SUNDAY TIMES – 29th April 2007
‘get the votes and we can win, but don’t get caught with them’.
THE ASSEMBLED student volunteers in the car park of a boarded-up pub in Gipton, Leeds, were hoping to do their small bit to avert Labour’s predicted electoral meltdown.
The rundown suburb — a former Labour stronghold — is crucial in the party’s fight to seize back control of the city council. Labour is only too aware that heavy defeats in Thursday’s local elections will sour the expected coronation of Gordon Brown as leader this summer.
Indeed, one of the politicians addressing the group of students was Graham Hyde, a Labour councillor who works as a parliamentary aide to the local MP George Mudie, a former whip and staunch Brown supporter.
Keith Wakefield, the Labour group’s leader, was also present in the car park, underlining the importance of the Gipton and Harehills ward to the party.
He had emerged from his car with a young woman whom he believed to be a mature student at Leeds University. She was, in fact, an undercover Sunday Times reporter investigating electoral fraud, which experts now believe has become endemic in Britain’s cities.
The secret tape recordings she made last week would appear to confirm many people’s fears that senior Labour figures are carrying out sharp practices which could have a decisive effect on the outcome of this week’s local elections.
The purpose of the gathering in the car park was to instruct the students to “chase” postal votes. Wakefield had told our reporter during the car journey: “Our job… will be to make sure they [the voters] have either done it [sent in their postal votes] or we will help them…If we can get back these votes for Labour, we can win this.”
In the car park the students were told to trawl the surrounding streets collecting postal ballot forms from voters and, if necessary, to help residents to complete their ballots. Hyde warned: “Put the postal vote form out of sight…Don’t get caught with any on you. We are not supposed to collect them.”
He appeared well aware of the ramifications of what he was suggesting. One of the students conspiratorially told the group he believed that what they were doing was “illegal”. Hyde responded: “Yes it is. But we’ve done 25% already, so…”
The Sunday Times is supplying a dossier to the police and the council’s returning officer containing transcripts of the tape recordings as well as interviews with voters. Any canvasser who solicits a postal ballot paper from a voter or helps them to fill out the ballot paper would be breaking an electoral code of conduct agreed by all the parties and may have broken electoral law.
The dubious tactics are perhaps indicative of the desperation that is coursing through Labour’s ranks as the local elections approach. Polls are predicting that Labour is heading for its worst local election showing for more than half a century. Its poll rating at local level is running at just 24%.
The election being fought in Leeds reflects Labour’s problems nationally. Labour holds 40 of the 90 seats on Leeds city council, which is run by a coalition of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Green party. While Labour will fight to regain control on Thursday, it may face a struggle just to maintain its position. It was against this background that the Labour-supporting students went to Gipton on Thursday.
The area, in eastern Leeds, is one of the rougher suburbs, made up largely of council tower blocks and sprawling estates. Gangs of youths hang around on street corners and the unemployment rate is high.
The suburb, whose residents are typically white working-class or poor Asian families, was until recently solidly Labour. However, two of the three local councillors are now Liberal Democrat, as Labour suffers from a large antiIraq war vote among Muslim voters. Labour is also concerned about the threat from the BNP, which is targeting white voters.
Last year Labour’s activities in the ward were the subject of complaints from rival candidates. One said: “Local Labour voters were going door to door, pressuring people to fill in their votes and then delivering sacks up to the polling station. “At the count, the ballot boxes were opened first and the Liberal Democrats had a commanding lead. Then the postal votes were opened and they were almost all Labour. everyone present had suspicions that something was afoot.”
Complaints about the activities of the Labour teams canvassing door-to-door were made to the police, who wrote a strongly worded letter to all the parties warning them to abide by the code of conduct.
Last week, however, little appeared to have changed. On Wednesday the undercover reporter was summoned to meet Wakefield outside the constituency office of Hilary Benn, the overseas development secretary and deputy leadership candidate.
She was among a group of 12 students, mostly studying English, politics and history, who were then driven to the car park of the Fairway pub in Gipton. Waiting for them was Hyde.
