Conservative Diary

« Ed Balls' anti-marriage message is killing Brown's relationship with Paul Dacre | Main | Targeting alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour, supporting people who "do the right thing" and reducing police paperwork all feature in the crime chapter of the draft manifesto »

The corruption of voting under Labour is a national scandal: an incoming Conservative government must act quickly to stamp out electoral fraud

In the second of a short series highlighting issues which need early and urgent attention from an incoming Conservative Government (the first related to redrawing constituency boundaries), ConservativeHome Contributing Editor Paul Goodman considers the urgent need to reduce the scope for electoral fraud.

GOODMAN PAUL FACE When Judge Richard Mawrey tongue-lashed a level of organised fraud “that would disgrace a banana republic”, which country was he describing?  Armenia?  Iran?  Afghanistan?

Answer: none of the above.  He was referring to Britain.  The authorities, he said, were in “a state not simply of complacency, but of denial…The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud.”  Until the system was tightened up, he said, “fraud will continue unabated”.

The corruption of voting under Labour is a national scandal – one of the greatest since 1997.  It’s been grievously under-reported.  Why was it allowed to happen here - where our ancestors campaigned, marched, protested and rioted for the right to vote in fair and free elections?  How did one of the best systems in the world become tainted with some of the worst practices of the Indian subcontinent?

The explanation begins with a single figure – 71 per cent.  This was the turnout in the 1997 general election – down from 78 per cent in 1992.  A small point in passing: that turnout fell rather than rose in 1997 gives the lie to the legend that Blair was first swept into Downing Street on a high tide of public enthusiasm. Ministers’ response to the turnout fall was roughly as follows: This is deeply worrying.  Turnout must rise.  How?  Simple.  Voting must be made more accessible.  Voting must be made more relevant.  Voting must be made more exciting.”

One would have thought that a better way of boosting turnout would be for political parties convincingly to offer voters policies that they actually want.  But I digress.  The course that Ministers chose instead has, as so often, been magisterially described by Dan Hannan:

“For ten years, Ministers have made voting progressively more convenient.  They have introduced postal votes, telephone votes and e-votes.  They have placed polling stations in supermarkets.  They have sought to enfranchise felons, lunatics and foreigners.”

Dan also referred to the floated possibility of weekend elections and votes for 16 year olds.  He might have added the “rewards for voting” package punted by Hazel Blears – such as private gym subscriptions, large plasma TVs and (notoriously) doughnuts for early voters. “Yet”, as Dan concluded, “the only people whom Ministers have succeeded in encouraging are fraudsters.”

This is the crux of the matter.  Any reasonable person should favour accessibility and relevance (when established), not to mention excitement.  But not at the expense of the integrity of the voting system – which has been seriously compromised since 1997.  Convictions for fraud have risen in number and, so to speak, in nature.

Put aside, for a moment, the whole e-voting and e-counting debate.  (There were problems with scanners in the 2000 London Mayoral election and the 2007 Scottish elections.)  The key change was the introduction of postal voting on demand in the Representation of the People Act 2000.

Without this loosening-down of the system, set against the background of no identification of voters when registration takes place, Judge Mawrey wouldn’t have uttered the words I quoted earlier.  He did so in 2005 when sentencing six Labour members found guilty of tampering with perhaps thousands of postal votes in Birmingham.  (In fairness, Conservatives have also been guilty, as we’ll see later.)

Judge Mawrey also slammed the police’s lack of knowledge of electoral law; the inability of Returning Officers to investigate fraud, since they’d no powers to do so; defective procedures for registering voters; provision for ballots to be sent to addresses different from the registered voter; the lack of means of verifying the name, address and signatures of the witness, and the absence of legislation regarding the handling of postal ballots by third parties.  “Short of writing STEAL ME on the envelopes,” he said, “it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands.”  (Can’t this guy be shoehorned into the Supreme Court?)

“Ah,” you may object.  “This is all very well.  But the Birmingham case was before the Electoral Administration Act of 2006, which tightened up the system.  Above all, it required people to supply both date of birth and signature when applying for postal votes and when completing them.  Problem solved.”

