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Tower Hamlets: The bogeyman of UK electoral reform

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

In the Second Reading of the Elections Bill on Tuesday 7 September 2021, the former Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, Chloe Smith MP, signalled the government’s intention to push forward with the impending legislation which will require those able to vote to present a valid form of photographic ID at a polling station. The rationale behind this requirement is that the government is concerned with what the minister in question put as “interlinked types of fraudulent criminality that are a very real threat to the integrity of our elections”.

However, this claim of widespread fraud simply isn’t supported by the evidence, with only three convictions of voter personation in the last seven years. But in order to humanise and give context to this apparent pervasive electoral fraud the government has chosen to highlight quite extensively a particular London Borough: Tower Hamlets. Chloe Smith, addressing the house, homed in on “the 2014 election scandal in Tower Hamlets, where the mayoral contest was declared void due to corrupt and illegal practices.” In this article we will look to investigate the malpractice that took place in Tower Hamlets, and if this specific case eight years ago is representative of the UK’s electoral system vulnerability to electoral fraud.

Pickle’s Review

The intellectual underpinning of this bill has been predicated on the much-cited 2015 Sir Eric Pickles’ review of electoral fraud. The review, like the government and the five interventions made by government backbenchers in the Second Reading, are consistent in their decision to focus on the Tower Hamlets case. The frequency at which it is mentioned signals that the government believes that this case encapsulates the deep-rooted problems at the heart of our electoral system and exposes the structural flaws within our democracy which must be ameliorated. The Tower Hamlets case runs like a thread throughout the review with the court judgement of Richard Mawrey QC being one of the key reference points. Evidence submitted to the review on polling stations focused on both the potential for committing fraud inside and recent instances of harassment of electors outside.

It raised concerns in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere regarding the running of election counts, and the need for clearer and robust guidance for Returning Officers and electoral administrators to ensure best practice in all election counts. The review rightly shines a light on these legitimate grievances around the conduct of those intimidating voters in the borough. Consequently, in 2015 the Department of Communities and Local Government appointed Commissioners to provide a space (Cordons Sanitaire) for electors to enter the polling station without being subject to being harangued by activists. Here is an example of electoral offences being committed, in this case the harassment of electors, and the government was able to rectify these illegalities whilst working within existing electoral law. This blueprint of the government identifying a legitimate problem within a small geographic area, and then solving it with a proportionate and informed policy solution is not only correct but to be encouraged.

Another, practical and positive step that led from the scrutiny of Tower Hamlets, though applicable nationally, was the costs associated with an election petition - they are widely considered a substantial barrier to access to justice. There was evidence submitted in the case that made the point that it was wrong that individuals should have to risk financial ruin to get an election investigated properly. Richard Mawrey QC, in his judgement relating to the 2014 Mayoral Election in Tower Hamlets, considered it “wholly unreasonable to leave it to defeated candidates or concerned electors... to undertake the arduous and extremely expensive task of bringing proceedings and pursuing them to a conclusion entirely at their own expense and with the risk of bankruptcy” Hence, the review recommended that political parties, with their vast resources, should instead be able to bring election petitions in the name of the party. Here is an example whereby the government recognising a gap in electoral law could introduce new legislation to ensure that those who are committing electoral offences are easier to hold to account. This again is an example of an evidence-based and proportionate response to a legitimate problem that protects our democracy.

Tower Hamlets in depth

From the outset it must be made clear that Tower Hamlets is historically one of the worst cases of electoral fraud in the UK. But it is important to note that both the problems of harassment of voters and the requirement for individuals to be financially burdened with election petitions are not exclusive to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. These electoral shortcomings are applicable on a national scale from Tadcaster to Taunton, but Tower Hamlets is consistently relied upon to be the bogeyman case study to expose electoral fraud. In part, this is due to the wealth of evidence accessible from the 2014 judgement of Richard Mawrey QC, but more pertinently it does seem that any electoral misgivings and flaws that are applicable everywhere else across the country are solely placed at the door of this one borough. This blame shifting cultivates fertile ground for the government to impose any Orwellian legislation it sees fit. Far from proportionate and evidence-based policy interventions like making polling stations safer, instead the government is knowingly pointing at Tower Hamlets as the epicentre of electoral fraud. The government, in effect, is offering the public a Hobsons Choice: either we introduce the legislation such as Voter ID because of places like Tower Hamlets or every local authority will become just another ‘Tower Hamlets.’

Erlam & Ors v Rahman & Anor

The election court case challenging the 2014 Tower Hamlets Mayoral Election (Erlam & Ors v Rahman & Anor) was brought about by four voters who petitioned former Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman. They mounted the legal challenge under the 1983 Representation of the People Act. Their lawyers made a series of allegations, including "personation" in postal voting and at polling stations and ballot paper tampering.

The Election Commissioner upheld a number of the allegations, including:

  • Voting fraud: ballots were double-cast or cast from false addresses.

  • False statements made against Mr Rahman's rival Mr Biggs.

  • Bribery: large amounts of money were given to organisations who were "totally ineligible or who failed to meet the threshold for eligibility".

  • Treating: providing free food and drink to encourage people to vote for Mr Rahman.

  • Spiritual influence: voters were told that it was their duty as Muslims to vote for Mr Rahman. Mr Mawrey cited a letter signed by 101 Imams in Bengali stating it was people's "religious duty" to vote.

