The Spectator

Shades of Zimbabwe

Everybody wants a higher turnout but postal voting is not safe

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When Richard Mawrey QC, who presided over the inquiry into electoral fraud in Birmingham, said the tactics used in the episode would ‘disgrace a banana republic’ he was, if anything, understating his case. It was shocking enough that six men, all of whom were subsequently elected councillors, were found to have committed electoral offences so grave that they have been disqualified and barred from standing for election. It was shocking enough that three of them should have set up a ‘vote-rigging factory’ where they doctored hundreds, and possibly thousands, of postal votes (the men were caught red-handed, yet preposterously protested after their punishment that what had happened to them constituted ‘a dark day for democracy’). But it is most shocking of all that, in the authorities’ attempts to expose this fraud, they were obstructed at every turn by the Labour party. This prehistoric act of electoral malpractice was therefore sanctioned by a party about to campaign in a general election on ‘trust’ and in which, alarmingly, anything up to 15 per cent of the votes will be cast by post.

Mr Mawrey’s anger is all the more understandable when one takes into account the reaction of the obviously embarrassed governing party. Ministers have attacked doubts about the security of the postal voting system as ‘scaremongering’, and the Prime Minister and his colleagues openly encourage people to use it in order to improve turnout, especially of Labour voters. Two things should, above all, be clear after this appalling case: that postal voting is not safe, and that anyone who uses it is inviting either the loss of their vote altogether, or its interception and doctoring so that support is switched to another party. The implications for the forthcoming elections are, indeed, salutary. As Mr Mawrey pointed out, the government’s attitude to the problem of postal vote fraud is to pretend it doesn’t exist. This is an old tactic of the government when it does something downright dishonest or condones something downright outrageous, but it cannot be allowed to continue. Yet the fact remains that this turpitude gives the strongest indication, at the start of the campaign, of the ethics of a party aiming to win a third term, and of just how trustworthy — or otherwise — it is.

Although Mr Blair was shamed into announcing some half-hearted emergency measures, it is too late now to alter the system for an election just four weeks away, which is all the more distressing given the huge weight of people planning to vote by post. Everybody wants a higher turnout; but unless someone is genuinely absent from home, or so severely ill or disabled that physically reaching a polling station is impossible, a postal vote should simply not be an option. In the imminent contest, the other main parties will have to be vigilant against Labour’s secret vice of trying to rig ballots by stealing postal votes and doctoring them. The police too — who were scandalously unconcerned about the Birmingham fraud — must treat any complaint with the utmost seriousness. So too must returning officers — unlike the one in Birmingham, who was described by Mr Mawrey as having ‘thrown the rule book out of the window’. There is a real risk, though, that some results in the forthcoming election will end up being settled in court. That is all thanks to an endemic culture within Labour that turns a blind eye to cheating, bends rules and constitutions, and fails whenever necessary to make any distinction between right and wrong.

In the event of Mr Blair being returned to office, he too would be wise to have the humility to draw certain lessons from this debacle. One is that the politicisation of the Civil Service and the fear in which officials live of gainsaying their political bosses have to be reversed. It is hard to believe that, in the age before New Labour, officials would ever have allowed such a flawed system as this to be instituted. Indeed, Mr Mawrey sets an example to public servants of the importance of telling the emperor when he has no clothes. Another concerns the champion of the postal voting system, his Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Mr Prescott has exhibited utter complacency about the system he has been so anxious to promote. As such, he has completed his transformation from lovable oaf to downright liability; and it is yet another example of his inability to master a brief and the consequences of policy — a personal catastrophe to rival the failure of his obsession with creating regional assemblies. He has surely outstayed his welcome at the Cabinet table.

Democracy is a means by which we secure our freedom in this country; and freedom is essential to us and our way of life. Labour has been caught in the act of undermining democracy, both by perpetrating this fraud and, at a higher level, trying to cover it up and prevent the inquiry into it. Mr Mawrey has bravely illustrated this failing in a way that leaves no doubt about its gravity — bravely because his own promotion prospects will need to be watched carefully if Labour is returned to power. The seriousness of this offence cannot be overstated at this sensitive time. Above all, though, electors should be grateful to the riggers of Birmingham for showing them so clearly what Labour is really like, and what sort of stewardship of our democracy we can continue to expect if the party is given its undeserved third term.