I was a newspaper reporter in Tower Hamlets between August 2001 and August 2005. During those years I was presented with dozens of corruption allegations made by members of the Bangladeshi community about other members of the Bangladeshi community.
The constant stream of claim and counter claim led me to assume that the Bangladeshi community had a problem with fraud. It didn't cross my mind that this view might be racist.
It wasn't until I read a judgement by Richard Mawrey QC on a massive electoral fraud scandal in Birmingham that I found out that, in the eyes of a judge, I was a racist.
Initially I wanted to justify my views but I gave up. I'm not sure if this was because I didn’t want to be a racist or because I was persuaded my views were wrong. My research was not particularly rigorous or conclusive but I suspect it is more than most others have done.
The evidence that electoral fraud is a problem in these communities appears to be real. The picture below is of the Returning Officers report on the Ocean Estate in 2002 where I believe Tower Hamlets council still requires photo ID from voters because electoral fraud is so rampant.
It is hard to tell if the problem is getting worse, but in 2007 Mawrey was presiding over vote rigging claims in Tower Hamlets and in 2008it was slough. In these cases the protagonists were Asian Muslims.
For some people it may be easy not to attempt any interpretation of the high incidence of electoral fraud in Muslim Asian communities. I wasn't one of them. This may have been because I had to write about it - which required some kind of interpretation - or it may be because prejudice is my default setting when faced with a confusing information.
However I think anyone attempting to interpret the existing information on electoral fraud is on dangerous territory even if they don't have racist tendencies.
At the moment the cure - the antidote to believing Muslim Asian communities are solely responsible for the high levels of electoral fraud - is little more than a conspiracy theory.
It revolves around the idea that political parties in the UK offer no-questions-asked public funds for community projects in return for blocks of votes. The Ocean Estate won a £56m regeneration grant in 2000, the elections mentioned in the photo above were to the board which distributed this cash.
I believe this theory - that UK political parties are partially responsible - but I don't know how many other people who read press coverage of election fraud will be are aware of it. This means that all they see is that electoral fraud seems to be committed mainly by Asian Muslims.
Private Eye opens can of worms
The leader of Tower Hamlets Council, Lutfur Rahman, has accused Private Eye of printing "Filth. Racist, Islamophobic, homophobic filth" (According to the latest issue of Private Eye (10-23 July 2009))
For three consecutive issues the magazine's Rotten Boroughs page has told readers about the financial rewards received by Labour councillors, mainly Bangladeshis, in the borough: “25 of Tower Hamlets 33 Labour Councillors now have paid positions in addition to their basic allowances.” These paid positions include two committee chairs whose roles have earned one £88 per minute (yes per minute) and the other a staggering £806 per minute.
The Private Eye pieces hint at an underlying cause: the Labour leadership needs to keep a majority of the fractured Bangladeshi community on side, or its power in the council will disappear. If Private Eye is correct, this is being achieved partly by paying them a wage.
A good place to check out the details of some of these claims is this piece (by former East London Advertiser journalist, Ted Jeory) originally written for the Sunday Express but posted on Harry's Place here where the comments provide some more background.
This comment is of particular interest: "What Lutfor Rahman has been able to do is to bring together a classic south Asian block of votes which are bought and sold by power brokers from the leading villages, Shiramishi, Habigonj, Hashimfatimapur and the others.
"He is now in a position where he doesn’t need the Labour Party to stay in control of the council and could form his own independent block by promising his supporters all sorts of favours in terms of jobs and grants."
Is cash for votes a real problem?
The idea that blocks of Muslim Asian votes are exchanged for public funds is not confined to some off-the-wall fringe. Government sponsored reports by Ted Cantle (Cantle Report) and David Ritchie (The Ritchie Report) on the 2001 race riots, or Richard Mawrey's judgement on the electoral fraud scandal in Birmingham in 2004, provide various incarnations of the claims that political parties are engaged in this activity.
The Ritchie Report said that electoral irregularities in Oldham “were a source of tension and concern” adding: “There appears to be a clan or client based approach to politics and public life within the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities which does not fit easily with traditional British processes and which has been exploited by white party leaders, to get votes, and Asian Community leaders, to secure influence.”
"It has not been helped by the area-based nature of many recent regeneration initiatives, which have encouraged people to think that there is a block of funding which, if they have the right placemen in the right positions, they can ultimately control."
The Cantle Report said something similar: “In some areas, the Asian community has drawn our attention to a situation where some local political activities, including the selection of candidates, owe more to familial and other inappropriate connections, than to the legitimate and pressing concerns of the local electorate.”
