The Electoral Commission is to investigate Tower Hamlets LBC after elections there were branded a “shambles” and described as worse than those in a “banana republic”.
As LGC went to press five days after the polls closed, staff at the London borough were still counting the results in the Bromley South ward in which two seats were up for grabs. At that juncture, both Labour and Tower Hamlets First – the local party of elected mayor Lutfur Rahman – had won 18 seats apiece and the Conservatives four seats, leaving the balance of power finely poised.
Aside from the length of time taken to announce the results, there have been accusations of voter intimidation, although the police – which had officers at all 125 polling stations in the borough on Thursday – had not received an official complaint from any voter or campaigner.
An Electoral Commission spokeswoman said the body had received about 20 complaints about the count, most of them relating to alleged intimidation and potential fraud. As a result, it will compile a post-election report into the borough which will examine the alleged problems.
In a statement, the spokeswoman said: “Clearly there have been issues at the Tower Hamlets count and we need to make sure we understand what happened and the reasons for it, before reaching any conclusions.
“As part of our review we will be talking to the returning officer and regional returning officer. We will be looking closely at what happened during the count, as well as the planning that took place beforehand.”
Peter Golds, leader of the council’s Conservative group, said lessons had not been learned about the counting process from the European Parliament elections in 2009 and local and general elections in 2010.
Cllr Golds, who has referred the council to the Electoral Commission, said: “We were told off in 2009 and now we have become an international shambles. I think banana republics are better run.”
Labour group leader Sirajul Islam said he thought delays resulted from high voter turnout and a large number of people voting for different parties on the same ballot slip.
“I don’t blame the people doing the count at all,” he said. “Perhaps the people organising it could learn from this and organise it better next time.”
A Tower Hamlets spokesman said the delayed announcement of results was due to several factors, including the fact that the parties seeking election used their right to request that ballot papers be individually adjudicated upon by the returning officer and his team; with a large number of split ballot papers; the mayoral election going to a second round and six wards being recounted.
The spokesman added the council had tighted up its electoral processes.
“This protocol produced the most stringent set of electoral measures in the capital, if not the country, to ensure that elections could be held in a transparent and fair manner,” he said. “However this need for transparency has lengthened the time taken to count the vote and our view is that accuracy is more important than speed.
“We will review our practice following the elections but broadly the new measures worked well and allegations of wrongdoing were investigated swiftly by the returning officer and where necessary by the police. In line with the process set out in the local protocol, any complaints about the elections should be directed to the returning officer.”
The spokesman said the council was aware of concerns surrounding voter intimidation but emphasised the point that no criminal allegations relating to activity at polling stations in the borough had been reported to the police.
“Under election rules, political campaigners are allowed to stand outside polling stations wearing rosettes, and to hand out literature,” the spokesman said.
“However, crowding or intimidation is absolutely not allowed, and that is why a police officer was stationed at every Tower Hamlets polling station throughout voting day, and limited the number of activists who were gathering, and prevented large groups of supporters from congregating.
“We strongly urge anyone who has evidence of fraudulent or inappropriate behaviour in relation to the election to make a formal report to the police, so that any evidence can be properly examined.”
The Electoral Commission conducted a separate review into Tower Hamlets last year following allegations of election fraud in by-elections in 2012. It said that while the police had identified “five allegations where there was evidence to suggest that an offence may have been committed… there was insufficient evidence to prove an offence”.
UPDATE 28 May: Labour has lost control of Tower Hamlets LBC as the final election results for the local authority were finally announced, five days after polls closed.
The Labour party previously had 26 seats on the council but it now has 20, while Tower Hamlets First has 18 and the Conservatives four.
The death of Tower Hamlets First’s candidate Hifzur Rahman in the run-up to polling day meant the local election in Blackwall and Cubitt Town ward was postponed. A by-election will be held within the next month. Three councillors will be then be elected bringing the total number on the council to 45.