British Elections Neither Free Nor Fair 92

Am posting my CiF article here – with my own original heading – just to safeguard it for eternity.

I was very pleased with the comments on CiF – 73 positive and 3 negative. But less pleased with the Guardian’s treatment of the article. It was never referenced on any of the main pages. It was linked from the CiF front page for only 14 hours – 11 of which hours were between 10pm and 9am.

By contrast, for example, a rubbish right wing article from Charles Crawford claiming that David Cameron’s East European allied parties are not really objectionable, was on the front page of Cif simulatenously and for a total of over 48 hours. Until it was whisked off and hidden at 9.48am, my article was garnering comments quicker than any other.

Here is the article again:

In my diplomatic career, I spent a great deal of time assessing the democratic merit of elections in various countries abroad. That gives me a peculiar perspective in looking at elections in the UK, and wondering what a foreign observer would make of them. I can do this also with the insight of having twice run as an independent parliamentary candidate.

Against international standards, British elections leave a great deal to be desired. The first crucial failing is the lack of an independent administration of the elections. In each constituency, the election is not run by the Electoral Commission, but by the local authority. The national Electoral Commission has only an advisory role and cannot even monitor or instruct local returning officers. The returning officer is almost always the chief executive officer of the local authority.

The problem is that, de facto, those chief executives are party-political appointments. Particularly in the long-term New Labour rotten boroughs of the north, local government appointments are a New Labour nexus. Bluntly put, the New Labour council of a northern town is almost never going to appoint a Tory chief executive.

In fact, the lines between council appointments and party appointments are often blurred. Bill Taylor was Jack Straw’s agent and full-time organiser in Blackburn in 2005. His pay came as a youth organiser for a neighbouring New Labour-controlled council. It would have been illegal for him to be thus employed by Blackburn itself and to campaign in the constituency. Reciprocal agreements between New Labour councils to provide full-time party staff ?” at the council taxpayer’s expense ?” are not uncommon.

There was a time when honesty in public life was such that the party allegiance of a local authority and its staff would not affect confidence in its ability to conduct a free and fair election. The parliamentary expenses scandal has killed the myth that our politics are honest and well motivated. I do not accept local authority chief executives as genuinely independent returning officers.

I will continue to use Blackburn as an illustration, because I have an intimate knowledge, having stood there in 2005. An independent candidate standing against Jack Straw in the coming election, Bushra Irfan, has already been told by the local election office that she will not be able to exercise her right to place her own seals on the ballot boxes, as the hasp only has room for the council’s seals.

She has just erected an election banner on her own property. Within hours, council officials arrived to dismantle it on the grounds that it did not have planning permission. This ignores the fact that election advertising for a “pending election” is specifically exempted from need for planning permission. But aside from that, one wonders whether other planning issues in Blackburn draw the same instant hit-squad response from the council?

Postal voting is a further major area of concern ?” and again, that concern principally centres on the northern cities. New Labour deliberately brought in a massive expansion in the use of postal voting, which was previously available only to the infirm or to those with other legitimate reason for not making it to the polling booth.

The polling booth is the vital question here. Those bits of board that prevent anyone from seeing how you vote, are an essential element of the secret ballot. New Labour has, in effect, deliberately removed it. Any vote made at home is a vote that may be filled in under the coercive eye of an individual able to enter your home and intimidate you ?” something nobody can do in the polling booth.

I am not theorising. Particularly among some patriarchal Asian communities, community leaders and heads of extended families can and do demand to see the postal ballot of those under their sway, before it is posted. Belated “safeguards”, like having to sign the accompanying form, do nothing to stop this domestic intimidation. It is widely recognised that one result of this postal ballot system has been the effective disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Asian women. Just as bad, it has also disenfranchised lower-status men in many Asian communities.

Again, I speak from experience, having listened to many first-hand accounts from intimidated people in Blackburn ?” and, in every case, the intimidation was to vote New Labour. In the Blackburn constituency in 2005, an incredible 12,000 postal ballots were cast: that represented 29% of the vote, compared to a national average of under 13%. What does that suggest?

But it is still more blatant than that. You will find this next fact astonishing. The regulations have been designed specifically to prevent the exposure of postal ballot fraud. By law, the postal ballots have to be mixed undetectably with the polling booth ballots before they are counted. Therefore, there is no way to prove if, as I suspect happened in Blackburn, a candidate received 25% of secret ballots but 80% of postal ballots.

It is this compulsory destruction of the voting evidence that convinces me that the motivation for extending the use of the postal ballot can only have been a self-serving act by the New Labour government.

But there is a still more fundamental point, which raises doubts about the democratic validity of Britain’s elections ?” and that is the question of whether a real choice is being presented to the voters.

International electoral monitoring bodies pay a great deal of attention to this. For example, in December’s parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan, it was the lack of real choice between five official parties, all supporting President Karimov’s programme, on which the OSCE focused its criticism.

How different is the UK, really? For example, I want to see an immediate start to withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan; I am increasingly sceptical of the EU; and I do not want to see a replacement for the vastly expensive Trident nuclear missile system. On each one of those major policy points, I am in agreement with at least 40% of the UK population, but on none of those points is my view represented by any of the three major political parties. And remember, only those three major political parties will be represented in the televised leaders’ debates that will play such a key part in the election.

Those debates will take place between three representatives of a professional political class whose ideological differences do not span a single colour of the wider political spectrum. Voters in Wales and Scotland are luckier, but for most people, there is little really meaningful choice available.

The Lib Dems are the nearest most people have to a viable alternative. At the last election under Charles Kennedy, they reflected public opinion in opposing the Iraq war, but under Nick Clegg they have become less radical than at any point in my lifetime.

The media limitation of debate to a narrow establishment consensus is not merely a problem at the national level. When I was a candidate in both Norwich North and Blackburn, the BBC broadcast candidates’ debates, but on each occasion I was not allowed to take part ?” even though I was a candidate ?” because the BBC was terrified their audience might hear something interesting. The Electoral Commission specifically recommends that all candidates be invited to take part in all hustings and candidates’ debates ?” but the Electoral Commission is a paper tiger with no powers of enforcement.

Censorship extends far beyond that. A traditional feature of British elections is the electoral communication, under which each candidate can send out a copy of their electoral address, delivered to every voter free by Royal Mail. Under another bit of Kafka-esque New Labour legislation, the Royal Mail now vets the content of every electoral address. The text must be seen and approved by a central Post Office unit before the leaflet can be printed and prepared for delivery.

So much for freedom of speech. The New Labour rationale for this is that the Royal Mail is checking the candidates’ election address does not fall foul of Britain’s notorious libel laws ?” the harshest and most restrictive of any western country. It also has to be cleared for many other laws restricting free speech, many of them introduced by New Labour ?” for example, that it does not “glorify” terrorism, or incite racism or homophobia.

So, if a candidate were to say in their election address that they believe Tony Blair and Jack Straw are war criminals, or (to take a topical example) that Christian bed and breakfast owners ought to be allowed to refuse gay couples, then their election address would be locked by the Royal Mail.

This is crazy. The Royal Mail delivers millions of letters every day. Some of them doubtless contain libellous and even racist statements. The Royal Mail does not open them all and check they are “legal”.

Actually, whisper that softly, we don’t want to give New Labour ideas.

Furthermore, in this case, it is not a court that decides if a statement is libellous, it is the Royal Mail. This is censorship of candidates during an election and without any court injunction. It says yet more about the cosy establishment clique that governs us that none of the major parties is up in arms about this.

Now, we come to the most fundamentally undemocratic aspect of British elections: the electoral system. It delivers massively disproportionate results with minority parties virtually unrepresented in parliament. At the last election, it delivered a good majority to an unpopular Tony Blair, even though New Labour received only 36% of votes cast ?” which represented just 22% of those entitled to vote.

But it does not favour the big parties evenly. New Labour can get a working majority with 34% of votes cast, while the Tories need 39%. If New Labour and the Tories both got 36%, New Labour would probably have almost 50 more seats. The Lib Dems could get 34%, yet win under half the seats that New Labour would get with the same percentage.

On top of which, we will see the irony of politicians rejected by the electorate being given comfy, paying seats in the House of Lords.

So, there we have British elections today: an unfair electoral system, censorship of candidates’ electoral addresses, little real political choice for voters, widespread postal ballot-rigging and elections administered by partisan council officials in a corrupt political climate.

Don’t be surprised if New Labour do that little bit better, when the votes are counted, than you might expect. As Joseph Stalin said, it is not who votes that counts, but who counts the votes.

