Previewing the English and Scottish council by-elections of 12 August 2021

“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

There’s something for everyone in the 12th August 2021 edition of Andrew’s Previews with six by-elections, three in England and three in Scotland. All of the four largest parties in Westminster are defending one seat each, but we start with two independent defences in the Scottish Highlands:

Inverness West; and
Wick and East Caithness

Highland council, Scotland; caused respectively by the resignations of independent councillors Graham Ross and Nicola Sinclair.

Welcome to the far north. We start with two by-elections to the Highland council, which (using the standard European area metric) sprawls across 0.84 Belgiums at the northern end of Great Britain. This area is mountainous and extremely sparsely populated, with most of the Highland Council’s 235,000 or so constituents concentrated in the city of Inverness and other towns.

Highland, Wick and E Caithness

Around a tenth of the Highland council’s residents live in the historic county of Caithness, a generally low-lying area which includes one of Europe’s largest boglands, the Flow Country. Most of Caithness’ residents live in the two burghs of Thurso and Wick, leaving the rest of the county essentially empty. On the coast between Thurso and Wick can be found the traditional northeastern corner of Great Britain, the village of John o’Groats from where ferries go to the Orkney islands in summer.

Highland, Inverness W

161 railway miles from Wick, and a rather shorter distance along the A9 trunk road, lies the city of Inverness, the commercial and administrative capital of the Highlands. The Inverness West ward covers the city’s western residential suburbs: Balnafettach and Clachnaharry on the western side of the Caledonian Canal, and Ballifeary between the canal and the River Ness.

Highland, 2017

Politically, the Highlands are an area where the candidate often matters more than the party label. Political trends in the rest of the UK reverberate less strongly here when general elections come around; and local elections have traditionally been dominated by independent candidates to the point that they often went uncontested. The introduction of PR for Scottish local elections in 2007 put a stop to unopposed elections here, meaning that everybody had something to vote for, and it also broke the independent stranglehold on the council chamber in Inverness. At the last Scottish local elections in 2017 the Highlands’ electors returned 28 independent councillors, 22 SNP, 10 Conservatives, 10 Lib Dems, 3 Labour and a Green. The main independent group still leads the council, but they rely on a coalition with the Lib Dems and Labour for overall control.

Inverness West ward dates from the introduction of PR in 2007 and was redrawn in 2017. Its three ordinary elections to date have all returned one independent, one Lib Dem and one SNP councillor. The Lib Dems won a by-election in April 2009 for a seat previously held by an independent councillor, but didn’t defend their gain in 2012. In May 2017 the SNP topped the poll with 29% of the first preferences, the Lib Dems had 28%, independent councillor Graham Ross was re-elected with 21%, and the Conservatives finished as runner-up with 12%. If we recount the votes for one seat, the Lib Dems finish top with a convincing 61-39 lead over the SNP.

The 2017 boundary changes cut the size of Highland council from 80 councillors to 74, and the big loser in the redistribution was Caithness which went down from ten councillors to eight. Previously the burghs of Thurso and Wick had formed separate wards with a Landward Caithness ward covering all the rural villages; following the reduction the Landward Caithness ward was split up, with its southern and eastern parts being added to Wick ward to form a new ward called Wick and East Caithness.

The previous Landward Caithness ward was dominated by independent candidates, and going into the 2017 election it had a full slate of four independent councillors following a by-election gain from the SNP in November 2013: the SNP councillor had been forced to resign after it came out that he had gone over the expense limit in the 2012 election. Wick ward started off with independent dominance too, but an SNP gain in an April 2011 by-election broke the mould; the new SNP councillor, Gail Ross, was re-elected in 2012 at the top of the poll with 46% of the vote.

Ross didn’t seek re-election in 2017, and the first election for the new Wick and East Caithness ward returned to independent dominance, with five independent candidates polling 62% of the vote between them. Top of the poll was Willie Mackay, outgoing councillor for Landward Caithness ward, who polled 22% of the vote and was elected on the first count. Also elected on the first count was new independent candidate Nicola Sinclair, who polled 21%. Another Sinclair on the ballot was Andrew Sinclair of the Conservatives, who polled 14% and won the third seat. Raymond Bremner of the SNP (12%) narrowly defeated Neil Macdonald (9%), the outgoing Labour councillor for Wick ward, for the fourth and final seat.

