Despite having been significantly disadvantaged by it, the Tories have been virtually silent about the credible allegations of electoral fraud surrounding the curious Peterborough by-election
Note: Updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Wednesday 12th June 2019
Do you remember the general tenor of media reaction after the European Parliament Elections just five weeks ago? Admittedly, the (now permanently mis-labelled) “Liberal”-“Democrats” did reasonably well in them: but despite coming a distant second on 19 per cent to The Brexit Party’s 30 per cent, the overwhelmingly-dominant media narrative in reporting the results was “Lib-Dem surge”, or even – stretching mathematics far beyond anything Archimedes might have envisaged – “the Lib Dems were the real winners”.
Something similar was seen in the wake of Thursday 6th June’s Peterborough by-election, in which Labour managed, by the wafer-thin margin of 683 votes, to retain the seat, which had fallen vacant because of a successful Recall Petition by voters against its disgraced previous MP. The result has since been attacked as potentially fraudulent due to electoral fraud based on abuse of postal-voting, but more on that later.
From sections of the initial media coverage, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Labour had actually captured the seat, defying expectations, and against all the odds. “Labour shows Farage the exit”, rejoiced one Guardian commentator. “A major blow to Farage’s ambitions – the Brexit Party has a major problem”, burbled one report in the Daily Telegraph. “Nigel Farage’s swift exit is significant as Brexit Party bid fails”, exulted Sky News.
Less remarked upon, if at all, was the fact that the Brexit Party was formally launched only on 12th April 2019, which made coming from non-existence to within a whisker of winning a by-election and securing its first MP in a mere 8 weeks unprecedented. In comparison, the Labour Party took six years, from its formation in 1900 until 1906, to acquire its first MP.
Or that the Labour vote had collapsed from 48 per cent of the vote in 2017 to only 31 per cent, haemorrhaging 17 per cent in under two years. Or that the “Conservative” vote had also collapsed, suffering an even steeper 26 per cent decline, falling from 47 per cent to only 21 per cent between 2017 and 2019.
Those figures aren’t inconsistent with polling since the local elections in early May. The collapse in both Tory and Labour votes does look to be getting entrenched – when was the last time both “main” parties were regularly polling at around only 20%? The UK’s major political re-alignment that I highlighted as long ago last August is definitely under way, with the new divisions solidifying. A two-party system seems to be morphing into a four-party system, raising the prospect of coalitions being much more likely to secure House of Commons majorities.
Also downplayed was the advantage Labour enjoyed from its long-standing voter database and historic voting records, and its more superior on-the-ground organisation. I suspect that once the Brexit Party is on an equal footing with the established parties in those areas, we will see the effects.
In fact, merely entering the Peterborough vote-shares into the Electoral Calculus predictor of Westminster seats shows the Brexit Party as the second largest party in Parliament, and on nearly six times as many seats as the Tories. So quite where the two “main” parties apparent complacency, one in unexpected victory and the other in significant defeat, was coming from, was a mystery.
It soon became apparent that the Peterborough result was an outlier in several respects. First, it had defied most psephological predictions.
Second the size of the Labour vote looked an outlier against the general run of polling. In the 2016 EU Referendum, Peterborough voted 61:39 for Leave. The estimate of its vote, contained within that for the East of England region, in the EU Parliament elections on 23rd May showed the Brexit Party on 32 per cent against Labour’s 22 per cent. The differences from the YouGov poll of Westminster voting-intention taken on the same day look marked.
It didn’t take long for indications to start emerging of where the reasons for the apparent anomaly might lie. The lights started flashing amber even before the count, when the unusually high proportion of the turnout – which at 48 per cent overall was itself unusually high for a by-election – accounted for by postal votes was revealed, namely no less than 39 per cent, double the national average, and about 50 per cent higher than the largest ratio of postal votes to overall turnout previously recorded. Also noted was the 69 per cent return rate for postal ballots issued, which again looked unusually high.
Commentators soon picked up that among Labour’s local campaign team was one Tariq Mahmood, a convicted vote-rigger, as well as the appointment by Jeremy Corbyn to his Party HQ staff of one Marsha-Jane Thompson, herself possessed of a criminal conviction for electoral fraud.
Separately, a row soon broke out about the newly-elected Labour MP Lisa Forbes’ record of anti-Semitic racism, to the extent that some Labour MPs were calling for her suspension even before she had taken up her seat.
Pressure mounted on the Electoral Commission to mount a formal investigation, Peterborough Council was forced to launch its own investigation after numerous complaints, and the Brexit Party has now formally demanded an investigation into the numerous allegations of vote-rigging.
A comprehensive summary of all these events and their background can be read here.
Yet on this, intriguingly, the “Conservative” Party has hitherto been noticeably silent, until finally, leadership contender Jeremy Hunt conceded on Wednesday 26th June that the Party must take steps to combat electoral fraud.
Up till then, the Tories appeared to be virtually ignoring the mounting evidence of Labour’s potentially criminal electoral-fraud via postal-vote abuse. One might reasonably have expected them, if not to raise objections immediately, then at least to have been joining in the growing expressions of concern and suspicion. After all, their candidate was affected by it too.
Is it right to assume they’re relatively untroubled about it, either because they also hope to profit from it themselves in some areas, or because they’re content to tolerate it as long as it adversely affects mostly the Brexit Party, which is as big a threat to them as it is to Labour?
Or is it something else? Do they still retain the hope, even intention, to try and get Theresa May’s Remain-Lite, Brexit-in-name-only, “Withdrawal” Agreement” through the House of Commons using Labour votes, irrespective of who wins the leadership contest and thus becomes Prime Minister? And therefore don’t want to be instrumental, or even prominent, in having the Peterborough by-election annulled and re-run, which would almost certainly see a Brexit Party MP in Parliament?
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