So are British elections still free and fair? If this were a foreign election I was observing, I have no doubt that my answer would be no.

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92 thoughts on “British Elections Neither Free Nor Fair

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  • mike cobley

    There are two aspects of electing an MP which are seldom mentioned. Firstly, a consitutency electorate is not just electing an MP to represent their interests in the House of Commons, they are also electing someone who will deliberate and argue and debate over issues which affect the nation. Secondly, when voting for an MP and his/her party one has to make a judgement on the content of their manifesto and how useful it will be in solving our problems – AND, we also have to judge if, when in office, this same MP and their party will be swayed/constrained by the public’s stance on vital issues. New Labour repeatedly and flagrantly defied the public’s demand to withdraw from Iraq and now Afghanistan: they are a gang of anti-democratic, pro-corporate thugs who deserve to be dragged along the street by the scruffs of their necks and pelted with rotten fruit. After a free and fair election, of course.

  • dreoilin

    Craig, for what it’s worth, I thought the commenters were delighted to see something fresh, that they could get involved with and vent about. (Excuse me: With which they could get involved, and about which they could vent.)

    I’ve been watching some coverage (athough it’s terribly boring) of the election run-up so far, and a couple of things have struck me:

    Cameron is running on a slogan of “Change”, like Obama, which turned out to be no change at all (as Pilger points out) and secondly, he’s even being coached for the upcoming debates by the same person who coached Obama. However, he doesn’t have the charisma to carry it off.

    Thirdly, I was watching Fareed Zakaria on CNN Global, and he had on his panel an American woman (?) who was a former Deputy Editor of the Spectator and columnist for several British newspapers. Anne Applebaum. She began her remarks by saying, “In a two party situation like you have in the UK …”

  • d

    great article thanks, such a shame that the public at large suffer from enough cognitive dissonance issues that this may not even get through to them even if they read it.


  • Duncan

    So let me understand this; there’s no choice in British Politics because of the three main parties none supports both withdrawal from Afghanistan (LibDems do), scrapping of Trident (LibDems do) and ‘scepticism’ of the EU (whatever that means) (the Tories are pretty scepticial, LibDems want to get rid of the CAP). Look, I’m sorry you can’t find a party which exactly corresponds with your own views, but that’s life. From that fact to the claim they’re all alike is a non sequitur.

    As for whether they should be ‘more radical’ they’ve got smart bunnies running their policy departments; if it were the case that ‘radical’ made you more electable then they’d be more radical. Unfortunately as you learned in Norfolk radical doesn’t win you votes. As to the claim the LibDems are ‘less radical than they were under Kennedy’ I just think that’s evidently nonsense. They’re now running on a platform which includes the legalisation of cannabis, the scrapping of low rates of income tax, the overhaul of council tax, complete change of the national election system, and post-Kennedy a return to the 50% rate of income tax (something which was dropped and may return). Your contrast with the Iraq war makes little sense; Clegg, Campbell, Huhne, Cable and the others in charge of the party all opposed the war at the time and were it to happen again and I’m sure they’re oppose it all over. The reason Kennedy was ousted as leader was in part that he wasn’t felt to be radical /enough/. He did have a higher media profile, however, and the newspapers hate reporting on anything other than Labour and the Conservatives so the reason you might not know about the other points of the platform is because no one ever writes about it. Kennedy was slightly radical, Paddy Ashdown was not radical st all (and was quite a fan of New Labour). The LibDems under Campbell and Clegg, whatever else you may think, are more ‘radical’ than they’ve been since (at least) David Steel.

    Good stuff on the postal vote system but I wish you’d posted that in isolation from the rest. The rest of the article makes you sound like a chip-on-your-shoulder tin-foil-hat-wearing failed politico, which diminishes your credibility in a way which may be detrimental in getting your message across.

  • Richard Robinson

    dreoilin – “Cameron is running on a slogan of “Change”, like Obama”

    They have posters up – “vote for change, vote conservative”. If words have any meaning at all, this is ridiculous.

  • dreoilin

    Haha! Exactly.

    We have a very similar election ahead of us, you know. But not immediately.

  • Craig


    err I wish the Lib Dems did support withdrawal from Afghanistan. They most definitely do not. And the position on Trident “No like for like replacement” is a deliberate fudge to keep Ming and the militarists happy that could mean anything.

