|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Not so democratic
Banana Republic UK? Vote rigging, fraud and error in British elections since 2001
By Sam Buckley
Published by Createspace, USA, 2011, £5-80
Reviewed by Jon Redford
SAM BUCKLEY draws up damning allegations: stolen votes, counts which are impossible to verify, hundreds of votes by non-existent people, and a situation where only the wealthy or the party machines can bring election petitions. If we tolerate this, Buckley concludes, "we are a servile people and our freedom hangs in the balance".
The 1999 Howarth report looked into declining voter participation (71% in 1997) – although it fell to 59% in 2001, 65% in 2010. The outcome, the Representation of the People Act 2000, opened the floodgates for postal vote applications on demand. When these provisions came into force in 2001, fraud rose across the country. Although it took place, ‘harvesting’ the postal votes of vulnerable people by vote-riggers was a lot harder prior to 2001. A postal vote can be sent to any address, and the fact that it needs to be signed is a very weak safeguard if the initial application was fraudulent, even if a specimen signature is held by election staff. Applications made close to the deadline for registration leave very little time for staff to assess their validity.
Until 2009, very little independent verification was required for someone to be added to the electoral register. This allowed ‘ghost voters’ to be registered. Previously, an individual would have to impersonate a voter at a polling station, which was much harder than filling in and sending off a form. The Electoral Commission made recommendations in 2003 that voter registration should be done on an individual rather than household basis, and that the collection of postal votes by third parties should be prevented. The New Labour government ignored these recommendations.
Elections in Birmingham Bordesley Green and Aston wards in 2004 were referred to an election court – New Labour activists had been found in a warehouse filling in hundreds of blank ballots or altering completed ones. Mr Justice Mawrey concluded: "I found there was reason to believe that corrupt practices extensively prevailed… throughout the area of Birmingham city council".
Fraudulent postal applications in Birmingham led to hundreds of people being turned away from polling stations on election day. The sheer bulk of postal ballots and inadequate staffing meant that the procedures established in 2001 for handling these votes were not followed, leaving no paper trail.
The government downplayed the issue. Peter Hain, then leader of the House of Commons, argued that the proportion of votes involved in the fraud were trivial. Buckley comments: "The party’s real attitude is shown by the fact that none of the Labour activists and councillors involved were expelled from the Labour party... the message sent to vote-riggers by parties that don’t expel members for it is, ‘don’t get caught’."
Craig Murray, ex-British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who ran against then foreign secretary Jack Straw in Blackburn to protest against the Iraq war, complained that Straw was treating community leaders to grand banquets to solicit votes. The Crown Prosecution Service did not pursue this allegation – "outlawed by the Great Reform Act of 1832 and gradually stamped out over the years" – because it regarded it as "trivial".
Complaints over the conduct of an election can be brought to an election court if at least four voters from the ward or the candidate lodge a petition within 21 days of the (council) election. The petitioners must provide the evidence and witnesses and pay £450 as well as a £2,500 security deposit. On top of this there are legal fees and the possibility of being ordered to pay the costs of the defendant.
The petitioner needs to demonstrate that the alleged breach of electoral law affected the outcome of the election; merely demonstrating that it took place is not enough. Ironically, a complaint that voters were excluded from the electoral register will not be upheld as they are not considered to be voters in that area! Legal aid, which is being cut further by the Con-Dem government, was refused in 2005 for an election petition brought by Respect. Challenging an election, therefore, is something reserved for those with significant financial means.
Electronic counting pilots took place in six councils in 2007. In South Buckinghamshire, the equipment was provided by Election Systems and Software, a company whose ‘votomatic’ punch-card system used in the US, Venezuela and Philippines came under heavy criticism for the ease with which it could be manipulated. In three of the pilots the systems failed and votes had to be counted manually.
A manual recount in Dereham-Humbletoft ward, Norfolk, revealed that 56.1% of votes had been missed by the e-count system! Blemishes and marks on ballot papers were picked up by the scanners and counted as votes or spoiled ballots. E-counting is to be used in the 2012 Greater London Authority elections.
The Electoral Administration Act 2006 did make some changes. Voters can now challenge false registrations, and returning officers have the power to remove ineligible entries on the register, although this could be open to abuse. The act makes it a criminal offence to apply for a postal vote on behalf of another individual without their knowledge, or to steal a postal vote. Signature and date-of-birth checks were introduced. Nonetheless, they would not have prevented the theft of postal ballot papers in Birmingham.
Since the Electoral Administration Act came into being, the registration of ghost voters has been revealed in Slough, and was only discovered because of the incompetence of the (Tory) vote-riggers. Mawrey commented: "I have been appalled by the ease with which these substantial frauds were committed".
The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which was not in force at the 2010 general election, made it a requirement when applying for electoral registration to provide a national insurance number. Its provisions are voluntary until 2015. It will go some way towards cutting out ghost voters. Yet postal votes can still be subject to manipulation, intimidation and pressures by family members, landlords, employers, party activists and so on.
The general election suffered from under-staffing at polling stations, leading to voters being turned away at 10pm after queuing for hours. Late postal vote registrations were high, particularly so in a number of marginal seats. According to Buckley, "not more than one per cent of postal votes cast needed to be fraudulent to rig the whole election – just so long as they were in the right place".
Rising abstention rates in elections cannot be addressed fundamentally by technical fixes to the current electoral system. The absence of a mass workers’ party holds back genuine working-class political representation. Many hurdles are put in the way of working-class people. Standing candidates with all the imbalance of time, money and media exposure, is very difficult. The hypocrisy, too, is blinding. In 2009, a court injunction prevented British Airways staff from striking due to minor ballot irregularities. Buckley points out: "If governments and local authorities were held to the same standard as trades unions it is unlikely that any election would ever be declared valid".
Buckley’s recommendations to end postal votes on demand, remote voting and e-counting, and to reform election petition applications, make a lot of sense. Other measures spring to mind, such as properly staffed counts, with decent breaks and a longer counting period to avoid human error. Making elections a public holiday would probably increase voter turnout. However, such measures would simply make a bad situation a little less bad.
In fact, attempts to reform the system could even strengthen the main capitalist parties. The Tories have proposed bringing forward plans to shift voter registration from households to individuals. This would require individuals to register themselves and provide a date of birth and national insurance number. This would reduce ghost voters. It would also cut voter registration by an estimated ten million, mainly in inner-city areas. Such a change, therefore, while on the face of it correct, would strengthen traditionally Tory areas over more deprived inner cities, further disenfranchising a whole layer.
The main issue for working-class people is the lack of a party worth voting for, although the existence of a new mass workers’ party would not in and of itself solve all the problems. Under capitalism, the working class and poor are excluded from any real say in the running of society. Until democratic workers’ control and management is held over the economy, by replacing the capitalist system with a socialist one, we will not be able to speak genuinely about a democratic system in Britain or anywhere else.