Wakefield and Hyde then delivered their briefing. “Simply, what I want you to do is to knock on the door, say you are from the Labour party,” instructed Hyde.
“Have you received your postal vote?” he told the students to ask voters. “Have you returned it? If they give it to you in your hand, you collect it and put it in the post box.”
“If they haven’t, you say, ‘Have you got your postal vote?’” Wakefield chipped in: “You’ve got to do it for them.”
Hyde then said: “And if you are knocking on the door and they have a postal vote and they haven’t done it,
‘Would you like to do it? We’ll put it in the post.’
“We also want to check they are voting Labour as well. Yeah? If they are voting Liberal Dem, then don’t offer to put the postal vote in. We’ve found 10 so far out of all those we’ve done in Gipton.”
One of the students then said: “Yes, I’ll post that for you.” Hyde laughed and added: “Yes, that’s it, and then it ends up in the toilet.”
The task was important. Labour’s intelligence is that 4,000 out of the ward’s 16,000 electorate are voting by post. Wakefied had earlier described it as “make or break”.
He also told the students about the Asian voting networks — whereby senior figures in the Asian community either collect and fill in postal voting papers or press people to vote a certain way. The Labour candidate in the ward is Asian.
“All the parties use the Muslim connections…while there is paranoia in the country about the use of Asian voting systems… They have a brilliant network: they pass it on; they all want to use the postal,” said Wakefield.
The students were then divided into two groups and given a list of all those with postal votes. They began knocking on doors in local tower blocks.
Many of the properties are home to the elderly and the undercover reporter found herself in the front room of one couple — Catherine and John — in their eighties. The woman quickly produced her postal ballot and asked for help in filling it in. She then handed the ballot paper to the reporter.
That form will now be passed to the council’s local returning officer so that he can ask the woman whether she wishes to recast her vote.
When the reporter returned, Wakefield asked her where one of her fellow canvassers was. “She is probably in someone’s house helping them fill out the form,” said the reporter. Later, when the canvasser reemerged, Wakefield inquired whether she “picked up the PV [postal vote].” She had.
In a conversation on Friday, the student said to the undercover reporter: “Yeah, it is a little bit dodgy. It is a little bit open to allegation of whatever. But all we are doing is trying to keep it pretty quiet.”
Last week residents of the area revealed that they felt pressured by Labour canvassers. Margot Knight, a retired 69-year-old, recalled how she had been visited by a “young woman” canvassing on behalf of Labour. “The young woman asked if I needed any help,” said Knight, who had already filled in her form but had yet to post it. “She then asked, ‘Have you signed it?’ My granddaughter was with me at the time and she was going to take my vote to the postbox.
“But the young woman offered to take my vote with her to post. She said she was happy to post it. I was a bit doubtful about handing it over but you have got to trust some people these days, haven’t you?”
The Electoral Commission, the official electoral watchdog, says canvassers must not solicit postal votes and should post votes only if specifically asked to do so. However, Maserat Ghafoor, a 39-year-old housewife, said she, too, had felt under pressure when a Labour councillor was brought to her home by a relative. She said the councillor asked her whether she needed help filling out her postal vote.
“I said to them that I could do it on my own,” Ghafoor said. “Nobody tried to force me but they explained to me how I should do it. They said, ‘It is up to you.’ I said I didn’t need any help. They gave me a Labour leaflet to stick on my window which I did but I took it off after they left.”
Another resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she had been approached by her landlord and asked to apply for two postal votes. The landlord, who owns a number of properties in the area, has told her he will take the documents away unsigned when they arrive. “He said that I would get two envelopes coming through for postal voting. He calls about once a week, including today, to check if I have got the documents.”
A study by the Electoral Commission last year found that about 500,000 people felt fraud was a “big” problem in local elections because of “first-hand experience”.
The problems stem from Labour’s decision in 2000 to allow postal voting on demand. This means anyone can apply to vote by post. Previously this was open only to voters who could produce a compelling reason why they could not use a polling station.
Despite repeated warnings, the government failed to introduce safeguards to make the system secure. Political parties rushed to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to sign up for postal votes and experts now fear fraud is endemic.