    I have just come back from dleivering Lib Dem election leaflets. Best choice we have. But due to Ming and Paddy and all those young careerists on MP’s staffs far too close to the cosy establishment consensus,

  • Arsalan

    Tha war against afganistan is one of those Major issue in which we should not bend.

    And now that you have done their donkey work by delivering their bits of paper, what will you get in return?

    Are they prepared to become Antiwar now that you have put their leaflets through doors?

    What have they agreed to change because of your help, or is it all for free?

    Craig the war against Afghanistan is a staging post for other wars. It is a mid points which requires at least two additional wars at its ends to fulfil its objectives.

    In the south at the end of the pipe and the north at its beginning. So Craig, if the lib dems are for the next set of wars, will you leave them after helping them gain seats? Or will you help them gain some more with the excuse they are still the best of the three?

  • technicolour

    Isn’t what matters is if that particular Lib Dem candidate had voted/would vote against it?

  • arsalan

    Tech would a Zionist Party like the Lib dems offer a non-Zionists like Craig Murray a safe seat, so he could vote no to a Zionist war such as the one against Afghanistan?

    It isn’t just Labour who kickout or sideline non-Zionists in their ranks, lib dems have done the same.

    What makes anyone think that they will make a special exception for Craig?

  • Jon

    @Duncan: ah, the old “practical” argument for realpolitik. It sounds so sensible, doesn’t it: let’s not be too radical, because the public don’t want it, and anyway enough of these silly conspiracy theories! The third and the middle way, and all that!

    Except: the British public do want radical. They want someone to be a champion of public services, which is supported in theory by the big three, but to varying degrees, not supported in practise by any of them. The Tories are mixed up in some worrying healthcare privatisation crowds, New Labour have been spending on defence and ID cards to such a degree that they’ll find cuts elsewhere hard to avoid, and Clegg mentions the necessity of cuts every time he opens his mouth.

    The public would like to see more in the way of prosecutions over the expenses scandal, but we have only a handful and whether they’ll come to fruition is doubtful anyway. Proper solutions – like the renting or purchasing of permanent MP housing close to Westminster, haven’t even been discussed.

    Ditto the banks: to their credit the Tories (surprisingly) and the Lib Dems have both mentioned reserving state bailouts for domestic banking only, but the public have grown cynical that this might actually make it into law. Their ill-founded frustration that “nothing will change” will turn out to be accidentally prescient; would any commenters here think it stands a good chance, given the lobbying power of the financial industry?

    So, if “radicalism” is not a vote winner, but the public want “radical”, what are the Lib Dems playing at? Well, it was perhaps the major part missing from your post: their manifesto is calculated to be acceptable to the media elite, not the public. Few anti-Zionist MPs on the Lib Dem benches are free to speak their mind, as we’ve seen with Jenny Tonge; the media elite have a different agenda to ordinary people. And I should think that position is sensible enough, in liberal circles at least, not to be dismissed as a conspiracy theory.

    I think your post says more about your conservative perspectives than it offers a sensible critique to Craig. You are opposed to “radical”, in whatever context, and I am guessing that the muted opposition we saw from the Lib Dems on Iraq was fine with you as well. You are of course welcome to your views, but painting opposing perspectives as “tin-foil hat” just because you disagree with them is not the best basis for a reasonable discourse.

  • Jon

    @arsalan: it’s not reasonable to continually refer to the Lib Dems as a “Zionist Party”. Sure, they bend over backwards to “befriend Israel”, against all their principles, and Craig is on record that Kennedy sacked Tonge even though he didn’t want to do it. So – I suspect it would be closer to call them a “blackmailed party” instead. And I am not given to conspiracy theories, as I’ve mentioned before.

  • Jon

    … and the war in Afghanistan is hardly Zionist. It’s corporatist, which as an influence is much more pervasive that the Israel lobby.

  • technicolour

    Arsalan: I think Craig does support the existence of Israel, which I think in your eyes makes him a Zionist, but I’m sure plenty of Lib Dem MP’s are anti-war. I can’t find a website for it, and I can’t think of a Lib Dem MP (apart from Lembit Opik) at the moment. But you could check.

    Jon’s right, these are corporate wars, or the military-industrial complex’s wars. Not people’s wars.

