-generation immigrant that they’ll be fined £7,000 if they don’t hand over their ballot paper, then they are likely to hand it over. We need to provide education.’
Maybe. Certainly the Electoral Reform Society agrees. ‘A lot of ethnic minorities simply believe what they’re told by unscrupulous people. This is especially the case when they don’t have a great command of the English language,’ its spokesperson, Alex Folkes, told me. Like Hemming, his society is opposed to extending postal voting until the proper safeguards are put in place; individual registration of postal voters with either a numerical identifier (date of birth, say) or the means of checking the signature. ‘And candidates must not handle ballot papers,’ he adds — unnecessarily, you might think. More pertinently, Folkes argues that there should be someone charged with policing the postal ballot — and it should be the returning officer. ‘But only if they have enough resources. At the moment, they canno t possibly do the job.’
Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission wants a new offence of intending falsely to apply for a proxy vote. Both it and the Electoral Reform Society will be watching what happens in May this year. Meanwhile Judge Mawrey will deliver his observations on the very day Labour is expected to call a general election. Mawrey has already said that he will address the flaws of the postal voting system: the Birmingham Evening Post has called the confluence of events a ‘time bomb’ for the government.
But the government has proved impervious to warnings about fraudulent practice at the ballot box. Its latest statement runs as follows: ‘There are no proposals to change the rules governing election procedures for the next election, including those for postal voting. The systems already in place to deal with the allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working.’
A cynic, I suppose, might suggest that Labour’s apparent lack of concern about the sort of chicanery that seems to have taken place in Birmingham is predicated on the fact that it is the chief — indeed, pretty much the sole — beneficiary of the fraud. It is certainly very well aware of the extent to which it benefits from postal votes: the latest handbook for Labour party activists, entitled ‘Operation Third Term’, states the following: ‘Labour supporters with a postal vote are four times more likely to vote than Labour supporters without a postal vote. Therefore encouraging our supporters to take up the option of postal voting is vital.’
In Birmingham it is beginning to look as if the activists and possibly the candidates themselves have been a little over-eager in the matter of ‘encouraging’ voters. And a little too, shall we say, involved and proactive.