Richard Price QC, an expert on electoral law, said: “I look at the situation as like a large bowl of water. Previously there were a couple of holes in it — isolated cases of fraud — but suddenly it has become a colander. It is a completely unnecessary crisis. With postal voting you have abolished the secret ballot, and your investigation is a classic example of this.”
Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, an academic expert on elections, added: “Postal voting on demand is inherently unsatisfactory. The whole system is open to abuse. Secret ballots were introduced in 1872 to stop exactly this sort of problem and we now seem to be going back to the 19th century.”
Sir Alistair Graham, who stood down as chairman of the committee on standards in public life last week, recently accused ministers of being in denial about the “real and potent threat” facing the electoral system as a result of fraud. He warned that the government could not ensure the forthcoming local elections would be free, fair or secure.
The government has repeatedly refused to tighten up the system — by insisting that people must provide National Insurance numbers when voting by post or by specifically barring the worst excesses of canvassers. In the forthcoming election, postal voters are simply asked to provide a signature and date of birth, although fears are also mounting that new electronic verification machines will be unable to cope.
After this week’s elections, the Association of Electoral Administrators will again press for radical change. John Turner, who heads the association, said: “Why did the major parties sign up to the code of conduct when they apparently behave like this? “There are allegations of people being intimidated, of the ballot not being secret. We are clearly going to talk about this at some length [reforming the system] and we could well be coming up with some suggestions after polling day.”
Yesterday Paul Rogerson, the returning officer for the Leeds elections, issued a statement saying: “If we are made aware of any allegations disclosing the possibility that criminal offences may have been committed by party workers in the city’s Gipton and Harehills ward, we will refer them forthwith to the West Yorkshire police.
“The allegations here relate to practices by party workers that do not adhere to the code of conduct that the three largest political parties in England have agreed should be observed by all of their candidates and canvassers at the forthcoming elections.”
Wakefield yesterday denied he had ever instructed canvassers to solicit postal votes. He said the ballot paper had new instructions this year and the canvassers had merely been instructed to take details of anyone who was having difficulty. Their details would be passed on, he said, to the council’s electoral office, which could then help them.
“Not once did I bring a postal vote back. I am the last person, as the Labour leader, who should be seen doing that,” he said. “All we are trying to do is to encourage and ask people to send them [postal votes] off.”
Hyde said yesterday: “I have done nothing wrong. I have done nothing illegal. It is not illegal to ask somebody if they have voted. It is illegal, in my view, to actually assist somebody to fill in a ballot form.”
David Shaw, assistant chief constable of West Midlands, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers’ co-ordinator on election fraud, said politicians and their supporters should not be handling voters’ ballot papers.
“They know what the guidance and the law says, and they are taking a risk. Our view would be that assisting voters to fill out their forms is against the guidance, and if they are seeking to exert influence or pressure, that is simply an offence.”
Insight: Claire Newell, Jonathan Calvert, Robert Winnett, Tom Baird
The Electoral Commission code of conduct says canvassers must:
– Not solicit completed postal ballot papers from electors
– Hot handle or help voters complete their papers
– Ensure voters complete papers in secret and seal them personally
– Encourage voters to post or deliver ballot papers themselves
Secret orders for canvassers.
Keith Wakefield, the leader of the Labour group on Leeds city council, drives two students and an undercover reporter to Gipton and Harehills.
Wakefield: So our job, I believe, will be to make sure they have either done it [their postal vote] or we help them…Now the reason why it’s really, really important on this one: the average postal votes for a ward in [the] city is 800 to 1,000, there’s 4,000 postal votes [in Gipton and Harehills]… So it’s make or break…as you know, more people vote through postal than not. If we can get back those votes for Labour we can win this. So it’s really, really important that we chase the votes. I have never known as many postal votes in any election in 20 years.
Student 2: Do you know why it’s so many?
Wakefield: Yes. We can speak amongst friends. It’s very much an Asian, half Asian, half white working-class ward. And er, both, all the parties use the Muslim connections, which probably some people would frown at, and families to get everyone on postal.
