The election of a new mayor for Tower Hamlets, prompted by the ejection of the last incumbent for widespread fraud, is already the subject of 16 separate allegations of electoral irregularities, police have confirmed.
Four days before voters in the east London borough choose a successor to Lutfur Rahman, Britain’s first directly elected Muslim mayor, Met officers are assessing claims of the harvesting of postal votes, the use of “ghost” voters and the improper distribution of election literature, officials have told the Guardian.
Mayoral candidates from the major parties say the fraught contest, to be held on Thursday, is far from a foregone conclusion. Some political pundits had predicted it would be an easy victory for Labour after an election court six weeks ago forced the politically independent leader from office.
Rahman, a Bangladeshi-born solicitor and a fiercely competitive community politician, faced a withering judgment from Richard Mawrey QC which meant he had to leave office immediately and could stand again for five years.
Labour activists fear that Rahman’s personally endorsed successor, Rabina Khan, is garnering some of the support that they had hoped was only loyal to Rahman.
A statement from the Met shows that despite intense scrutiny from the media, the police and council officials, there are still some claims of attempts to subvert the democratic process.
A Scotland Yard spokesman said on Friday: Sixteen allegations of electoral malpractice are being assessed by the Met.
John Biggs, the Labour candidate who is favourite to win, could be forgiven for giving up on the borough. During the last campaign he was the victim of a “ruthless and dishonest” campaign by Rahman to brand him a racist, according to Mawrey.
The judgment has left many people in the Bangladeshi community, which makes up a third of the borough, suspicious of the political process.
Given the ferocity of Mawrey’s judgment, this may not be surprising. Rahman and his supporters were also found to have used religious intimidation through local imams, rigged votes and allocated local grants to buy votes. Rahman’s party Tower Hamlets First, of which Khan was a prominent member, has been disbanded.
Biggs said many voters were unhappy with the image of the borough following the judgment. “They want clearer and less compromised leadership. Within the Bengali community there is still some anxiety that there has been some sort of stitchup.
“But there has been some movement in opinion. And a lot of people want to see some straighter form of politics and they don’t want to see the borough’s name in the mud,” he said.
Biggs, a former City analyst who now chairs the audit panel at the London Assembly, confirmed that Labour had already made formal complaints about possible fraud.
“I think the returning officer has been made aware from a number of political parties about the anxieties which are a continuation from last time. My agent will have raised concerns and I know that other agents will have done the same,” he said.
“I know through networks that there is still an operation to actively collect postal votes to encourage people to vote. The people of east London are mightily pissed off with these practices and want to see that back of it,” he said.
Allegations that election leaflets of Khan have been improperly distributed alongside council leaflets surfaced last week. A local blogger, Mark Baynes, took pictures of a man who was giving out the leaflets and filmed him in action.
Khan’s literature appeared to have been folded inside newsletters from Tower Hamlets Homes [THH], the body that runs the borough’s housing. Khan was the council’s member responsible for THH during the Rahman administration.
In a cafe a short distance from Brick Lane’s busy restaurants, Khan said she was being tarred with the same brush as Rahman, and that there was no evidence tying her to any claims of electoral fraud.
The former chair of the borough’s housing committee said she has a more transparent and inclusive approach compared to Rahman. Still, she is struggling to define herself as a separate candidate from her former close associate.
Her candidature was announced by Rahman last month at a rally to gather support for him. At least two of her close advisers worked with Rahman throughout his last campaign. She appears alongside Rahman on posters.
She is not, she maintains, the former mayor’s puppet. “I am my own person, I am a woman and have my own credentials. I have worked for the last six years here and I have stood up for the people and helped many people in housing,” she said.
She denied that her supporters had been involved in any voting irregularities and refused to say whether she suspected that others had too.
“They can do negative campaigning against me but I am not going to get involved. We should be discussing policy,” she said.
Regarding the allegations of improper leafleting, Khan said she did not recognise the filmed person. “Immediately after I saw it, my agent reported it to the returning officer,” she said.
Police and council officials are preparing for a fraught last few days of the campaign. On election day there will be dozens of officers enforcing exclusion zones around polling stations in an effort to stop the intimidation of voters.
The count on Thursday night will be held at a venue outside the borough, following claims that the last mayoral election count was insecure and that large groups of men were allowed to intimidate council officials and candidates.
Rahman still plans to fight Mawrey’s judgment. Police are continuing to examine whether to bring charges against the former mayor for electoral fraud.