It must be said that all these allegations that were upheld can be dealt with currently with existing electoral law and this case is testament to the veracity of the present legal framework. Voter ID and the imposition of it is designed to specifically tackle the issue of voter fraud and in particular voter personation (the act of a person impersonating another person at a polling station and effectively voting more than once). So, it is vitally important that we delve into the specifics of what voter personation took place in Tower Hamlets, how extensive it was and was it statistically significant to the electoral outcome. It is also integral that we determine what drove this electoral fraud and is this characteristic of other local authorities and their conduct in elections.

Let’s take the allegations and evidence of voter personation in Tower Hamlets as this is the lynchpin of the government’s agenda to convince the electorate that Voter ID is required because this fraudulent act is widespread. The verdict is clear, that though there was obvious evidence of postal voter fraud, the act of voter personation at polling stations which could be prevented by Voter ID was sparse with the number of apparent false registrations “certainly well under 100”. This is not to defend these illegal acts, but with the size of the electorate (86,540) in mind it makes that figure immaterial. So instead of a groundswell of voters aligned with Lutfur Rahman, it was as the court stated, carried out by “persons who are in law the agents of Mr Rahman”.

Ultimately, in terms of the big picture around general corruption, the judgement ruled “the scale of those offences capable of being proved to the satisfaction of this court was well below the level necessary to have affected the result. At most, only a few hundred dubious votes (possibly fewer) can be shown against Mr Rahman’s winning margin of over 3,000. Viewed in isolation, therefore, the facts do not establish general corruption in respect of personation or other voting offences.” Richard Mawrey QC goes on to state that “tt must be said that, in practice, where electoral malpractice is established, particularly in the field of vote-rigging, it is very rare indeed to find members of the general public engaging in DIY vote-rigging on behalf of a candidate. Generally speaking, if there is widespread personation or false registration or misuse of postal votes, it will have been organised by the candidate or by someone who is, in law, his agent.”

So although voter personation was proved irrefutably to be a requisite standard in the court ruling, the question remains, does this statistically insignificant case of electoral fraud in one mayoral election in a London borough justify the introduction of Voter ID - which could potentially disenfranchise millions. Richard Mawrey QC’s ruling proves beyond doubt that, yes, there was electoral fraud committed by Luthur Rahman and his election agents, but what it doesn’t do is prove that it’s an endemic problem specific to the borough or that there was general corruption. It states very clearly that despite this electoral fraud it had no bearing on the result, and most importantly it makes no broader judgement about voter impersonation being endemic in the electoral system and fails to recommend voter ID as a solution. But from the publication of The Pickle’s Review and the government’s rhetoric you would be led to believe that this is a watershed for electoral reform with Tower Hamlets acting as that sputnik moment for the integrity of UK wide elections.

So why has the Tower Hamlets case been focused on so heavily?

It cannot be ignored that with the largest Bangladeshi community in the country, with 33% of London’s 7.52 million British Bangladeshis, that this case has provoked reactionary elements and been the focal point of dog-whistle politicking. Richard Mawrey QC makes it very clear in his judgement that "this is not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the population, nor is it linked to any ascertainable pattern of social or other deprivation. It is the result of the ruthless ambition of one man." So, it does make you wonder why Tower Hamlets is so readily being used as a pawn in the government’s machinations. There is an argument to be made that the government cannot ignore that focusing on Tower Hamlets and its minority community will play out politically and will only serve to alienate this diaspora.

If you’re being told by The Pickles Review that “it is time to take action to take on the electoral crooks and defend Britain’s free and fair elections” and that Tower Hamlets and its Bangladeshi community are those said crooks, then it deliberately orchestrates a sense of us and them. Furthermore, this inflammatory language propagates that this particular London borough is alien and foreign to the rest of the electoral landscape. Consequently, UK elections are in need of ‘defending’ despite the report stating simultaneously that the UK “generally provides free and fair elections based on a system of trust and openness and inclusion.”

Lessons learnt

It is vital that we learn the lessons of Tower Hamlets as the government has time and again held up the borough as the paragon of bad practice despite the Electoral Commission giving the borough’s electoral system a gold-star rating for electoral integrity in its inspection reports. What is clear, is that the two reforms recommended safe spaces for voters casting their ballots and the cost of election petitions redirected to political parties were both attempting to solve issues which were deemed harmful to the democratic process. One was dealt with using existing legislation and the other with proposed new legislation, but what they both had in common was that once identified they were rectified by proportionate evidence-based policy responses.

On the contrary, the evidence of voter impersonation is extremely sparse and even in the much-publicised case of Tower Hamlets it was immaterial to the result; so much so, the judge ruled the electoral offences were as the result of “the ruthless ambition of one man”. So, though admittedly the disproportionate policy of the introduction of Voter ID would have solved the statistically insignificant number of fraudulent votes, it would not have solved the bribery, the Spiritual influence, the False statements, and the harassment of voters. But what it will certainly do is reduce election turnout and penalise millions of potential voters who do not have the means to access voter ID.

The case of Tower Hamlets should be rightly scrutinised, and policies formulated to rectify gaps in existing electoral law. But the decision to turn the case into a political football and use it to crystallise a perception of how pervasive electoral fraud is will only sow distrust in the political process and obstruct meaningful electoral reform.

Written by Adam Lloyd, Policy Officer


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