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Ghosts of Slough

  • Michael Crick
  • 18 Mar 08, 06:58 PM

slough203x100.jpgWhilst my fellow political journalists all flocked to Ken Livingstone’s campaign launch in London, I took the train to Slough for a far more interesting story, largely ignored by the Westminster pack, and which I therefore had almost to myself.

There was much jubilation in the Slough Labour Party after an election court disqualified a local Conservative councillor, Eshaq Khan, for corrupt and fraudulent election practices.

Mr Khan was found to have secured his election last May by registering at various properties around his ward more than a hundred “ghost” voters – people who didn’t exist or weren’t entitled to be on the voting register - and who then, of course, voted for him.

Criminal trial

Khan was also accused by the judge Richard Mawry of perverting the course of justice by getting several witnesses to commit what the judge called “blatant” and “bare-faced perjury” during the recent election court case to try and save his skin.

A criminal trial now looks likely. Three men have already been arrested and police inquiries are continuing.

The judge also awarded costs against Khan. The Conservative Party won’t say if they’ve agreed to pay them - which strongly suggests to me that they have. Lord Ashcroft may race a total bill of around £500,000 for the party.

Richard Mawry’s judgement may be great news for Labour in Slough, but it will be less welcome to Labour nationally.

Mawry, you may recall, was the judge who presided over the Birmingham election fraud case in the spring of 2005, when he compared Birmingham to a banana republic and was scathing about this government’s introduction of postal voting on demand.

'Disastrous experiment'

After that notorious case ministers tried to tighten the rules on postal votes, but Mawry claimed today that these changes had made little difference and that voting fraud was an easy as ever. Indeed, if anything, Mawry’s judgement today was more scathing of government policy than it was in Birmingham three years ago.

The problem, he said, was not just the “disastrous experiment of postal voting on demand”, but the extremely lax system of electoral registration in this country.

“Great Britain’s system of voter registration may well have been a quaint but harmless anomaly while personal voting was the norm but the introduction of postal voting on demand has made it lethal to the democratic process.”
Roll-stuffing, as the Australians call it, “is childishly simple to commit,” said Mawry, “and very difficult to detect.

'Decent choice'

To ignore the possibility that it is widespread, particularly in local elections, is a policy that an ostrich would despise.”

Above all, he criticised the belief by many Labour people that making it easier for people to vote, though postal ballots, would boost voting turn-out.

What really boost turn-out, he argued, was giving voters a decent choice. He pointed to the 85% turnout in last year’s French presidential election (where there’s no easy postal voting) as a good example of this and concluded: “It’s not how you vote that brings out the voters. It’s the choices you are given.”

In speaking out so boldly, Richard Mawry is surely becoming something of a pain in the neck for this government, rather like Elizabeth Filkin and Sir Alistair Graham.

But he should be careful. They both lost their jobs.

Tuesday, 18 March, 2008

  • Newsnight
  • 18 Mar 08, 06:15 PM

stock_market203x100.jpgThe US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has admitted the American economy is facing a "sharp decline" and economists are forecasting the fifth US interest rate cut today since the credit crunch began. US house prices have fallen for the first time since the 1930s; can we now avoid another Great Depression? Hugh Pym has been investigating how central bankers are trying to learn the lessons of history.

Is the British electoral system fit for purpose? A Conservative politician has been thrown out of office and had his election overturned for using scores of bogus postal votes in last year's local elections in Slough. The judge said the combination of postal voting on demand and the ease of registering voters had made fraud of this type "childishly easy" to commit, despite recent legislation designed to enhance its security.
So are the government's attempts to make it easier to vote part of the problem? Michael Crick has the details.

On the fifth anniversary of the parliamentary vote over going to war in Iraq we'll be talking to two back bench Labour MPs, one who supported the government position and one who opposed it. They'll be telling us about the difficulties they experienced in making their decisions.

And we'll be looking back at the life and work of British film director, Anthony Minghella, who died suddenly this morning.

Prospects for Tuesday,18 March

  • Newsnight
  • 18 Mar 08, 10:57 AM

Carol Rubra is tonight's programme producer. Here's her early email to the team.

Good morning,

Let's talk about what we should do on the economy and how we can make it look and feel fresh and different. I've been talking to Hugh Pym about looking at historical comparisons with the Great Depression. Let's have a think about treatments and guests.

National Security Strategy - the government is announcing this tomorrow - should we preview it?

Barak Obama is making a speech about race.

Teachers are discussing whether homework should be abolished for primary school children at their conference today.

And the Supreme Court is looking at US gun laws.

Slough - a tribunal is expected to find electoral fraud in last year's local elections - Michael Crick is looking in to it.

10 Days to War - the parliamentary vote. This is the story of two backbench MPs facing the decision over whether to back their party or vote for what they believe is right.

Let’s talk about these and any other ideas at the meeting.

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