So, for the same council we have two very different wards over a hundred miles apart geographically and almost as far apart politically. The by-election in Wick and East Caithness has arisen due to the resignation of independent councillor Nicola Sinclair, the chair of Highland council’s Caithness committee, who is going back to her previous career in local journalism. In this connection she has written this article (link) for the Press and Journal on the candidates to succeed her on the Highland council.

For the Wick and East Caithness poll you might fancy the independent candidate on previous form, and there is only one defending independent candidate here. He is Bill Fernie, who was a long-serving independent councillor for Wick West ward from 2003 to 2007 and then for Wick ward from 2007 to 2017. Fernie topped the poll in Wick in 2007 with 30% of the vote, but his star has fallen somewhat since then; he scraped in on the final count in 2012, and in 2017 he polled 7% in this ward and was eliminated in sixth place. The Conservative candidate Daniel Ross was given a large interview in the local paper (link), calling for devolution to Caithness in full “glumly pointing at potholes” mode. Most of Ross’ fire was trained on the SNP, who have selected Michael Cameron. Also standing are Jill Tilt for the Liberal Democrats (who represent Caithness at Westminster) and Libertarian candidate Harry Christian.

The Inverness West by-election is also an independent defence following the resignation of Graham Ross, the deputy provost of Inverness. Ross had served since 2012, and is leaving the council for family reasons. Again, there is one independent candidate to replace him: Duncan McDonald, who is semi-retired after a 34-year Army career in the Royal Logistics Corps. McDonald has been firmly endorsed by the Highland council’s ruling independent group. The SNP have selected Kate MacLean, who works for the NHS as a community development officer. The Lib Dem candidate is 25-year-old Colin Aitken, a native Canadian who moved to the Highlands in 2015. Another young candidate is the Conservatives’ Max Bannerman. Completing a ballot paper of seven candidates are Iain Forsyth of the Independence for Scotland Party, Libertarian Calum Liptrot and Ryan Mackintosh of the Scottish Greens. The usual Scottish disclaimers apply: Votes at 16 are in force and the Alternative Vote will be used, please fill out your ballot paper in order of preference.

Inverness West

Parliamentary constituency: Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey
Scottish Parliament constituency: Inverness and Nairn
ONS Travel to Work Area: Inverness
Postcode districts: IV1, IV3

Colin Aitken (LD)
Max Bannerman (C)
Iain Forsyth (Independence for Scotland)
Calum Liptrot (Libertarian)
Ryan Mackintosh (Grn)
Kate MacLean (SNP)
Duncan McDonald (Ind)

May 2017 first preferences SNP 1022 LD 964 Ind 849 C 416 Lab 235

Wick and East Caithness

Parliamentary constituency: Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
Scottish Parliament constituency: Caithness, Sutherland and Ross
ONS Travel to Work Area: Wick
Postcode districts: KW1, KW2, KW3, KW5, KW6, KW7, KW12, KW14

Michael Cameron (SNP)
Harry Christian (Libertarian)
Bill Fernie (Ind)
Daniel Ross (C)
Jill Tilt (LD)

May 2017 first preferences Ind 2902 C 649 SNP 549 Lab 404 LD 172

Dalry and West Kilbride

North Ayrshire council, Scotland; caused by the resignation of Scottish National Party councillor Joy Brahim.

N Ayrshire, Dalry/W Kilbride

For our remaining Scottish by-election we move to a ward which covers a large chunk of rural Ayrshire. Dalry (pronounced Dal-RYE, for those who weren’t aware) is an industrial town on the main railway line from Glasgow to Ayr and the A737 road towards Paisley; a bypass road for Dalry has recently been opened. The main industry here back in the day was ironworking; today a large employer is the DSM chemical factory, improving the health of the nation by producing vitamins.

This would no doubt have pleased the 1st Lord Boyd-Orr, who grew up in the nearby small town of West Kilbride on the Firth of Clyde coast. He was briefly an MP, representing the Combined Scottish Universities from an April 1945 by-election to 1946. John Boyd Orr was the first Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a position which followed on from a career doing important scientific research in nutrition. In 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Boyd-Orr was one of eleven British winners of that prize, eight of whom have served in the House of Commons: the other three are the 1976 winners Mairead Corrigan (now Maguire) and Betty Williams, and the 1977 winner Amnesty International.

