Tuesday, April 05, 2005

And so at last it begins ...

It is eight months since I was selected to fight the Copeland seat but it seems like years. And the unofficial pre-campaign has run on so long that it must seem to most members of the public that we have already been fighting an election campaign for months. But today at last the "phoney war" came to an end as the PM finally went to Buckingham Palace to request a dissolution of parliament. And we finally know officially what everyone involved in politics has been convinced of for some time - the general election will be on 5th May.

The news coincided with a clutch of opinion polls, one showing the Conservatives five points ahead and the others showing reduced Labour leads, which suggest that the election is not a foregone conclusion. I think there is everything to play for. Anyone who spends time on the doorstep knows that many voters are fed up with politicians of all parties, large numbers say they have yet to decide how to vote, and that the Labour vote in particular is quite "soft". Any candidate of any party who takes the result for granted this time is most unwise.

The news also coincided with an extraordinary court case in which the judge quashed the election of six Labour councillors in Birmingham, accused the Birmingham Labour party of a "massive, systematic and organised fraud" and condemned the government's handling of arrangements for postal votes. Last week we were all reading about Robert Mugabe's fraudulent election win in Zimbabwe. Anyone who was complacent enough to imagine that it could not happen here should read the judgement given by Richard Mawrey, QC.

Judge Mawrey suggested that the vote-rigging perpetrated by Labour in Birmingham "would disgrace a banana republic" and said of the government's failure to accept that there was a problem that "To assert that 'the systems already in place to deal with the allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working' indicates a state not simply of complacency but of denial." He added that it was wrong to speak of systems working well to defeat fraud or of systems working badly because "There are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been," he said. "Until there are, fraud will continue unabated".

The judge went on to make serious criticisms of the way the new postal voting arrangements work. For example, he said of the way voting papers are posted in esily identifiable envelopes, "Short of writing 'Steal Me' on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands."

This whole situation came about because the Labour government complacently over-ruled the advice of the Elections commission. I do not think they were guilty of knowingly promoting vote-rigging but I do think they were guilty of indefensible arrogance in ignoring the advice of the commission, the House of Lords, and almost everyone else. And the people who they ignored have been proven to have had a much better understanding than the government about the implications of the measures which the government forced through.

I have strongly supported wider means of voting in the past, including E-voting and greater use of postal voting, but this must not be at the expense of the integrity of the poll. We urgently need a review of security arrangements for postal votes - it is too late for new legislation before May 5th, but everything possible must be done to tighten up.

I have also signed up to the Electoral Commission's new campaigning recommendations on what candidates should and should not do in dealing with postal and proxy votes.

No comments: