When I look back on it now what surprises me is how disarmingly polite my attackers were.
“What are you doing?” asked one of the two, seemingly inquisitive, Asian teenagers who approached me on a quiet cul-de-sac in Bow, east London, shortly after 1pm yesterday.
“There’s been a photographer around here, do you know her?” he added.
I didn’t, but I explained I was a journalist for The Independent looking to speak to a man at an address in the area, who was standing as a candidate in the local elections, about allegations of postal vote fraud. “Can we see your note pad,” the boy asked.
I declined and then the first punch came–landing straight on my nose, sending blood and tears streaming down my face. Then another. Then another.
I tried to protect myself but a fresh crop of attackers–I guess between four and six–joined in. As they knocked me to the ground one of them brought a traffic cone repeatedly down on the back of my head.
As their fists and feet slammed into me, all I could think about was some advice a friend had given me. She’s a paramedic and has dealt with countless victims of assault. “Whatever you do don’t get knocked to the ground,” she once said. “Blows on the floor are much more dangerous.” It seemed faintly absurd now. “That’s easy for you to say,” I thought. “How on earth are you meant to stay up?”
I don’t know how long it lasted–it was probably only a minute–but it was a long minute. I don’t remember them saying anything as they did it. The first noise I was aware of was the beeping of a car horn and a woman screaming.
The noise brought a man out of a nearby block of flats. With little regard for his own safety he waded in and defended me until my attackers ran away.
I shudder to think what would have happened if he hadn’t been brave enough to take action and I cannot thank him enough for what he did. He gave me a bottle of water to wash the blood away and showed me a mobile phone that one of the attackers had dropped which he later handed to the police. He also maintained that he saw at least two of the attackers run into the candidate’s house.
What brought me to Bow yesterday were allegations of widespread postal voting fraud. Both the local Conservative and Respect parties in Tower Hamlets have been looking through the new electoral rolls for properties that have an alarmingly high number of adults registered to one address. The area has a large Bengali population and this type of fraud is unfortunately all too common. In some instances there have been as many as 20 Bengali names supposedly living in two or three-bedroom flats. When journalists have previously called, all too often there are far fewer living there. In some instances, no Bengalis at all.
In such a heavily populated borough, a few fraudulent postal votes might not sound like it matters but when you look at how slim the majorities are here you know every vote counts. In Bethnal Green and Bow, Respect has a tiny 1,300-vote lead. In neighbouring Poplar and Limehouse, where George Galloway is taking on Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick and Tory newcomer Tim Archer, the lead is around 4,000. But boundary changes have brought thousands of affluent Tory-leaning voters into the constituency, making it an equally tight race.
So far Scotland Yard is looking into 28 allegations of bogus voter registration in London, although the Conservative and Respect parties both say they have highlighted many more. Concerns have been amplified by a flood of new voter registrations in the past few weeks in the run-up to the nationwide deadline on 20 April. Election officials in Tower Hamlets have removed 141 suspect ballots from the register but overall 5,166 new names were received before the deadline with little time to check their veracity.
Bengalis do tend to have large families and this is the third most deprived borough in the country. Overcrowding is a serious issue. But other Bengalis I know in the area had told me that it was very unusual to have any more than five adults in one house. The households are large, they said, because they have lots of children–not lots of adults.
Thinking back on my experience perhaps I was naïve to venture into the area on my own, although I do live in east London, know the estates well and have rarely felt threatened. My Bengali neighbours, meanwhile, are particularly kind and well-liked because they tend to keep a tighter leash on their kids.
The paramedics who treated me told me that they rarely went into the area without a police escort. “These kids are trapped in an endless cycle of poverty,” one of them said. “There’s a lot of drugs and gang-related violence but it is rare for a stranger like you to be attacked.”
The slight difference, of course, is that I’m not a stranger in the normal sense. Whoever these kids were it was evident that they were no strangers to the occasional journalist and photographer sniffing around.
Last night, I managed to speak to the man I wanted to interview about the alleged fraud, and whose house I was outside when I was attacked. He said: “I am not going to talk to you about this. Why have you been knocking on my door. You don’t disturb me. If you knock on my door again I will take you to court.”
Police probe voter frauds
*Police forces across the country are investigating over 50 complaints of voting abuses, including 10 complaints passed to the police in Tower Hamlets where The Independent journalist Jerome Taylor was attacked.
Tower Hamlets Council confirmed it had asked the police to investigate 10 cases of voter fraud in its area, but it revealed that 3,123 late applications have been received for postal votes and it has had too little time to properly check whether they are all genuine before the register closed.
That could open the poll in the two constituencies in Tower Hamlets–Bethnal Green and Bow and Poplar and Limehouse–to massive postal voter fraud. Respect is in a bitter fight to retain the highly marginal Bethnal Green seat–vacated by Respect MP George Galloway, who is standing in neighbouring Poplar and Limehouse–and, in an unprecedented development in British politics, all the candidates of the main parties are Bangladeshi Muslims.
The council said it would support calls to change the rules after Thursday’s elections, to provide more time for checks to be carried out on late postal vote applications. “That could mean closing applications for postal votes at least four days before the normal voter registration process closes.”
The integrity of our voting system used to be taken for granted. Whatever their allegiance, voters could have absolute faith in the outcome of a General Election.
