A tale of one city…

Mmm… I’m not normally one for taking too conspiratorial a line on things, especially when that leads me to veer in the direction of something suggested by John Hemming, but in this case I’ll make something of a minor exception.

Only yesterday, John Hemming responded to the arrest of two Birmingham Lib Dems, a sitting councillor and a candidate at this year’s election with these remarks:

One Lib Dem Candidate and a Lib Dem Councillor in Birmingham have been arrested in respect of allegations about the 2006 Local Elections. The real question is why this has been done two days before the election (this morning) rather than after the election. (Mohammed Saeed and Cllr Zakar Ullah Choudhry)

Superficially it appears that the police are intervening in the election itself. They arrested one of our candidates in the 2006 election. He, however, was found to have not committed any offence (the postal votes found with his wife were his, his wifes and their children).

We know that some form of setup is going on because a postal vote was misdirected to the same Lib Dem Candidate’s house. It is a bit like harrassing people with Pizzas and Taxis instead we have harrassment with postal votes.

And yes, one does have to agree with John that the timing of these arrests is a little inconvenient, coming only two days prior to polling day, especially as the allegations relate to last year’s election, rather than those scheduled for tomorrow. Whether this is indicative of police intervention is rather less certain as the timing here could stem from the timing of the complaint/allegation and when and how information supporting the allegations sufficient to justify arrests was provided to the police.

Today, Birmingham is back in the news – a mere 24 hours before polling begins – as figures for differences in postal vote registrations between 2004 and this year appear have found their way to the BBC via the usual back door.

Post votes down after fraud probe

More than 20,000 people have dropped off the register for postal votes in the wards in Birmingham at the centre of fraud allegations three years ago.

In Aston and Bordesley Green – both the focus of the investigation – the number of postal voters is down by 80%.

A High Court judge said the widespread vote-rigging which took place in the city’s 2004 council elections would have “shamed a banana republic”.

Figures seen by the BBC suggest the problem was worse than first thought.

In four other wards, where there were allegations of fraud at the time but no formal enquiry, more than half the postal voters have disappeared from the list.

Elsewhere in the city, the figures have remained about the same.

The numbers began to fall when West Midlands Police and the city council carried out an audit to check that existing voters knew they were registered.

They have continued to drop since the introduction of new computer checks.

The timing, again, could be considered to be either convenient, or inconvenient depending on your political persuasion.

The question, therefore, has to be asked as to precisely what is going on here and, in the case of this last story, how this information came to be ‘seen’ by the BBC – ‘seen’ in  this case, is the usual journalistic euphemism that alludes to an off-the-record briefing having been given, as opposed to a ‘leak’, which happens when documents actually change hands.

The police are, of course, one possible source and not necessarily always averse to quietly feeding the odd titbit of information to journalists to send a ‘we’re being vigilant and doing a good job’ message to the public.

A much more likely suspect, however, is Birmingham City Council, whose public reputation for competence in administering local elections has taken rather a pounding in recent years as a consequence, first, of the problems that arose over ballot fraud and, only last, after it miscalled the results in Kingstanding and briefly handed a seat on the council to a now ex-BNP candidate, necessitating yet more legal proceedings to put in place the correct result and councillor.

The third possibility is, of course, a local politician or party.

Labour has nothing to gain, of course, from this information reaching the press and the timing is particularly damaging to its interests.

The Lib Dems, it has to be said, have motive both a Labour main competitor in several wards, including those to which the story refers and also, rather more cynically, the may be something to be gained from using a story of this kind to deflect attention from yesterday’s arrests – although that would be a riskier tactic as such a move could easily backfire and lead voters to think that LDs past effort to highlight electoral fraud were now starting to look rather like the pot calling the kettle black.

As for the Tories, anything that mires both Labour and the LDs in the appearance of sleaze is a win-win for them and, despite controlling the council in a coalition with the LDs, they remain rivals especially in light of the party’s all too obvious national strategy of trying to put the squeeze on the LD’s vote in order to make gains against Labour.

Finally, one cannot rule out the possibility of either communalism or internal rivalries within local minority communities as a motive.

Plenty of motive then, and no great shortage of opportunity one suspects either – to the press, a good story is a good story.

As for having the means, perhaps the least convincing would be the communalism or internecine community rivalry conjecture as this requires both the existence of such rivalries and access to information that could only come from one of two sources, the police or the council.

All of the other possibilities are plausible – they all to some degree, have access to the information in question and none could genuinely claim to be, I think, unaware of how news of a sharp fall in postal vote registrations would be presented by the press or the impression it would create in some parts of the local electorate.

So we come back to one question – cue bono? Who benefits? Or rather who benefits most?

The police? Marginal at best?

Politicians/Parties? Possible but on the back of yesterday’s arrest risky, for all that it afforded John Hemming the opportunity to rise one of his favourite hobby horses on the Today programme this morning – without any mention of his own party’s local difficulties of course.

The council, itself?

Mmm. Very possible as one of two major elements of the story given particular emphasis in BCC’s apparent success in cleaning up its voter registrations, and the council’s Chief Executive – also on the today programme – showed no real awareness of or concern about the political implications of the timing of this information reaching the press and seemed entirely sanguine about the whole thing.

As things stand, this story – which also makes the Birmingham Post’s coverage of yesterday’s arrests, which includes precise figures on registrations – is playing out in way that gives the impression that most, if not all, of the fall in postal vote requests stems from the council’s efforts to curb the risk of fraud.

This is not, however, an entirely accurate picture of the situation as it fails to acknowledge fully an number of other factors that may, and almost certainly have, impacted on the overall number of requests for postal votes.

One, which did get a mention, is simply that some voters are likely to have decided not to request postal votes out of a lack of confidence in the system stemming from the city’s past problems with fraud.

Another factor that will have some impact is voter ‘churn’ – some of those who requested postal votes in 2004 will not be making such a request this year because the no longer live in the city, and as many of those who request postal ballots out of necessity rather than convenience are likely to be older people and people with disabilities, who would otherwise struggle to get to a polling station, one also has to factor in a degree of attrition by way of death.

One more factor that has failed to get any mention at all is that the attention given to issues of electoral fraud has also altered the behaviour of local parties – in previous years the main parties have been actively promoting the use of postal votes, as this piece by PoliticalHack from the 2005 general election shows. (You’ll notice that on this occassion, it was the LDs who were pushing registration from their local office in line with the policy of the national party).

This hasn’t stopped entirely – it is, after all, perfectly legal is done according to the law – but it is going on in a much less high profile while – the big push by all parties to get as many postal votes in as possible of a couple of years ago has dried up, no doubt for fear of creating an appearance of possible impropriety in light of the all the adverse publicity surrounding electoral fraud in the city.

What’s needed here, in light of today’s reports, is two things – first clarity as to the circumstances in which the figures on postal voting made the press a mere day before the election. Who released this information, why and whose authority if any? And was it release a matter of bureaucratic expediency or was there any political motivation behind both the release of this information and its timing.

Second, there needs to be a proper analysis of the fall in postal vote registrations over the last couple of year – one that seeks to adequately differentiate between those past registration that can reasonably attributed to possible fraud, as opposed to those that stem from loss of public confidence, ‘natural wastage’ (e-hem) or the reining in of active and overt promotion of postal votes by political parties.

Or is that too much to ask of a local authority whose capacity to adequately run an election has, in recent times, been subject to scrutiny and called into serious question.