West Kilbride has also given us Nicola Benedetti, a classical violinist who was born here in 1987 and whose musical career has blossomed since she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award in 2004. This column isn’t always appreciative of string players, but Benedetti can certainly play. You might have heard her at the Proms last Saturday, performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 2 with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (link). Here she is in action, inspiring the next generation of musicians and music lovers.

But this area’s main export has traditionally been not music but energy of some form or another. Just up the coast from West Kilbride is Hunterston, home to two nuclear power stations (one closed 1990, the other about to cease generation) and a port through which raw materials were imported into the UK for the Ravenscraig steelworks and our coal-fired power stations. With Ravenscraig long gone and coal-fired power stations about to go the same way, the Hunterston terminal’s coal-handling facilities are now being demolished.

Dalry and West Kilbride ward also has a large rural element, so it’s not a strong left-wing area. Its first election, in 2007, returned independent councillor Elizabeth McLardy, Robert Barr for the Conservatives and John Reid for Labour. Barr successfully sought re-election as an independent candidate in 2012, when Reid lost his seat to the SNP’s Catherine McMillan.

There was a clearout here in the 2017 election, as the SNP’s McMillan stood down and independent McLardy lost her seat to the Conservatives after polling 8% and finishing in sixth place. The new SNP candidate Joy Brahim topped the poll with 24%, the Conservatives returned Todd Ferguson with 22%, and independent Robert Barr was re-elected with 19%. A second independent, Kay Hall, was runner-up with 12%, and Labour crashed to 8%. The five independent candidates polled 46% between them, and if we rerun the count for one seat then it goes to Robert Barr, who leads Brahim by 56% to 44%.

N Ayrshire, 2017

Across North Ayrshire council the SNP and Labour tied for first place on 11 seats each in the May 2017 election, despite the SNP polling 35% while Labour had just 26%. There is a Unionist majority on the council (the other 11 councillors are 7 Conservatives and 4 independents). Labour run the council as a minority, and they recently became the undisputed largest group after one of the SNP councillors walked off to join Alex Salmond’s new Alba party.

The SNP’s Joy Brahim is now working outwith Dalry, and she has resigned from the council. To replace her the Nationalists have selected Robyn Graham; she is the national secretary of the SNP’s youth branch YSI. As with the two Highland by-elections above there is one independent candidate here: John Willis previously fought this ward in 2017, polling 27 first-preference votes and finishing in eighth and last place. Standing for the Conservatives is Ronnie Stalker, who runs a butchers shop in Dalry. The Labour candidate is Valerie Reid, who stood in 2017 as the second Labour candidate in Saltcoats ward. Completing the ballot paper are the Lib Dems’ Ruby Kirkwood, who stood in the local seat of Cunninghame North in the Scottish Parliament elections three months ago; and James McDaid of the Socialist Labour Party. Whoever wins may have to move fast to seek renomination for the 2022 North Ayrshire elections, when there will be new boundaries and this ward will be broken up.

Parliamentary constituency: North Ayrshire and Arran
Scottish Parliament constituency: Cunninghame North
ONS Travel to Work Area: Kilmarnock and Irvine
Postcode districts: G78, KA3, KA13, KA14, KA15, KA21, KA22, KA23, KA24, KA25

Robyn Graham (SNP)
Ruby Kirkwood (LD)
James McDaid (Soc Lab)
Valerie Reid (Lab)
Ronnie Stalker (C)
John Willis (Ind)

May 2017 first preferences Ind 2335 SNP 1219 C 1137 Lab 432


South Lakeland council, Cumbria; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Dave Khan.

S Lakeland, Grange

We come down the coast into England to reach Lancashire over the Sands. The town of Grange-over-Sands lies on the west bank of the Kent estuary, as it flows into the flat and dangerous sandbanks and mudflats and saltmarshes of Morecambe Bay. This mini-riviera is a Victorian seaside resort, with the railway line over the estuary and around the bay to Lancaster being the main link with the outside world. The railway runs along the coast next to a mile-long promenade, which is interrupted by the forlorn remains of the Grange Lido: this is an Art Deco open-air swimming pool which closed in 1992 and which the council may now be deciding to do something about. The Grange ward extends to the west, beyond the town boundary, to take in the village of Allithwaite.

