Thursday, April 24, 2008

Aston mud slinging

If you are in any doubt about the probity or propriety of your actions, you should ask yourself the question, ‘What would a reasonable observer think?’
Electoral Commission, s21 Guidance for Candidates & Agents 2008

Things are hotting up in Aston, the focus of legal action on a number of occasions in recent years. Following the embarrassment of the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Member (information correct at time of going to press) Cllr (ditto) Ayoub Khan, when his support for failed candidate Saeed Aehmed ended in ignominy as a judge slammed his behaviour, things have contrived to slide further downhill.

Last week, Cllr Khan waited until fifteen minutes before the closing time to submit a few hundred voter applications and some new postal vote applications. Nothing wrong with that - all perfectly legal - but there has been a local protocol signed which advises that such documents should be submitted to the Elections Office within 48 hours of being received by a political activist, in conformance with the Electoral Commissions code of conduct, where s14 says the following:
If you are given a completed application form, you should forward it directly and without delay to the local Electoral Registration Officer.

Unfortunately, rumour has it that some of the applications delivered by Cllr Khan were not delivered 'without delay,' but may have lain somewhere for several weeks. I have heard tell that some may even date from January or February - but that's to be confirmed. Needless to say, there's a good excuse - Ayoub has been housebound for a fortnight with flu and he was the only person with a key to get access to the Lib Dem campaign office. If he's the only one they trust with the key, what ARE the rest of them like? The cynics point out that late submission might be an attempt to discourage close scrutiny of the applications.

The latest twist to this story is that it has been revealed that despite his excuse
"I had been very ill with 'flu for two weeks"

Cllr Khan managed to drag himself from his sickbed to attend a lunch with key members of the Somali community - many of whom are Dutch citizens and thus entitled to vote in local and European elections, hence Cllr Khan's eagerness to sign them up. He managed to get to this apparently long-standing engagement just four days before he was able to get those application forms down to the Elections Office. Now, I would consider ensuring that people are enfranchised a key function, so I would not want anything to get in the way of that happening - least of all putting it second to getting a good lunch.

Unsurprisingly, John Hemming has been swift to criticise - the elections office. You see, this only came to light because one of the staff in the office made a mistake and rang the Labour Party regional organiser, rather than dialling the Liberal Democrat. He was in a meeting, so they left a brief message to explain the concerns and didn't realise that they'd called the wrong person until later. John's been supportive of this highly-pressured member of staff, accusing them of Labour bias and has pointed out that they are open to prosecution - not that he wants to wield the axe, of course. He's continued his kind words for City Council employees by claiming that polling station staff have been campaigning for Labour,
I think it is important in the light of what happened that we have a proper inquiry into staff in the elections office campaigning for the Labour Party.... The elections office has for a number of years had people who have been working for the Labour Party. We have Labour activists running polling stations, this is Mugabe territory
although he's now backtracked and says that it only applies to three or four cases in previous elections. As there are 300 or more polling stations, that's hardly endemic - although clearly, independence is expected and bias shouldn't be permitted, even in less than 1% of the cases. Very dramatic, I'm sure, but entirely baseless. John's outbursts are becoming increasingly off the wall and embarrassing to the Liberal Democrats and to our City.

Rumours have it that the Tories have had enough and if the voters in Aston don't solve the problem, Cllr Khan will have to step away from the Cabinet table.

John has struck back with a photograph of a Labour councillor apparently entering the house of a voter who has a postal vote. This was taken on Tuesday, after the first batch of postal votes was sent out on Monday, although it isn't known if the voter had received the ballot paper as a second batch was sent out on Tuesday. Labour activists have all been briefed to not do this and any breach of that policy can have serious consequences for the individual concerned in terms of the party, although it is not illegal and not against the Electoral Commission guidelines.

I fear that more legal action is certain over Aston after the election.

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