Not so.  Judge Mawrey was back in 2008, commenting on the conviction of a Conservative Councillor found guilty of using bogus postal votes to win election.  “Despite the 2006 Act,” the judge said, “the opportunities for easy and effective electoral fraud remain substantially as they were [in] 2005.”  Perhaps the Daily Mail will see if he’s right, if it’s willing to run risks with the law.  In 2004, it registered a fictitious voter on 31 electoral registers, and obtained nine bogus votes in a single constituency.  The alleged voter’s name was Gus Troobev (Work it out for yourself).

Furthermore, there are concerns about the coming general election.  The Electoral Commission warned of the dangers of fraud as recently as last Thursday, worrying away also about the lack of experience of some election agents and the security of some ballot boxes while stowed away for Friday counting.  (A boost for Jonathan’s Save General Election Night campaign.)  The Council of Europe has warned of “vulnerabilities” which “could easily affect the overall democratic nature of future elections in Great Britain”.

Three big points emerge from all this.

First, electoral fraud has had a specific link to Pakistan and Bangladesh.  This isn’t simply my view.  It’s the take of that well-known reactionary think-tank, the Joseph Rowntree Trust (which has done sterling work on this issue).  In the sober words of its 2008 report, “The purity of elections in the UK: causes for concern”, it writes:

“Numerous convictions for election fraud since 2000 have concerned postal and proxy ballot fraud in specific inner urban wards, where a large concentration of voters originate from the Indian subcontinent”. 

As Tony Wright, an independently-minded Labour MP, has pointed out, this represents “importing cultural practices from one place to another”.  I suspect that even now many people are studying closely the number of people registered to vote this year in seats where lots of voters originate from the sub-continent.

Second, Ministers haven’t rushed eagerly to clean up the system which they were responsible for corrupting in the first place.  Rather, they reluctantly coughed up the better parts of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 after pressure from the Electoral Commission and from us.

Third, reform to date has been necessary but insufficient.  So what should happen next?  I suppose it depends on how you believe elections in Britain should take place.  There are essentially two different visions.

One is what could be called the consumer model of voting.  Let’s brand it the Ocado model.  Essentially, the system comes to the voter, rather like home delivery shopping.  Under it, registering and especially voting are made as convenient as possible.  Postal voting abounds.  So does e-voting and phone voting.  Polling stations are brought to supermarkets.

The other is what could be called the civic duty model of voting.  Let’s label it the Remembrance Sunday model.  In other words, voting isn’t compulsory (any more than attendance on Remembrance Sunday is) but, like that day, it has a corporate character, and is one of the ties that bind us together.  In short, the voter accommodates himself or herself to the system.  Postal voting is restricted.  E-voting is treated with suspicion.  General Election night is saved.

Each reader will have his preference.  Mine, unhesitatingly, is for the civic model.  I wouldn’t go as far as Dan, who headed his piece “Why voting should be made harder, not easier” (and cites approvingly the practice abroad of dipping voters’ thumbs in indelible ink), but believe the following measures to be well worth pursuing if we win the coming election:

  • Speeding up individual voter registration with personal identifiers.  These identifiers are signature, date of birth, national insurance number.  The 2009 Act permits the inclusion of additional identifying information on a voluntary basis.  Consideration should be given to making the provision of at last some of this information compulsory.
  • Ensuring that voters provide proof of identity when voting at the ballot box (as in Northern Ireland).
  • Returning postal voting to the status quo ante 1997.
  • Placing the requirement to check all postal ballots on the stature book.
  • Putting the voluntary code of practice for the distribution of postal ballots by members of political parties on the statute book with penalties for breaches of the code.
  • Introducing a six month gap between legislation and any election affected by it.
  • The identification of dedicated support officers by Police forces.

Readers will have their own ideas.  The Party’s committed to introducing individual voter registration (and has made the case in Parliament for proof of identity at the polls).  I wrote recently about the need for a Conservative Government to move very early to reduce the number of seats

But the need to clean up the state of voting is more urgent than the need to cut the size of the Commons.  It requires a bill in the first Queen’s Speech.

Oh, and readers will be wondering how Labour got on with increasing turnout.  It nudged up in the 2005 election from 59 to 61 per cent. As for warnings of fraud claims and counter-claims after the coming election, please remember: you read them here first.

Paul Goodman


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.