Grange-over-Sands was included within Cumbria in 1974, and now forms part of the South Lakeland district and the Westmorland and Lonsdale parliamentary constituency. This is the last major holdout of Liberalism in north-west England: Westmorland and Lonsdale is the region’s only Lib Dem parliamentary seat (held by the former party leader, Tim Farron), and South Lakeland is the only district in the region with a Liberal Democrat majority. For now, at least; Farron’s seat is due to be broken up in the next parliamentary boundary changes, and local government in Cumbria is up for reorganisation as well. The current plan is for South Lakeland to merge with Eden and Barrow-in-Furness districts into a new council from 2023 onwards.

S Lakeland, 2019

In advance of this plan the May 2021 county and district elections in South Lakeland were cancelled, but Grange ward went to the polls anyway in May because a by-election was held alongside the election for Cumbria Police and Crime Commissioner. Grange-over-Sands is part of the Lib Dem majority in South Lakeland, and the Liberal Democrats held the by-election by the wide margin of 60-26 over the Conservatives. That was a swing to the Lib Dems since May 2019 South Lakeland elections (mapped above), when their lead was 58-28.
The Grange division of Cumbria county council was safely Conservative when it was last contested in May 2017, but it has very different boundaries to this ward (the county division extends north as far as the eastern shore of Windermere).

This second Grange by-election of 2021 is the result of the resignation of Lib Dem councillor Dave Khan, who was their candidate for the county division in 2017. He was narrowly elected for the Grange ward in 2018 (when the current boundaries were drawn up) and easily re-elected in 2019.

Defending for the Lib Dems is Fiona Hanlon, a singer and guitarist from Grange. The Conservatives have selected Steve Chambers, who was runner-up here in 2018 just 63 votes behind Khan; Chambers is a businessman and former police officer from Allithwaite and a governor of Allithwaite primary school. Also standing are Robin le Mare for the Green Party (who returns from May’s by-election) and Patricia Wright for Labour.

Parliamentary constituency: Westmorland and Lonsdale
Cumbria county council division: Grange (Grange-over-Sands parish), Cartmel (part of Lower Allithwaite parish)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Kendal
Postcode district: LA11

Steve Chambers (C)
Fiona Hanlon (LD)
Robin le Mare (Grn)
Patricia Wright (Lab)

May 2021 by-election LD 1427 C 627 Grn 163 Lab 155
May 2019 result LD 1366 C 665 Grn 202 Lab 134
May 2018 result LD 1215/1139/1121 C 1058/1016/975 Grn 272/115/75 Lab 189

Orwell and Villages

East Suffolk council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Melissa Allen.

E Suffolk, Orwell/Villages

For our Conservative defence of the week we travel to rural Suffolk. The Orwell and Villages ward covers the countryside between Ipswich and Felixstowe, from the Orwell estuary in the south to the Deben estuary in the north. Anything coming in or out of Felixstowe – and there is a lot of traffic here, because Felixstowe is one of the UK’s largest container ports – has to traverse this ward.

The largest population centres in the ward are the twin villages of Trimley St Martin and Trimley St Mary, named after two different churches which share the same churchyard. These are the last villages on the main road before Felixstowe, and they were bypassed in the 1970s.

E Suffolk, 2019

This area is the southern end of the East Suffolk district which was established following a reorganisation in 2019; previously it was the southern end of Suffolk Coastal district. The inaugural election for the current ward was close between the Conservatives and an independent slate led by Sherrie Green, a former Conservative councillor who had represented the Trimleys on Suffolk Coastal council. Shares of the vote were 35% for the Conservatives, 31% for the independent slate and 21% for the Green Party. The ward is split between two divisions of Suffolk county council, both of which were safe Conservative in May’s election.

Defending for the Conservatives is Trimley St Mary resident and Felixstowe town councillor Mick Richardson, a former policeman and Police Federation rep who now runs a business flying drones. The independent slate and the Greens have not returned, so Richardson is opposed for the vacancy by Michael Ninnmey of the Lib Dems and Labour candidate David Rowe; Rowe returns from May’s county council elections, in which he stood for Felixstowe North and Trimley.

Parliamentary constituency: Suffolk Coastal
Suffolk county council division: Martlesham (Bucklesham, Falkenham, Hemley, Kirton, Levington, Nacton, Newbourne, Stratton Hall and Waldringfield parishes); Felixstowe North and Trimley (Trimley St Martin and Trimley St Mary parishes)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Ipswich
Postcode districts: IP10, IP11, IP12

Michael Ninnmey (LD)
Mick Richardson (C)
David Rowe (Lab)

May 2019 result C 1179/1141 Ind 1040/1017 Grn 694 Lab 459


Tower Hamlets council, London; caused by the death of Labour councillor John Pierce.