Student 1: That’s exactly what we’ve done in our ward.
Wakefield: Oh right yes. So while there is paranoia in the country about the use of Asian voting systems…as we all know, they have a brilliant network; they pass it on; they all want to use the postal.
Wakefield, students and undercover reporter arrive in the car park at the Fairway pub in Gipton and meet Graham Hyde, a Labour councillor. Hyde briefs the group on what to do.
Hyde: Simply, what I want you to do is you knock on the door, say you are from the Labour party…‘Have you received your postal votes?… These are all Labour people. ‘Have you returned it?’ If they give it to you in your hand, you collect it and put it in the postbox…If they haven’t, you say: ‘Have you got your postal vote?’
Wakefield: You’ve got to do it for them.
Hyde: The thing is we want to know who has returned them. And if you are knocking on the door and they have a postal vote and they haven’t done it, ‘Would you like to do it? We’ll put it in the post?’ You have to do it very careful…because they [the opposition or the authorities] are watching everyone.
Wakefield: I know, I know.
Hyde: All these here are postal votes.
Wakefield: All we are doing is chasing the postal… Do you have to seal it [the postal ballot] before posting?
Hyde: Yeah, seal it all up… We also want to check they are voting Labour as well. Yeah? If they are voting Liberal Dem, then don’t offer to put the postal vote in. We’ve found 10 so far out of all those we’ve done in Gipton.
Student 3: ‘Yes, I’ll post that for you!’ [laughs]
Hyde: Yes that’s it, and then it ends up in the toilet [laughs]. I know…Put the postal vote form out of sight, or if you are passing a postbox throw it in it. Don’t get caught with any on you. We are not supposed to collect them.
Student 4: Yes, it’s illegal to collect.
Reporter: Is it? Why?
Student 4: It’s illegal to collect, isn’t it?
Hyde: Yes it is, but we’ve done 25% already, so…
Hemel Hempstead Postal vote shambles.
Dacorum’s chief executive Daniel Zammit has offered his ‘sincere apologies’ to postal voters affected by the council’s election blunders.
Out of a total of 12,500 postal ballots sent out to homes, 11,076 have mistakes.
Separate instructions sent out with postal ballot papers tell electors to vote for only one person in multi-seat wards where they should, in fact, vote for either two or three candidates.
Around 10 per cent of Dacorum’s voters received faulty postal ballots last week and of those around 3,700 have already voted. It is not known how many of those who have already voted followed the wrong instructions.
And in a controversial move the council says that people who have voted incorrectly will not be given the opportunity to vote again.
In a separate error Liberal Democrat candidate Barry Batchelor, running in the Bovingdon, Flaunden and Chipperfield ward, has a Labour logo against his name.
Council staff, including the chief executive, were called in over the weekend after discovering the errors.
Letters, costing taxpayers £4,400, have now been sent out to all of the homes alerting voters to the mistakes.
Brian Neale, of Thorn Close, Boxmoor and his wife Diane sent off their postal votes on Monday before receiving a letter from the council telling them of the errors.
The couple each voted for one candidate, when they should have voted for two each and when Mr Neale called the council he was told he will not be allowed to vote again.
Mr Neale, 64, said: “They are denying me the right to vote for somebody I want to vote for and to me that is not democracy.
“There has been a mistake, it is on the council’s side not mine, so they should issue us with new voting papers.”
In a statement Mr Zammit said: “As Returning Officer, I would like to repeat my sincere
apologies to postal voters affected by the printing error.”
He added: “Our decision not to reissue postal ballot papers is based on advice from a leading Queen’s Counsel in electoral law.
“Our advice is that whilst initial errors can be rectified, the law does not condone remedial action that might actually make matters worse.
“As such, any partial reissuing of ballot papers presents too great a risk of compounding the situation still further.”
And in a comment that seems to shoot the messenger, he added: “Given that most postal voters appear to be following the ballot paper instructions, recent newspaper speculation about the impact of the postal votes issue on the election result is both premature and unhelpful.”
He urged that people should still ensure they vote and said: “It is important that people use their vote on May 3 and they should know that their vote still counts.”