“It was suggested to us that some councillors had either solicited votes in return for support for community projects, or succumbed to undue pressure and representations. All institutions must examine their relationships with the different sections of the local community and ensure that there are no further ‘sweetheart deals’ with self-appointed, and often unrepresentative, community custodians.”
On 31 May 2009, former British Ambassador turned human rights campaigner Craig Murraysaid in his blog that Lord Patel got his peerage for "enforcing the New Labour vote among the Muslim community of Blackburn" and Baroness Pola Uddin for doing the same thing in Tower Hamlets.
He said: “The ennoblements in fact only symbolise an entire system whereby Muslim communities in the UK are kept dependent upon great streams of public money... Blackburn is soaked in EU regional funds and urban regeneration grants. It bristles with community centres, cultural organisations and community workers. The council is the biggest employer. I could go on and on.”
Why has no one dug into these issues?
An alarming quote from Election Commissioner Richard Mawrey's judgement following Birmingham's notorious 2004 electoral fraud epidemic might explain why so little is said about this: "This (the failure of the police to investigate electoral fraud) is not helped by the invidious position in which a police force is put when investigating electoral fraud in a local authority context.
"The alleged fraudsters may, after all, be members of the political authority to which the force is answerable. The noble cop who fights corruption at City Hall at risk of his career may well be a staple of Hollywood movies but he is much rarer in real life."
So it seems unlikely there will be any conclusive evidence that political parties are engaged in what Ted Cantle calls “sweetheart deals” that lead to communities relying on a political status quo for their jobs to be safe – which in turn leads to electoral fraud whenever there is a threat to this status quo.
The issue is rarely reported in the press. The story in Tower Hamlets has won more than usual interest because the allegations throw the East London Mosque and Saudi fundamentalism into the mix.
The racism problem
Mawrey asks the obvious question. In a section of his judgement called “The Asian Factor” Mawrey said: “Patently, most of the protagonists in these Petitions are members of the Muslim Asian community. Is this relevant?” His answer was ‘No’.
He said: “To suggest that Muslim Asians are prone to frauds of this kind whereas other communities are not, would be racist and moreover would not be justified by any evidence before this court.”
That was his view in 2005 and it was this view which alerted me to the fact that my own ideas about the Bangladeshi community were racist. In 2007 Mawrey was presiding over similar vote rigging claims in Tower Hamlets and in 2008 an electoral fraud case in Slough outlined in this piece from the BBC which resulted in Six jailed for postal vote fraud in May this year, 2009.
None of this changes the fact that it would be racist to say that Asian Muslim communities are more prone to electoral fraud because they are Asian Muslim communities.
So, unless you think there is an academic justification for racism, there must be another explanation.
The conspiracy theory cure
Ritchie, Cantle, Murray and, to some extent, Mawrey, all point to problems beyond the Muslim Asian communities as the causes of their problems. They all suggest that the communities themselves cannot be blamed. However, none of them can offer anything more than anecdotal evidence.
Because their argument lacks evidence, there is a danger that it could be written-off as a conspiracy theory. This is made worse by politicians and authorities who deny that any such activity goes on.
In April 2005, Sion Simon, Labour MP for Erdington, was offended by Mawrey’s take on Muslim Asian politics in his constituency and defended his councillors in Parliament: “Will the Minister reassure them that their reputations... will not be sullied by this judgement, whose suggestion that the corruption was city wide went beyond its remit and beyond the available evidence?” Ritchie also faced some criticism: Oldham officials attack riot report. And in 2007 the findings of Mawrey's short-lived investigation in Tower Hamlets into similar vote rigging claims were rubbished by the council.
Unfortunately, if these conspiratorial theories are fantasy, then the only culprits left in the dock are the Muslim Asian communities. At the moment this suits the Labour Party and the politicians who benefit from the deal making. But it also suits the BNP and any one else who wants to interpret the evidence in a racist way.
Is it responsible to believe in conspiracy theories?
In his recent book "Voodoo Histories, The Role of The Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History", David Aaronovitch says: “It is important not to overlook the smaller theories, since if believed, it seems to me, they eventually add up to an idea of the world in which the authorities, including those who we elect, are systematically corrupt and untruthful.” (Page 5)
Aaronovitch is not a fan of the conspiracy theory believing that they have huge potential to do damage. His first chapter describes the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” a false document that whipped up hatred against Jews.
He cites the principle of Occam's Razor: “This can be restated as “Other things being equal, one hypothesis is more plausible than another if it involves fewer numbers of new assumptions. Or, far more vulgarly, “Keep it Simple”.
The question is, if Aaronovitch, or anyone else applied this to electoral fraud in the UK what would they end up with? If they lived in Tower Hamlets, Oldham, Blackburn, or Slough, how would they explain the frequency of electoral fraud in Muslim Asian communities? And would their views be racist?