Tower Hamlets, Weavers

“What was too vile for Kate Street, Seven Dials, and Ratcliffe Highway in its worst day, what was too useless, incapable and corrupt – all that teemed on the Old Jago.”
-Arthur Morrison, A Child of the Jago

We finish for the week in the east end of London. This has always been a poor and industrial area, and in the eighteenth century the Spitalfields area became a major centre for silk-weaving. London was a melting-pot even then, and most of the weavers were immigrants: French Huguenots and Irish were the main groups. The Huguenot and Irish weavers did not always see eye to eye, and there were major riots in Spitalfields in 1769.

As the population of Spitalfields grew, the weaving district expanded northwards into the west end of Bethnal Green, whose population trebled between 1801 and 1831. By the middle of the century, what is now Weavers ward was almost entirely built-up. This is the north-west corner of the modern borough of Tower Hamlets, located north of the Great Eastern railway line and west of Warner Place, Squires Street and Vallance Road. Shoreditch High Street railway station, on the East London line of the Overground, lies within the ward boundary.

This is not the sort of weaving industry those of us in the textile towns of the Pennines are used to. In Lancashire and Yorkshire the large industrial mills dominated, with their ranks of power looms producing miles of cloth on a daily basis. By contrast, the Bethnal Green textile industry harked back to an earlier time: weaving here was still the preserve of small family units living and working in specialised weaver’s cottages. Some of these cottages (with their trademark large windows, allowing natural light to illuminate the looms) have escaped the predations of the wrecking ball and the London Blitz, and still stand today.

There aren’t many of those cottages left though, and one reason for that is that Bethnal Green was, to put it mildly, a poor and deprived part of the city. The modern Weavers ward included Old Nichol Street, one of the most notorious slums in the whole of Victorian London, which inspired Arthur Morrison’s 1896 novel A Child of the Jago quoted above. By the time that novel came out, Old Nichol Street was already being demolished; its replacement, the London County Council’s Boundary Estate, has the distinction of being one of the UK’s first council housing schemes. The estate is centred on Arnold Circus, a roundabout named after the chairman of the LCC Alderman Arnold, and much of it is Grade II listed. The superlative London vlogger Jago Hazzard has recently looked into the Boundary Estate in some detail, and his video on the subject is worth a watch.

Despite further improvement schemes over the 120 years since the Boundary Estate was opened, this is still a rather poor area. The entire Weavers ward was in the more deprived half of the 2019 indices of multiple deprivation. The weaving industry here is long gone, and the Irish and Huguenots have generally moved on to be replaced by immigrants of a different kind. In the early twentieth century, the Boundary Estate had a large Jewish population fleeing from pogroms on the continent. Some decades later the 2011 census return, taken when Weavers ward had slightly different boundaries to those of today, found a significant population of Bengali heritage – appropriate for a ward which takes in the northern end of Brick Lane. However, the same census placed Weavers ward in the top 50 wards in England and Wales for those employed in professional, scientific and technical activities, and in the top 100 for those born in the EU-15 countries. The reason for this is obvious: the ward borders the trendy Shoreditch area and (particularly in the south-west corner) is easily within walking distance of the City of London and the jobs located there.

If you thought that history and demographic mix was interesting, wait till I start talking about the local politics.

Weavers ward was created in 1978 and redrawn in 2002 and 2014. It was one of the last strongholds in Tower Hamlets of the Liberal Democrats, who had won a majority on the council in 1986 and 1990; Labour won the 1994 and 1998 elections here partly due to a split which saw rival Lib Dem slates standing, but the unified Lib Dems came back to win the ward in 2002.

The 2002-06 term of Tower Hamlets council saw politics here start to become racial. The area became the first stronghold of the Respect party, a far-left group with strong support among the Muslim community. Respect topped the poll in the 2004 European Parliament elections across Tower Hamlets and won its first ever council seat at a by-election the following month. In 2005 the expelled Labour MP George Galloway, whose Glasgow seat had disappeared in boundary changes, fought the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency and narrowly defeated the sitting Labour MP Oona King. That acrimonious campaign set the tone for what was to come.

