An east London election: politics and coercion

The dubious tactics used by some party campaigners in Britain’s general election need to be examined as part of a wider fraud inquiry, says Delwar Hussain.

There have been extensive reports over the possible misuse of the postal-voting system in Britain’s general election of 2010, perhaps amounting to systematic fraud by groups intent on manipulating the choices of voters in particular areas. The issue raises great concern over the integrity of a democracy long regarded (particularly by itself) as one of the world’s cleanest; and it is even more embarrassing when Britain is so prominent in earnestly lecturing other countries (not least two it has invaded, Afghanistan and Iraq) on the need for democratic probity.

The borough of Tower Hamlets in east London has received especial scrutiny over the issue of postal-ballot fraud. The official Electoral Commission says it is investigating the matter, here and elsewhere (see Mike Brooke, “2010 Election: Police probe 'voting fraud' at Bethnal Green & Bow”, East London Advertiser, 24 April 2010).

Such investigation is welcome, even more as the concerns are longstanding (see “Police forces across Britain investigate postal vote fraud”, Times, 12 May 2005). But another development that should equally be of concern to the democratic process is less discussed: the complaints of some people to the electoral services that they were effectively coerced into voting for candidates other than those they would ordinarily have chosen.

The wrong choice

A young woman in Tower Hamlets told me that she and her elderly mother were “bullied” into handing their postal-ballots to a representative of the Respect Party after he knocked on their door seeking support. It was implied that they had to give him their ballots if they wanted to vote at all, as if this was normal procedure.

The canvasser initially asked the mother and daughter - who, like him, were of Bengali Muslim background - about which party they were thinking of voting for. The young woman, a first-year university student, said she was going to vote Green or Liberal Democrat. The man replied that the women, as Bengal Muslims, had to vote Respect because the party truly represented the people of the borough.    

Tower Hamlets has become an often fractious place. Whilst religious-based politics was once a minority pursuit, today it is no longer a surprise to hear demands for sharia law, or see tiny girls dressed up in hijabs like protective shields. The active promotion of such ideas helps to create a climate where the extreme becomes the norm.

The tendency emerged during the period when the Labour Party’s Oona King  represented the area in parliament (2001-05). It became even more prominent and visible after her replacement by the Respect Party’s George Galloway (who served as MP from 2005-10). King’s defeat at the hands of Galloway in the 2005 general election was very largely due to the political use of her support for Britain’s participation in the war on Iraq in 2003. It seemed a matter of time before her stance returned to damage her; and the most likely way it would become a political issue was via an Islamist narrative. That is supported by anecdotal evidence from the borough, where local residents attest that in 2005 campaigners went from door to door using all their verbal  powers of persuasion to vote for Galloway’s “Islamic party” in the (ultimately successful) effort to secure King’s political demise. 

The right party

The path from there to the doorstep in 2010 was not so far. Iraq had receded as an issue, but the concern to press politics in the area into an “Islamic” mould had not (see “Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam”, 6 July 2006).

The young woman was concerned that the eventual effect of such pressure would be to make her feel she had to wear a hijab when outside her home. She challenged the campaigner and said that she would stick to her original decision, ticking her chosen boxes. “No, you cannot vote for them, that is pointless. You may as well vote for the [extreme-right] BNP", the Respect man replied. He then accused her of being "brainwashed", continued to berate her about why it was her duty to vote for Respect, and moved on to questioning her devotion to Islam and their shared faith. She reports feeling very intimidated.

The young woman’s mother, unsure about which the “right” party was, was more easily persuaded. She allowed herself to be coerced into voting Respect. The Respect activist took the ballots away with him.

The young woman later wrote a letter to Tower Hamlets’ electoral-services office complaining of what had transpired. She says of the Respect man: “[He] abused his position and my lack of knowledge about the electoral system to manipulate me and my mother in various ways….I was so panicked that I was unable to focus on and read the conditions of the ballot paper itself and I am embarrassed to say I believed him that this was normal procedure…..It could be argued that we knowingly allowed this man to take our ballot papers…. Essentially we have been tricked, manipulated, panicked into voting and bullied into voting for the party the man represented. This was not an independent vote and was influenced by this confidence trickster/con-man”.

When no reply was received, the young woman followed up with a telephone call. A Tower Hamlets official told her that intimidation of this sort had been reported from all over the borough in the run-up to the election, and that she could come to the office to pick up two more postal-ballots. The council official also told her that they may be reporting these charges to the police. The young woman had at the time of writing not heard anything since.  

The young woman is concerned I do not name her. The caution seems sensible in view of an unrelated incident in the borough during the campaign, in which a journalist from the Independent newspaper who was investigating claims of electoral fraud was violently assaulted (see Jerome Taylor, “'The first punch came, landing on my nose, sending blood down my face'”, Independent, 4 May 2010). There is no suggestion whatsoever that members of any political party were involved in this incident, which is now under investigation.

The opportunity to vote twice that seems to have been suggested to the young woman is in itself questionable, and no solution to such a serious matter. Even more so as such incidents occur against the background of increasing allegations of wider political corruption in the borough (see “Dispatches from Tower Hamlets – in the thick of it”, Fieldwork in London Network [FiLO], 16 March 2010).

“In true democracy, every man and woman has to think for himself or herself”, said Mahatma Gandhi. The evidence suggests that in Tower Hamlets  the ability to exercise this freedom has been effectively compromised by intimidatory pressure. When British authorities continue to justify the invasion of other countries with hollow arguments about spreading democracy, the time is surely overdue to sort their own house.      

About the author

Delwar Hussain is an anthropologist, educated in London and Cambridge, whose work focuses on the contemporary Indian subcontinent. He is the author of Boundaries Undermined: The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh/India Border (C Hurst, 2013). He is currently researching his next book, a social and cultural history of the city of Dhaka

More On

Delwar Hussain is working for a doctorate at Cambridge University

Also by Delwar Hussain in openDemocracy

"Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam" (6 July 2006)

"Islamism and expediency in Bangladesh" (11 January 2007)

"Life and death in the Bangladesh-India margins" (13 January 2009)

"Digital Bangladesh: virtual politics, real lives" (8 May 2009)

"The felling of bungalows, the building of Dhaka" (21 August 2009)