Older readers will remember how that brilliantly successful organisation, the Metropolitan Police, satisfied itself that no widespread phone-hacking could possibly have occurred at the News of the World. They simply refused to investigate seriously, doing just enough to enable them to claim that they had looked into it but failing to follow obvious leads and neglecting to interview key witnesses.
It looks like something similar is now happening in respect of persistent allegations of postal vote fraud in Tower Hamlets, run by the extremist-linked mayor, Lutfur Rahman (above). At every major election in the borough in the last eight years, including before Lutfur took power, well-documented allegations of fraud have been made by very large numbers of people: many journalists (including me) and dozens of councillors from all parties (including some who now support Rahman). I myself have spoken on the record to plenty of victims, all named in my various stories. The response of the police has nearly always been the same – inadequate investigations followed by a clean bill of health.
Today the Electoral Commission publishes its report into the dozens of allegations of postal vote fraud and irregularity, some made by me, at the April 19 2012 byelection in Tower Hamlets’ Spitalfields ward, only a fortnight before the mayoral election in May. And the pattern of previous inadequate investigation appears to be repeating itself.
The byelection was narrowly won by Lutfur’s candidate (and former election agent and paid Tower Hall adviser) Gulam Robbani, a man with close connections to Lutfur’s extremist backers at the East London Mosque and no stranger to questionable paperwork (Freedom of Information requests show that Robbani appears to have massively overcharged the taxpayer for his Town Hall services.)
Here are some interesting facts about the Lutfur man’s win. Despite heavy rain throughout polling day, turnout (31 per cent) was extremely high for a council byelection (the previous byelection in the same ward, sixteen months before, had seen a turnout of 17 per cent). Only 14 per cent of people in Tower Hamlets at the time had postal votes – but 36 per cent of the votes cast at the Spitalfields byelection were postal. And that’s after 135 postal ballot papers were rejected by the counters, mainly because of doubts over their authenticity. Robbani’s margin of victory, by the way, was 43 votes.
Allegations of postal vote fraud and irregularity centred on, among other places, a council block called Brune House, in Bell Lane. In the two weeks between March 16 and April 4 (the deadline for registering for the byelection) the number of postal voters in this property more than doubled, from 34 to 71. Fifty-five of those 71 postal votes were actually cast in the byelection – a turnout of 77 per cent. How did this run-down block turn into such a beacon of electoral participation and political involvement? Through a practice known as “vote-harvesting.”
I went from door to door in Brune House on polling day. The son of a resident in the block told me: “My mother normally votes down at the polling station but Gulam Robbani supporters came and got my mother to sign up for a postal vote. After the ballot paper arrived, this girl came into my mum’s house and asked her to hand it over. I was there at the time and saw it. Another guy came into the house too and they walked out with my mum’s blank ballot paper. My mum doesn’t speak English, she has no idea she’s not supposed to give her vote.”
A second voter in Brune House, Husneara Khanam, said that Mr Robbani’s workers had collected her and her husband’s vote. Another resident took a picture, which I have, of one of Mr Rahman’s councillors, Aminur Khan, holding a sheaf of papers which the resident said were ballot papers, collected from Brune House voters. Brune House that day also contained several of the Tower Hamlets election “usual suspects,” such as the small flat which supposedly contained eight adults, all of whom had recently applied for postal votes.
Mr Khan categorically denied that he had been involved in collecting any ballot papers. Despite my repeated attempts to contact him, Gulam Robbani refused to comment.
Now the Electoral Commission report reveals the outcome of police investigations into the 64 complaints of electoral malpractice, including 18 complaints of postal vote fraud, made to the Met in respect of the 2012 Tower Hamlets elections. Even the Commission, one of Britain’s feeblest regulators, could not deny that there has been a “breakdown of trust” between the people who run elections in Tower Hamlets and the wider political community.
But guess what? “Despite the large number of cases of alleged electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets which were reported to and investigated by the MPS [the Met], only a small number of allegations have been substantiated by evidence or statements by victims or witnesses. Investigations… have identified no evidence to suggest that there was any large scale attempt to affect the outcome of any of the April and May 2012 elections in Tower Hamlets.”
By pure coincidence, no doubt, this happily accords with the Electoral Commission’s own verdict on the day the scandal was revealed – the “no evidence” line was being cranked out even before they’d had the investigation!
But look more closely at Appendix B of the report, which briefly describes 53 of the 64 cases, and the reasons the Met “identified no evidence” are often all too clear. First, in at least four (probably significantly more) of the cases, despite the claim that they were “investigated by the MPS,” the police do not appear to have done the investigation. They subcontracted their detective work to Tower Hamlets Council – in other words, to people working for Lutfur Rahman!
The most disturbing of these is numbered as case 6 in the report, and is one I first revealed in my original coverage. It involves a flat in Hobsons Place, Hanbury Street, and a man named Abdul Manik, who cast a postal vote in the byelection. Alas, when I called at the flat Mr Manik’s daughter, Jona, told me that he was (a) a long-term resident of Bangladesh, having lived there for several years; and (b) dead.
The Electoral Commission report states (para 2.21, page 12): “The MPS confirmed that they could find no evidence that offences had been committed” in this case. However, the description of the case in Appendix B (page 23) shows that this is untrue. The Met didn’t actually look for evidence, talk to the family or do the investigation – it was “the local authority” which did that.
Directly contradicting what Jona Manik told me, the council claimed that her father had been in Tower Hamlets until days previously, cast his postal vote, gone to Bangladesh and then at once died. This seems fairly unlikely, given that postal ballot papers are only issued just before polling day, but it would have been nice for the police to have actually investigated it themselves before dismissing the allegation.
Many other cases involving suspiciously large numbers of adults (seven, nine etc) squeezed into two and three-bedroom flats are breezily dismissed as having the residency numbers “confirmed” by the “2012 canvass” or “2013 canvass.” These canvasses, too, were presumably undertaken by Lutfur’s council, not the police.
Even where Plod did knock on some doors themselves, they don’t seem to have done it very vigorously. In another case, for instance, “the residents of the property where two postal votes were alleged to have been sent to and returned from were visited by officers investigating the allegation. They denied that they had applied to vote by post but would not agree to assist further with the enquiry. While it was possible that an offence may have been committed, the MPS was unable to substantiate the allegations or identify any potential suspects.”
In a third case, a property where two postal votes had been sent to and returned from “was confirmed as empty by the MPS investigation. It was not possible, however, to identify any potential suspects.”
How most police officers – outside Tower Hamlets – “identify potential suspects” is by asking “cui bono,” or who benefits. In this case, Cllr Robbani strikes me as a potential beneficary. Did they speak to him or his campaign workers? It doesn’t look like they did. Did they ask to Cllr Aminur Khan about his alleged role as a postal-vote harvester? Apparently no again. Nor, it seems, were several key witnesses approached. I could have put the Met in touch with any number of such people – but, you guessed it, I was never approached, either.
Did the cops, perhaps, examine these dodgy ballot papers for fingerprints and so on? No, “the MPS considered that submitting the returned postal ballot packs for forensic analysis would be unlikely to assist identification of suspects.” How did they know, I wonder, if they didn’t even try?
In numerous other cases listed, investigations did result in voters – many of whom voted in the April byelection – being removed from the register. In case 36, “seven people registered to vote at property who no longer reside. Four names deleted effective for May elections. No vote cast in any of the seven names at May elections. No offences.” But the election we’re most interested in was in April, not May, officer. On that election, case 36 maintains a discreet silence.
The Met’s lame performance on this is entirely in line with its general reluctance to disturb the worrying status quo in Tower Hamlets. In 2011, stickers promising Koranic vengeance against homosexuals and declaring the borough a “gay-free zone” appeared across the area. From very early on, as I documented, police had CCTV footage of an unidentified Muslim youth posting the stickers, but refused to release it for weeks and told campaigners they could not talk about it because they “did not want to upset” the Muslim community. When the images were finally released, the suspect was quickly identified and caught, though many were dissatisfied with the minor charge that was brought.
The police also did absolutely nothing to curb repeated homophobic abuse by Lutfur Rahman supporters against gay councillors – in Tower Hamlets’ own council chamber. One of the victims, Cllr Peter Golds, said at the time: “If that happened in a football stadium, arrests would have taken place. I have complained, twice, to the police, and have heard nothing. A Labour colleague waited three hours at the police station before being told that nothing would be done. The police are afraid of being accused of Islamophobia. Another Labour councillor said that the Met is now the reverse of what it must have been like in the 1970s, with a complete lack of interest when white people make complaints of harassment and hatred.”
The cops have also been accused of failing to take seriously repeated attempts by Muslim hardliners to impose “Islamic norms” about dress, hair covering, smoking during Ramadan and so on on local Muslims.
In short, the Met have a huge amount of ground to make up in Tower Hamlets. Their latest efforts have made no progress at all.