Opinion: ‘Your votes and the system matter’

Peterborough MP Paul Bristow writes his regular column for the Peterborough Telegraph...

Saturday, 11th September 2021, 2:15 pm
The Elections Bill will tighten the rules.

This week saw the arrival of the Elections Bill in Parliament. It will tighten the rules on postal votes and require ID at polling stations. Our experience in Peterborough shows this is both necessary and overdue.

As I told the House of Commons: “In 2008, three Peterborough Labour candidates were convicted of electoral fraud offences. They were diverting postal ballots to addresses that they could access, collecting them and fabricating votes. The main protagonist received a 15-month sentence.

“Still now, every time we have an election, those same activists are seen and photographed leading postal vote teams and pictured telling at polling stations. They have even turned up to recent elections. At election counts in 2019, the same people were there.”

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Peterborough has wards with postal voting rates way in excess of the norm. The bundles of postal votes handed in at polling stations on the day of an election are inherently suspicious.

And all that’s required to steal someone’s regular vote is to turn up at a polling station and give their name and address. No questions are asked. No identification is required.

Local concerns about vote-stealing ‘personation’ were sufficiently serious that Peterborough City Council has installed CCTV cameras at some polling stations. Yet even CCTV is of limited help unless an individual is spotted making multiple visits.

In Parliament, naturally enough, the Labour Party opposed the legislation. It quoted crime statistics and claimed there is no evidence of a widespread problem.

We have a system that operates largely on trust. We are talking about crimes that are almost undetectable. The statistics prove nothing. All any of us can do is take a guess at prevalence.

Having spoken to people who were denied a ballot paper because they were marked as already having voted, when they clearly hadn’t voted, I have my own view.

Whether those who claim there’s no widescale abuse are right or wrong, leaving our system wide open to abuse is a problem in itself. That’s what Labour’s argument misses completely.

Our current system is an invitation to the unscrupulous. Some are left in genuine doubt about the integrity of the ballot – and of some results. That doubt is deeply unhealthy for our democracy.

Finally, there’s some action. It involves ignoring the patronising nonsense about photo ID at polling stations ‘denying’ people a vote. This hasn’t happened in Northern Ireland. It didn’t happen under the trials of photo ID. It doesn’t happen in the European countries that require ID.

Are Peterborough’s residents being ‘denied’ their parcels because the sorting office requires ID to pick them up? Our vote is worth more than a parcel.

When ordinary members of the public discover how unchecked and uncheckable our electoral system is, they are shocked.

That shock applies doubly for newer arrivals to our country. They have often seen electoral malpractice for themselves, in other parts of the world. As those most at risk of having their vote stolen, they are the most grateful for safeguards to protect it.

This week also saw the arrival of the Government’s plans to fund social care and the pandemic backlog to NHS treatments. That’s a big enough to get a future column to itself.