But, like so many other British traditions, the credibility of our democracy has been badly weakened during the last 13 years of Labour rule.
Thanks to the introduction of mass postal voting on demand, the stench of malpractice now hangs over the process, whether it be through serial abuses on the electoral roll or widespread fraud in the casting of postal votes.
With the result of the General Election so uncertain and the gap between the three main parties so narrow, the potential for corruption is deeply worrying.
This Thursday postal voting will play a far bigger role than in any previous contest, with more than seven million people having registered for a postal ballot.
In the last month alone, there were 150,000 applications and, in some areas, the number of registrations for postal votes has increased by 200 per cent compared with the 2005 election.
Yet, unlike voting at a polling station, the postal process is easily open to manipulation by political parties and criminals because no proper checks are made on the electors’ identities.
The same problem applies to the electoral roll, where names are added or removed without effective investigation, a flaw compounded by the phenomenal demographic upheaval caused by mass immigration.
With an annual inflow running at over 500,000 and emigration by Britons reaching almost 400,000 a year, electoral registers have increasingly turned into little more than works of fiction.
The Government and its agencies have been celebrating the recent surge in registrations and postal vote applications as evidence of a new enthusiasm for politics amongst the electorate, due partly to the TV debates.
The reality is that it has undermined the whole democratic process.
A study by the Council of Europe in 2008 stated that ‘the voting system in Great Britain is open to electoral fraud’, since it was ‘childishly simple’ to register bogus voters, while ‘postal voting provides the anonymity to carry out fraud without detection’.
Particularly disturbing is the position in the crucial marginal seats that will decide the outcome of election.
Here, in a desperate drive to boost support, all the major parties have been making intensive efforts to increase registration and postal voting.
In Edinburgh South, a vital three-way marginal, postal votes are up by 60 per cent, while in the London borough of Islington, scene of a bitter fight between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the numbers on the electoral roll have increased by nearly 20,000 to 135,800 since 2005.
Five police investigations are under way in the Yorkshire conurbations of Bradford and Calderdale, where two arrests have been made.
In London, police are examining 28 allegations of major abuses across 12 boroughs. In one typical case, a resident of Bethnal Green was surprised to learn that eight complete strangers were also registered at the small flat she shares with her partner.
Responding to mounting concern about corruption, John Turner, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, admitted ‘fraudulent activity’ was easy to perpetrate.
‘It’s not a properly verified system and it should be.’
This growing threat to democracy has happened entirely because of decisions taken by Labour.
Despite strong opposition, it pressed ahead in 2004 with the introduction of postal voting on demand without any safeguards or tightening of the register.
Before then, voters had to provide a valid reason why they needed to vote by post, such as work commitments, disability or holiday.
The theoretical justification was to boost turnout at a time of growing public apathy. But in reality, Labour saw that an insecure-system could work to the party’s advantage in urban areas where the population is more fluid.
This is particularly true among inner-city wards dominated by Asian clan leaders who effectively control the local franchise and even set up ‘voting factories’ to process ballot papers.
Almost all the worst instances of fraud since 2000 have arisen in places with large concentrations of Asian voters, such as Blackburn, Oldham and Tower Hamlets.
In the Birmingham local elections of 2004, six Muslim men stole thousands of ballot papers and marked them for Labour candidates. The Election Commissioner, Richard Mawrey QC, said at their trial that the contest ‘would have disgraced a banana republic’.
Yet the problem remains as bad as ever. A BBC report last week found that Asian activists are targeting British Pakistanis who have relocated in their thousands to the Pakistan district of Maipur.
The activists are going door to door asking any who are still eligible for a British vote to sign over their entitlement to a proxy or postal vote.
As a result, it is claimed that many have signed forms for this week’s elections, without knowing who they are voting for.
This is a farce that shames democracy. But Labour, desperate to cling on to power, does not care about rebuilding trust. Partisan gain is all that matters.
Labour’s willingness to exploit a dodgy system was graphically illustrated in its two unexpected recent by-election triumphs in Scotland.
At Glenrothes in 2008, the neighbouring seat to Gordon Brown’s at Kirkcaldy, there was a fourfold increase in postal ballots and Labour’s opponents demanded to see the marked official register which showed whether individuals had voted or not.
Unbelievably, the Sheriff ‘s Clerk’s Office in Kirkcaldy had to explain, after five months, that the register had ‘gone missing’.
And Labour’s win in Glasgow North East last November followed a dramatic increase in postal votes, with almost 2,000 applications submitted less than three days before the registration deadline.
The Electoral Commission complained that Labour ‘did not comply’ with the code of conduct on the submission of postal-vote applications.
Labour would no doubt just dismiss this as scaremongering. But the truth is that the Government’s own cynicism towards the voting process could make this the most tainted, distorted result in General Election history.
One disquieting straw in the wind could be seen last Friday, when Kerry McCarthy, Labour candidate for Bristol East, revealed an early sample of postal votes on her Twitter page.
She has been accused of breaching electoral law, since candidates are not meant to release such information.
But even more alarming is the apparent extent of her lead, despite Labour’s fall to third place in most opinion polls. If Labour is still in power on Friday, the entire voting system will be in the dock.