Aug 7 2008
By Neil Elkes
, Local Government Correspondent
EVER since an election court judge highlighted the ‘election fraud that would disgrace a Banana Republic’ four years ago, the results of council elections in Birmingham have been viewed with suspicion.
Each May election campaign brings fresh allegations of vote rigging and abuse of postal votes centred on Birmingham’s inner city Asian populations.
Now a cross party group of councillors are demanding the Government abolish postal votes on demand until the system’s security can be guaranteed.
A key complaint is the ability of a father of a household to collect and dictate the way his family votes – effectively robbing wives, the elderly and teenage children of their right to choose how to vote.
Among those backing the abolition are Conservative cabinet member for equalities Alan Rudge, Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob and council opposition Labour leader Sir Albert Bore.
They claim the system particularly disadvantages Asian women and allows community leaders and party activists to ‘farm’ votes.
This was seen to have happened in the 2004 elections in Bordesley Green and Aston which led to the sacking of five Labour councillors.
Coun Rudge (Sutton Vesey) said: “We have a postal vote system designed to increase participation in democracy, but it operates at the expense of democracy.
“It prevents some people exercising their right to vote, to make a fair, uncoerced choice, in private.”
He added that the effect was most strongly felt in South Asian communities where the dominance of men and strong clan networks, known as the ‘baraaderi’, ensures the compliance of women and younger members of the family.
Coun Yaqoob (Sparkbrook) explains: “As soon as the postal vote arrives in the home, family members find themselves placed under pressure to fill in their vote in the presence of the male head of the family who has promised the votes in his household to a particular party.”
She said that young members of the family and women are placed under particular pressure, and those who demand the right to vote in secret risk being cut off for showing disloyalty.
“This system has brought shame on our city. It corrupts politics within Asian communities and undermines the faith in the democratic process.”
Both claim that the Labour Party had benefited most from this ‘farming’ of votes it was five Labour councillors who were sacked by the election commissioner in 2004.
At the time Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore wrote to then Prime Minister Tony Blair asking for an end of postal voting on demand.
Coun Bore (Ladywood) said: “I told him the law needed to be much firmer if they want to ensure the individual’s vote was to be safeguarded.”
His only reservation is that it may be a step backwards for those, in areas such as Quinton, who had enjoyed and used their postal vote properly.
Influential political think tank the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, in a report titled ‘The Purity of Elections in the UK’ earlier this year also called for the abolition of postal votes on demand. The Trust went further in suggesting that voters be required to produce photo ID at the polling station.
The abolition calls were today met with silence from the Government, just a bland pledge of review. A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The Government is committed to ensuring that people have confidence in the electoral system.
“Election fraud is illegal, and police and electoral administrators work closely together to deal with any allegations. Postal voting, along with all other areas of electoral law, is kept under constant review.”
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