Few people in the UK have heard of “Booth-Capturing”. In India and across South Asia it is a political phenomenon that is all too familiar. It is one of the most visible and outrageous illegal methods that are used to undermine democratic elections in the region.
Essentially, thugs working on behalf of a political party physically take over polling stations and use the threat of violence to prevent supporters of opposing parties from voting. (It helps that many parties have youth wings whose real purpose is the supply of necessary muscle).
Booth-Capturing takes place in scores of constituencies, many in remote areas, but also in some big cities. (It is particularly common in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal). Of course, for it to be successful the police have to be complacent, intimidated or complicit, and that is all too often the case.
Booth-Capturing may sound like the kind of Third World unpleasantness that Could Never Happen Here in the UK. But actually it has already happened here, and not just back in the unreformed 18th Century when electoral corruption was the norm, but within the last three years and in the capital itself, just a few minutes drive from the Houses of Parliament.
The location was Tower Hamlets, an East London borough with a large Bangladeshi population. And the capturing was carried out by gangs of young Bengali toughs in the May 22 2014 election on behalf of long-controversial political boss Lutfur Rahman. The Rahman supporters picketed polling stations, abused people who refused to take Rahman leaflets, and in the apparent absence of effective election officers and police, intimidated those who wanted to vote for Rahman’s opponents – in particular the Labour candidate John Biggs.
They did this as part of a larger strategy of fraud and abuse, which included measures such as moving polling stations in unsympathetic wards to unfamiliar, hard to reach locations (including one on a traffic island in the middle of a four-lane highway). It was for presiding over this system of fraud that Lutfur Rahman was convicted in the High Court on April 23, removed from office and barred from standing again.
Even before his conviction, Luftur Rahman had become notorious for large-scale financial irregularities involving grants to his supporters and friends, thanks to the dogged reporting of the journalists Andrew Gilligan, John Ware and Ted Jeory, and then a damning 2014 government report.
Over time it became clear that Booth Capturing was only one of several forms of South Asian-style electoral fraud that Rahman and his accomplices used to set up and sustain a racist and corrupt local government regime in Tower Hamlets.
Rahman first became the leader of Tower Hamlets Borough Council in 2008 with the help of a notoriously racist Islamist group called the Islamic Forum of Europe. Two years later, thanks to a Rahman-led petition campaign that involved massive fraud and thousands of fake signatures, Tower Hamlets held a referendum on changing its system of local government to one led by a directly-elected mayor.
A Channel 4 documentary then revealed that Rahman’s people had fraudulently signed up families as members of the Labour party so he could be the Labour mayor candidate for Mayor. Because of this and because of his links to Islamist extremists he was expelled from the Labour Party. Nevertheless, Rahman was elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets as an independent.
It helped that Rahman’s followers engaged in large scale “vote harvesting”, an increasingly common form of electoral fraud which involves signing people up for postal votes and then collecting their blank ballots for the party to use. Many of those who voted for him both at the polls and by post turned out to be non-existent “ghost voters”, as exposed by the Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan.
His ensuing mayoralty was characterized by misrule that encompassed financial corruption, homophobic thuggery, racial and ethnic favoritism (there were no non-Bangladeshis or non-Muslims in his cabinet), the use of public money to buy favourable coverage from Bengali-language media outlests and relentless intimidation of opponents.
The Rahman machine’s electoral misdeeds were even worse in a December 2010 by-election in Spitalfields (part of Tower Hamlets), in the course of which which Rahman’s preferred candidate benefited from the “votes” of scores of dead people and incarcerated prisoners. In the aftermath of this tainted by-election even the sleepy Electoral Commission was moved to call for better monitoring of local ballots by the police, and for ministers to consider requiring photo id at polling stations. (Sadly and all too typically the Metropolitan Police failed to properly investigate the multiple fraud allegations resulting from the by-election.)
Then on May 22 2014, thanks to what was by then a well-established system of electoral malpractice and fraud, an effective policy of intimidating critics and investigators with ritual accusations of racism and xenophobia, and the persistent failure of the Metropolitan Police Service to take seriously electoral fraud in the district, Lutfur Rahman was re-elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets – the apparently untouchable boss of what had become one of the UK’s new subcontinental-style rotten boroughs.
As with Booth Capturing in India and as with the various forms of electoral intimidation and fraud endemic in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the fraudulent practices that ensured Rahman’s re-election probably would not have been possible without the failure or collaboration of state officials.
The Tower Hamlets Election Day Booth Capturing in May 2014 represented a particularly dismal failure on the part of the Metropolitan Police. The constables – or “officers” as they prefer to be called these days – who should have protected the polls apparently stationed themselves at distances that made it difficult to see any wrongdoing.
It is not clear if this dereliction was the product of naivete, cynicism, incompetence, moral cowardice, political corruption or some toxic combination of them all. Some local critics claim that officers had at least implicit instructions to let the Emperor of Tower Hamlets run elections his way, as a matter of “cultural sensitivity.”. Others argue that they chose discretion as the better part of valour, in the same way that the Met has tolerated Islamist vigilantism in the district.
Arguably the Met’s lack of enthusiasm for carrying out its duty in this most important of its functions in Tower Hamlets has a parallel in the failure of police forces in Rotherham and other British cities to protect young girls from “grooming” gangs who happen to come from the Pakistani community there.
It is not only in Tower Hamlets that British electoral process has been flouted in a style familiar from South Asia and other parts of the developing world.
For instance, in 2005 Birmingham was the locus of vote rigging on an industrial scale, carried out or abetted by the local labour party establishment.