The 2006 council elections resulted in a one-seat Labour majority, with Respect winning 12 council seats. The Respect party progressively fell apart after that and many of their councillors ended up in the Labour group, changing the balance of power within the group and leading to the election of Lutfur Rahman as group leader and Leader of the Council. Rahman’s administration proved to be controversial and polarising. He was deposed as leader after the 2010 borough elections (which returned a large Labour majority, including three gains from the Lib Dems in Weavers ward).

What happened next has led to this column describing Tower Hamlets on a number of occasions as a “21st-century rotten borough”. And, unfortunately, we do need to go through this all over again in some detail for reasons which will become apparent.

The 2010 borough elections were combined with a referendum at which the voters of Tower Hamlets voted in favour of an elected mayoralty for the borough. Lutfur Rahman sought the Labour nomination for the October 2010 mayoral election, was blocked from getting it, stood as an independent candidate and won in the first round. His election led to a number of Labour councillors leaving the party to rally round his banner, forming a Lutfurite ruling group on the council. In the spirit of placename localism, they called themselves “Tower Hamlets First”.

The Mayor and council came up for re-election together in May 2014, with the council cut from 51 to 45 members on new ward boundaries. Weavers ward, on slightly smaller boundaries, lost a seat. Of the three Labour councillors elected here in 2010, Anna Lynch had resigned in 2012 and been replaced in a by-election by Labour’s John Pierce. He and Abdul Mukit sought re-election as Labour candidates, and Kabir Ahmed stood for re-election on the Lutfurite ticket. At least one of them was going to lose out.

The resulting election in Weavers ward was extensively dissected by the Election Court. I quote here directly from paragraphs 322 to 327 of the judgment of the Commissioner, Richard Mawrey QC (link to the whole judgment):

“Next we have Mr Kabir Ahmed. He is one of several brothers and is an active member of the Mayor’s team. Mr Ahmed was a Labour Councillor in the previous administration and was one of those who had ‘defected’ to Mr Rahman and become an independent. He was ‘selected’ as a THF candidate for Weavers Ward in 2014 and stood unsuccessfully.

For some time Mr Ahmed had given his address as 236a Bethnal Green Road E2, a flat above a shop. This was said to be a property with four double en-suite bedrooms and a shared living room. The other occupants were said to be: Mr Ahmed’s wife Sibly Rahman, his brother Mohammed Ansar Hussein, a Mohammed Mokit and Ala Uddin, who was said to work in the shop on the ground floor. According to Councillor Mohammed Abdul Mukit MBE, who knew Mr Ahmed well, he was not actually resident at that address, although he undoubtedly used it as an address for receiving mail. Both Mr Mukit and Mr [Andrew] Gilligan stated that the room allegedly occupied by Mr Ahmed and his wife was completely bare except for one bed, one chair and one desk.

Mr Ahmed’s non-residence in the Borough was a matter of some notoriety. Councillor Peter Golds, an indefatigable letter-writer had written to various people to complain about this more than once and had raised it in open council. Councillor Mukit confirmed that Mr Ahmed actually lives at 52 Gants Hill Crescent, Ilford [in the London Borough of Redbridge]: he had attended his wedding, the invitation to which had given that property as Mr Ahmed’s address. Mr Ahmed admitted in cross-examination that he paid no rent for 236a Bethnal Green Road and that he spent a lot of time in Gants Hill visiting his elderly parents.

Mr Gilligan told the court that Tracesmart and credit records he had checked also showed Mr Ahmed and his wife as resident in Gants Hill.

Applying the statutory test of residence …, I am quite satisfied that 236a Bethnal Green Road was not such a ‘residence’ as would entitle Mr Ahmed to be registered to vote from that address and I am equally satisfied that this was a mere accommodation address, used for administrative purposes. I did not accept that Mr Ahmed had any genuine belief that this was his residence: he quite clearly knew that the falsity of the residence was well-known to his political opponents and he continued to use that address.

It follows that Mr Ahmed’s registration was a false registration and that his votes were unlawful.”

The declared result in Weavers ward gave 1,237 votes to Abdul Mukit for Labour and 1,223 to Mukit’s running-mate John Pierce, with the Lutfurite Kabir Ahmed finishing as a close runner-up with 1,214 votes and losing his seat. As Ahmed was not a councillor the Election Court took no further action against him, although his false registration was an electoral offence and it is noticeable that he was absent from the candidate list for the 2018 Tower Hamlets election.