  • arsalan

    Jon, Blackmail maybe their reason for supporting Zionism above their principles.

    And others have other reasons to go against their principles by supporting Zionism, such as bribery.

    It still makes them just as Zionist, it just means they are amongst the majority who are blackmailed in to Zionism.

    As apposed to the minority who are bribed in to Zionism.

    No one really believes in silly little racist ideologies such as Zionism or Nazism.

    They all have ulterior motives for going against their principles such as bribery, threats, alliances and vendettas to name a few.

    Why use Zionism to describe the war against Afghanistan?

    Because it is the same thing. except with a different chosen people and a different inferior race.

    In this case the white man is the chosen people while the afghans are lesser races fit only to be governed by a higher chosen race.

    And the oil in central Asia is the promised land!

  • rob

    Craig, I don’t want to divert attention from your article but it seems to me that the treatment of it is typical of a real wind of change in the Guardian. There is, I think, a significant move to the right despite some of the old lefties who are still flailing about trying to square the circle. Can it really be that they are (like the BBC) trying to lick anatomy prior to a tory win? Jeez I hope not. But in fact my feeling is worse than that: my sense is of a deterioration (with a few honourable exceptions) of intelligent comment and opinion. There seems to be poorer intellectual rigour. I feel that they are going for a new market with a more naive level of analysis. I suppose they need to make money and are dumbing down, even if they retain a few of the old hands.

  • arsalan


    I’m not sure what his position is, all I know is it isn’t my position, because he did say he doesn’t agree with my position.

    Mine is a reversal of the middle east carve up that that the British and French did after WW1 including what is now known as Israel.

    That way all the Palestinians who were kicked out of their homes in Palestine can go back to them. And Jews who may have losted their homes anywhere in the middle east can go back to them. No one would need to be expelled anywhere at anytime because all the land will belong to everyone.

    The other non-Zionist solution is the one state solution, or the South African model. This would mean the abolishing the Palestinian authority in the way the so called Black homelands were abolished in South Africa. It would result in all of the land between the river and the sea being declared one state, all the people in that land being granted full equality and full citizenship as happened in South Africa after the end of apartheid. This is popular amongst the left. It would result in no one being expelled, whether Arabs in Pre1967 or Jews in post. The reason why this would be a Non-Zionist solution is Palestinians are already the majority between the river and the sea. So if it is one man one vote, Israel will no longer be a Jewish state, less so if the Palestinians who were kicked out decided to come back. If there was full equality, they would have that right, but even if none decide to come back, Palestinians will still be the majority.

    The third solution is the two state solution. Or the South African Apartheid solution.

    This is based on the South African modal during apartheid. At its best it would require hundreds of thousands of Jews to be expelled from the west bank. It would also require Palestinians to be expelled at intervals to keep a Jewish majority because of the high Palestinian birth rate. It would allow Israel to claim to be democratic by taking away citizenship from all Palestinians it expels.

  • Anonymous

    That was actually what south Africa did to claim to be democratic. It declared tiny camps in the worst lands as independent black countries, and expelled blacks from all over South Africa to does so called independent countries.

  • Anonymous

    I find it strange that leftists who picketed against South African Apartheid, are now recommending that same system to the Palestinians?

  • Toby

    I’ve read that article of Craig’s and what he seems to be arguing for is the single state solution. This would involve the dismantling of the current racist Israeli state and its replacement with a state which recognised all the people within the current Israeli state and the occupied territories as equal citizens within a single state.

    In the Israelis keeness to hold onto the occupied territories they themselves are making this solution more likely. They’re just too stupid and racist to realise it.

    This is a better solution than what’s called the two state solution because the Israelis aren’t interested in two states. They’re only interested in their state and mini bantustans for Palestinians which the Israelis would control anyway.

    Israel doesn’t have any special right to exist in its present illegal and racist constitution, at least not in the minds of decent people.

  • MJ

    I’ve just realised that I made my very first comment to Craig’s blog on that thread. It provoked a major complaint from some leading British Zionist accusing me of being anti-semitic and, by extention, Craig too for not deleting it. Tee hee. Made my day as I recall.

  • arsalan

    Leading British Zionists call the sun antisemitic when it doesn’t come out to dry their underpants.

    They say it so much, that it has become a reflex.

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