It involved outright intimidation with party activists standing over voters as they filled out their ballots, plastic bags full of completed ballots being dropped off at voting stations and forged signatures. But mostly it involved postal voting, the rules for which had been radically loosened in 2001. Three Labour councilors were actually caught by police in a warehouse with 270 unsealed postal ballots spread out on a table.
The new postal voting rules might as well have been deliberately set up to enable electoral fraud in minority communities. No longer did you need to give a reason for exercising a postal rather than in person vote. Nor, unlike in the USA and other countries, did you have to go in person, with identification, to a government office to request your postal ballot.
All this was allegedly at the request of mostly Pakistani community leaders from “traditional” or rather ultra-conservative Muslim communities in the Midlands who said they did not want “their” women to leave the house to vote, lest they be seen, even covered, by male strangers.
In practice this meant that male family heads got to vote for their wives, daughters and sisters.
Indeed although postal vote “reform” in the UK was supposed to increase voter participation, it has actually served as a mechanism for depriving minority women of the franchise. (This is a fact that Jenny Watson, the current chair of the Electoral Commission, who was once chair of both the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society, seems strangely unaware.)
The only change in the system since that Birmingham scandal is a new rule that says a postal voter must fill in the form him or herself, i.e. it is no longer permitted for the head of a household to fill in the form for all his female dependents.
The rise of large scale electoral fraud of this particular kind may well be to a significant degree a byproduct of the uncontrolled mass immigration and resultant ghettoisation of the past few decades. However it would be wrong to put all or even most of the blame on particular immigrant communities which may have imported toxic political practices along with more enriching, benign gifts. After all, a better-organized and better-policed voting system like those in America and many other countries, would have been much less vulnerable to many of these practices.
Certainly when it comes to “personation” – the practice of voting under false names – the UK could usefully learn from Bangladesh where voters not only have to bring photo ID to the polling station but where photo IDs are checked against a photo on the register. And the growing problem of people voting multiple times could be thwarted if only the UK adopted the Afghan (and Iraqi) practice of marking voters’ fingers with indelible ink after they have cast their ballot.
Unsurprisingly, many of the bravest and most dogged campaigners against this vote rigging in places like Tower Hamlets and Birmingham are from the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.
They are all too aware of the bitter irony that many of Britain’s immigrants from South Asia came to the UK precisely because they wanted to live in a country where prosperity and opportunity is underwritten by the rule of law, a country in which political thugs cannot bully or bribe or otherwise cheat their way into elected office. These people have been horribly let down by those in the UK whose duty it is to protect the foundations of democracy.
Unfortunately, as these and other forms of electoral fraud common in South Asia and other parts of the developing world become more widespread in UK they won’t just (further) undermine the legitimacy of British democracy, they may also wreak considerable damage on ethnic comity and social cohesion.
What is to be done?
First, Parliament and the political class as a whole must recognize and accept that the UK’s trust-based voting systems, in which voters are not required to present identification and no one really checks how many times or in how many places you have voted – are no longer fit for purpose.
Back in the more homogenous, law-abiding 1950s it may have made sense to gamble on public honesty, and to take the word of a person who turned up to the polls that he or she was indeed the same person whose name appeared on the register. Today it is foolish and irresponsible to do so.
Just as important, we need to overhaul or replace the Electoral Commission, a pathetically inadequate and flabby institution that continues to be crippled by inertia, institutional naivete and political correctness.
In Tower Hamlets it took many, many months and abundant newspaper stories about voting irregularity before the Commission even began to take note of what was going on. All too often the Commissioners seem to be unaware of or strangely complacent about the growth of electoral malpractice in areas with large numbers of segregated immigrants from countries with a tradition of electoral fraud. Indeed the Commission has at times actively opposed strengthening the law to prevent postal vote fraud and the practice of “personation” i.e. pretending to be someone else at the polls.
It is telling that Rahman and his henchmen got away with so much for such a long time, and that when he was finally brought to book it was not at all thanks to any of the government bodies who should have been paying attention.
Lutfur Rahman’s municipal dictatorship only came to an end thanks to the dogged determination of four Tower Hamlets residents who brought a high court petition against his re-election – and the rare clear-sightedness of Election Court Judge Richard Mawry. The petitioners, Andy Erlam, Azmal Hussein, Angela Moffat and Debbie Simone, received no help from the Electoral Commission or the Police (indeed the latter obstructed their efforts almost as if they too were on the Rahman payroll). They risked bankruptcy and were subjected to a smear campaign claiming that they were Islamophobes and racists.
Courage like theirs is not uncommon and should be celebrated and rewarded by anyone who cares about democracy. But the integrity of the British electoral system as it comes under new and unfamiliar threats should not have to depend on there people like them coming forward.
 Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have had particular difficulties with the democratic process, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the worst have been in Pakistani and Bangladeshi areas rather than those dominated by immigrant families from India.
 You also need a largely compliant or inadequate media to carry off practices like booth capturing, vote harvesting. Rahman would not have got away with so much for so long if the Guardian, the quasi-official newspaper of the BBC’s reporters and editors, had not chosen to ignore one revelation after another (and indeed, in the case of one Guardian journalist to act as a kind of PR asset for Rahman and his corrupt regime).
 It is surely foolish of the British political class, especially those of us who are generally favourable to immigration, to pretend that along with all the wonderful things brought to the UK by people from other societies, there may also be some traditions, habits, tendencies and attitudes that are less attractive and desirable.