Shocking enough. But there was more to come. Mawrey’s judgment went on to conclude that postal voting fraud had taken place in Weavers ward. I quote from paragraphs 353 and 355 to 359:

“The principal evidence of the [postal vote] frauds was the testimony of Councillor Mukit and, to a smaller extent, Mr Gilligan, and the expert evidence of Mr Robert Radley.

The reliability of Mr Mukit was put in issue. Unfortunately for Mr Rahman, Mr Mukit was cross-examined on his instructions about one episode (the Water Lily wedding event…) where it was suggested to Mr Mukit that his evidence was deliberately untruthful. Mr Mukit stuck to his guns. Subsequent evidence was turned up that completely vindicated Mr Mukit’s account and, at the same time, established that the account of the same incident given by Mr Rahman had not been the truth.

The court accepted Mr Mukit as a truthful and reliable witness.

Mr Mukit knows the Weavers Ward well, having lived there for over thirty years. For the 2014 election he canvassed a large number of properties in the ward. He discovered a considerable quantity of addresses where there appeared to be no trace of the voter whose name appeared on the register. Though some of his evidence was admittedly hearsay, it painted a pattern of postal voters having been asked by supporters of Mr Rahman to hand over their postal votes and of voters having handed completed [Application to Vote] forms to Mr Kabir Ahmed and his brothers. Mr Mukit was astonished to discover several voters who told him that they had voted by post at a time when the postal votes had not yet been sent out. It turned out that these voters had been induced to hand over their completed ATV forms in the belief that they were actually voting. Mr Mukit discovered evidence that at one address, 7 Bacon Street E1, seven postal votes had been ‘collected by Mr Rahman’s men’ which apparently meant that they had collected the completed [personal voting statements] but uncompleted accompanying ballot papers.

One of the voters mentioned was an elderly lady, Gulab Bibi. This lady gave evidence in response to a witness summons (properly using an interpreter). Other members of her family also gave evidence. Both she and her family were adamant that she had cast her postal vote herself. A chance question from the Bench, however, revealed that what she had done was to sign a document and hand it over (clearly the PVS) and she denied ever having put a cross on a piece of paper. On the face of it this was a further instance of the first of the two frauds having been perpetrated on this lady (and the electorate).

Mr Gilligan told the court:

“We also visited another address, 37 Cavell Street E1, a small block of about twelve flats reserved for elderly Bangladeshi people, where I was told that a number of the residents had had their blank ballot papers taken from them against their will by supporters of Lutfur Rahman and Tower Hamlets First. Through the translator, one resident told me that this had indeed occurred. She said: ‘A woman came and said, we are here from Lutfur Rahman’s party. Many people of your age have voted for him already, so I’m here to take your vote. They came to me and took my signature and then took the blank ballot paper from me. I normally go to the polling station. I told them I was used to doing it myself and didn’t understand why it was different this year. I am a long-term Labour supporter and would never have supported Lutfur Rahman…'””

The Election Court went on to consider the evidence of Mr Radley, a document expert, who reported on a number of postal ballot papers which had been admitted into the count and their associated paperwork. Mr Radley examined 134 ballot papers, of which 105 were from Weavers ward, and found a number of features which indicated that a large number of the ballots and documents had been completed by the same person. To return to the judgment (paragraphs 369 to 372):

“Many of the unusual features were present in groups of documents ostensibly emanating from the same household, a finding which is consistent with documents from several voters in one household coming into the hands of a third party who later completed them.

It is not without significance that a large proportion of the questioned documents came from Weavers Ward where there was already the evidence of Councillor Mukit as to the activities of Mr Kabir Ahmed and his brothers and as to other voter irregularities within the ward.

None of these pieces of evidence is necessarily conclusive in isolation. The question is whether, taking all the evidence of … voter fraud mentioned above, the court can be satisfied to the appropriate standard that voter fraud … had occurred. In my view it can and I am so satisfied.

Furthermore the pattern and number of the irregularities, particularly in Weavers Ward is such that, in my judgment, it would be perverse to come to any conclusion other than that these frauds were organised by persons who meet the criteria of agent [of Lutfur Rahman].”

