Andrew Gilligan, Telegraph (London), July 26, 2014
The extremist-linked mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, benefited from “considerable” postal ballot fraud and may also have been helped by “organised fraud in the counting of the votes”, according to his Labour Party rival.
John Biggs, who was narrowly defeated in May’s highly controversial election, said he and party colleagues had seen a number of ballot papers at the count where a vote for him, or candidates supporting him, had been crossed out and a different vote written in.
He accused Mr Rahman’s supporters of a “considerable amount of election fraud, principally centred around the manipulation of postal votes” and said there were “very significant doubts about the integrity of the ballot”.
The accusations form part of a damaging dossier of evidence, some of which will be submitted to the High Court tomorrow by petitioners attempting to overturn the election result. One of the petitioners, Andy Erlam, said vote fraud had occurred on an “industrial scale.”
In a separate article for a local newspaper Mr Biggs said: “I remain a good loser, provided it was a good competition. But I am becoming clearer by the day that, remarkably in this mother of democracies, it could ultimately be declared that the election was bent.”
The dossier, seen by The Telegraph, contains dozens of specific and detailed allegations of electoral malpractice, by and about named individuals, compiled by Labour and three other parties in the election. The dossier alleges that:
Þ Bengali voters, especially women, were intercepted by Mr Rahman’s supporters outside polling stations, then “accompanied” into the polling booths and “directed how to vote”.
Þ In Lansbury ward, Labour votes were “crossed out” on ballot papers and “Tower Hamlets First [Mr Rahman’s party] votes entered with a different colour pen”.
Þ In Weavers ward, the Labour votes “appeared to have been erased” on a “substantial number” of postal ballot papers.
Þ Count agents for Whitechapel ward “reported that many postal ballots [and the accompanying declarations of identity] appeared to have been completed in the same handwriting”.
Þ The counting venue, a converted cinema, was owned by the partner of one of Mr Rahman’s key allies.
The dossier also alleges that Rahman supporters were allowed to conduct “campaigning inside polling stations”, handing out leaflets and telling voters that the Labour candidates were racist or had “sided with a non-Muslim”.
Hundreds of Rahman leaflets were allegedly found inside the polling booths where people cast their votes, while “hostile and threatening” Rahman supporters mobbed polling station entrances, deterring Mr Rahman’s opponents from entering to cast their ballots. One Labour activist in Bow West said a Rahman supporter “came right up to her, shouting and wagging his finger in her face”.
According to the dossier, Labour supporters in a number of blocks and streets “especially those with external mailboxes . . . complained that their postal votes had not arrived”, while voters in the Prusom Street area had their blank postal ballot papers taken from them by Rahman supporters pretending to be from the Labour Party. It also alleges that a number of people came to vote at polling stations and found their votes had already been cast by someone pretending to be them.
The papers include witness statements from individual voters supporting many of the allegations. One, a commodity trader from the Isle of Dogs, stated that he witnessed a campaigner for Mr Rahman “blocking the route of three young women so they could not pass him into the polling station.”
According to the witness, the campaigner “then produced the very same [Rahman] leaflet I had removed from my polling booth and proceeded to forcibly tell the ladies who they had to vote for” before taking them inside the polling station and registering them with the clerk.
Another white voter, from Bow, stated that she was approached by a Bengali family on the street who said they had been “bullied” by a crowd of Rahman supporters outside their polling station. They asked her to escort them for their safety.
“I went inside the polling station and found a police officer who came out to escort the family safely through in order to vote,” she said.
Sanu Miah, a Labour council candidate in the St Peter’s ward, came top in the first count, with 2,270 votes. However, Mr Rahman demanded a recount to take place the following day, with the votes stored at Tower Hamlets’ headquarters, Mulberry Place, overnight. In the recount Mr Miah dropped from first place to fifth, with his vote falling by a quarter to 1,722 votes.
Some Labour sources believe the first count was a genuine mistake, since there was another candidate with the same surname. However, in his statement, Mr Miah alleges that the seal on one of the ballot boxes was “tampered with and opened” overnight and that “something took place with the ballot papers whilst they were held at Mulberry Place”.
He added: “On the first count, I saw many single votes for myself with other [parties’] candidates, ie many mixed ballots. However, in the second count these were not there. If my ballots had been kept [overnight] in the police station [as another recounted ward was], I am confident I would have won.”
In the chaotic count, which took more than five days to return final results for all contests, senior Labour Party sources said that, as well as ballot paper tampering, the way the votes for the mayoralty had been counted was also suspect. Votes for each candidate are normally sorted into bundles of 50, with the tellers then counting the number of bundles to give each candidate’s total vote.
However, according to the Labour sources, some of the bundles for Mr Rahman contained only 47 or 48 votes, resulting in him getting more bundles than he deserved. Meanwhile, some bundles for Mr Biggs contained 52 or 53 votes, resulting in him getting fewer bundles than he should have. With around 64,000 first-preference votes cast between the two men, a difference of five or six votes in each bundle may have been enough to affect the result, the sources said. Mr Rahman’s majority after second preferences were included was 3,252 votes.
Mr Rahman, who was expelled from Labour in 2010 after The Telegraph exposed his links with an Islamic extremist group, the IFE, won re-election as an independent despite his council being under two separate investigations, one by the Government for alleged misuse of funds and another by the police for fraud.
The High Court hearing tomorrow is to consider an application by Mr Rahman to “strike out” the petition, which he claims is an “abuse of process.” If this is defeated, the full hearing on the petition, which seeks a rerun of the election, will take place in September, when the full evidence will be presented.
Separately, auditors in the Government investigation of Tower Hamlets’ finances are believed to be focusing closely on deals where lucrative council assets were transferred to close associates of Mr Rahman at a fraction of their true value.
An official council report seen by The Telegraph reveals that Mr Rahman appears to have been closely involved in a decision to sell the Old Poplar Town Hall, valued by council officers at £1.5 million, to a company called Dreamstar for £875,000. Dreamstar’s principal shareholder is Mujibul Islam, the owner of Mr Rahman’s 2010 election campaign website, who admitted that he had “had an affiliation” with the mayor and had “helped” him in the election.
In official answers, the council appears to have lied that Dreamstar’s was the “highest bid”. In fact, the report shows, it was only the fifth highest. Dreamstar missed the deadline at the “best and final offer” stage altogether but was allowed to submit a higher “late” bid after all the others, though it did “not comply with the council’s procedures”.
Even Dreamstar’s revised bid was still only the third highest and was recommended for refusal. Instead, it was entered into a “contract race” which saw the two higher offers rejected.
Dreamstar has now received planning permission to turn the listed building, on Poplar High Street, into a 25-room hotel, expected to raise its value to around £3.5 million. The lucrative permission was given in secret by Mr Rahman’s officers, though applications of this scale would normally be decided in public by elected councillors.
The council claimed that the report on Old Poplar Town Hall found “no evidence of illegality or maladministration causing injustice” and that “no elected individuals have been involved in the processes investigated”. The Government audit report into Tower Hamlets is now expected after the summer.
Mr Rahman said that allegations of electoral misconduct were the unfounded claims of “sore losers.”