The Election Court accordingly concluded that Lutfur Rahman was guilty by his agents of personation and postal vote fraud. It was one of a number of electoral offences which were committed by him or by agents in the most corrupt British election campaign of modern times, and which resulted in his disqualification as Mayor of Tower Hamlets and the voiding of the 2014 mayoral election.

The resulting Mayoral by-election in June 2015 returned the Labour candidate John Biggs, then a member of the London Assembly, who defeated the continuity Lutfurite candidate Rabina Khan. Biggs was very easily re-elected for a second term in May 2018, by which time the Lutfurites had split into two parties: the moderate People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets and the more hardline Aspire. PATH returned a grand total of one councillor in the 2018 elections, the aforementioned Rabina Khan who has since wound the party up and joined the Lib Dems. Aspire came out of the 2018 elections empty-handed, despite finishing second in votes across the borough, but have since got back onto the council by winning a February 2019 by-election in Rabina Khan’s Shadwell ward (Andrew’s Previews 2019, page 17). Abdul Mukit and John Pierce were re-elected as Labour councillors for Weavers ward with a big majority, the Labour slate polling 50% against 15% for Aspire and 10% for the Green Party.

Tower Hamlets, 2018

For a look at what happens here in elections without a Lutfurite or two on the ballot, we can go up to London Assembly level. In May Weavers ward’s ballot boxes gave a 56-16 lead to Sadiq Khan over the Conservatives’ Shaun Bailey, while in the London Members ballot Labour polled 54% against 17% for the Greens and 12% for the Conservatives. Also in May, another referendum was held across Tower Hamlets which resulted in a strong vote in favour of retaining the mayoralty.

Mind, May’s GLA results might not be too relevant for this by-election. The poll is to replace John Pierce, who died in June at the appallingly early age of 40. Pierce was an Irishman who moved to London at the age of 19; he worked for the National Housing Association, an industry body for social housing providers, and he had served on Tower Hamlets council since winning a by-election in May 2012.

Defending for Labour is Nasrin Khan, who describes herself on Twitter as a would-be barrister and secretary of the party’s Stepney Green branch. Fasten your seatbelts, as the Aspire candidate is former councillor Kabir Ahmed who has learned one lesson from his corrupt 2014 election campaign: the Statement of Persons Nominated gives his address as “in the London Borough of Redbridge”. The Green Party have selected Nathalie Bienfait, who works in legal marketing and is studying for a master’s degree at Birkbeck. Also standing in Weavers ward are Emanuel Andjelic for the Lib Dems, Elliott Weaver for the Conservatives (a nice bit of nominative determinism there, although it didn’t help him much in 2018), and former UNISON general secretary candidate Hugo Pierre for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.

Parliamentary constituency: Bethnal Green and Bow
London Assembly constituency: City and East
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: E1, E2

May 2018 result Lab 1773/1516 Aspire 533/517 Grn 342/316 LD 266/139 Peoples Alliance of Tower Hamlets 231/141 C 220/194 Renew 154
May 2014 result Lab 1237/1233 Tower Hamlets First 1214/1128 Grn 557/527 UKIP 316 C 254/197 LD 202 TUSC 113

Kabir Ahmed (Aspire)
Emanuel Andjelic (LD)
Nathalie Bienfait (Grn)
Nasrin Khan (Lab)
Hugo Pierre (TUSC)
Elliott Weaver (C)

May 2021 GLA results (excludes postal voters)
Mayor: Lab 1668 C 469 Grn 312 Omilana 106 LD 86 Count Binface 45 Reclaim 45 London Real 35 Women’s Equality 34 Animal Welfare 32 Farah London 21 Let London Live 20 Burning Pink 13 Rejoin EU 13 Fosh 12 UKIP 12 Obunge 10 Heritage 9 Renew 7 SDP 5
London Members: Lab 1631 Grn 520 C 361 LD 139 Women’s Equality 85 Animal Welfare 43 Rejoin EU 42 Reform UK 28 Comm 27 London Real 23 TUSC 20 UKIP 20 Let London Live 16 Heritage 12 SDP 10 CPA 9 Londonpendence 8 Nat Lib 4

If you enjoyed this preview, there are many more like it – going back to 2016 – in the Andrew’s Previews books, which are available to buy now (link). You can also support future previews by donating to the Local Elections Archive Project (link).

Andrew Teale