How Peterborough’s General Election campaign has turned bitter with legal threats and postal vote warnings

After just a week of the official General Election campaign it is very much a case of ‘lies’, loathing and legal threats when it comes to the Peterborough constituency.

Friday, 15th November 2019, 5:05 am
Updated Friday, 15th November 2019, 6:10 am

One of the most hotly contested battles across the country may also be the most bitter, with no love lost between the three leading candidates as they scrap for every last vote in the swing seat.

After sparring during the by-election in June, there has been no let up for Labour’s Lisa Forbes, the Brexit Party’s Mike Greene and Conservative Paul Bristow who all feel they are in with a good chance of winning the pro-Leave seat on December 12.

And the Peterborough Telegraph can reveal:

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Lisa Forbes, Mike Greene (top right) and Paul Bristow

. Ms Forbes has threatened Mr Greene with legal action if he repeats accusations that she is antisemitic and ‘cheated’ to win the by-election

. Mr Bristow and his campaign team has been warned after telling voters to send their postal vote application forms to the Peterborough Conservative Association - a breach of the Electoral Commission’s Code of Conduct.

. Mr Greene has compared Peterborough Conservatives to a convicted vote rigger and accused them of “postal vote harvesting” while also submitting a complaint against them to the Electoral Commission

. Both Mr Greene and Mr Bristow have repeatedly called on each other to stand down to avoid potentially splitting the Leave vote.

The key theme around the allegations relates to claims of electoral fraud, with Mr Greene using social media to make allegations against both of his main political rivals.

The businessman, who came second to Ms Forbes in June by 683 votes, issued an Electoral Petition in the High Court challenging the result of the by-election.

However, he is now trying to withdraw the legal challenge after he claimed the upcoming General Election would make it invalid, and that should he lose he could end up paying costs of more than £400,000.

Labour called the Election Petition a “bogus complaint intended to make excuses for the Brexit Party’s defeat” and that there had “never been a shred of evidence to support Mike Greene’s claims”.

The High Court will decide on December 3 whether to allow Mr Greene to pull the petition. In a written submission to the court he said Ms Forbes’ by-election campaign had benefitted from convicted vote rigger Tariq Mahmood - claims robustly denied by 
Labour - but that there were no suggestions of any wrongdoing by the Labour candidate.

However, on Twitter Mr Greene has called Ms Forbes an “antisemitic liar” while accusing her of working with vote riggers to win the by-election.

He also re-tweeted a comment where the former union worker was referred to as a “cheating antisemite”.

The PT can reveal that a law firm representing Ms Forbes has now written to Mr Greene’s solicitor describing the Brexit Party candidate’s tweets as “untrue” and “defamatory”, while warning they could be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for a potential breach of electoral law.

It is added: “Our client also reserves the right to bring proceedings for defamation against your client.”

No allegations of electoral fraud during the by-election have ever been substantiated, with Cambridgeshire police finding there was no case to answer after receiving five separate reports.

Ms Forbes agreed to carry out antisemitism training after it came to light during the by-election campaign that she had liked an antisemitic Facebook post which said Theresa May has a “Zionist slave masters agenda”.

She was also criticised for signing a letter which called on Labour’s ruling body not to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, and for being a member of a Facebook group where there was mention of “Zionist rats” and other antisemitic comments.

During the by-election campaign Ms Forbes said she “apologised wholeheartedly for not calling out these posts” and would “deepen her understanding of antisemitism”.

After being elected she said she was determined to “regain the trust of the Jewish community”.

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “The Brexit Party’s candidate has made false and defamatory claims about Lisa Forbes in a desperate attempt to excuse the Brexit Party’s defeat in the by-election this year.

“Mike Greene is already trying to withdraw his petition to the court about these baseless allegations, in an admission that these claims are bogus.

“But his bitterness has strayed into defamation and there is no place in our democratic processes for such underhanded practices.

“The Labour Party has instructed lawyers, who have written to Mike Greene on this matter.”

Mr Greene declined to comment when contacted by the PT, but he has been very vocal on the Conservative Party campaigning in the constituency.

In a video posted on Twitter, he said the party was “absolutely, clearly, plainly, postal voter harvesting”.

He also said the Conservatives “must be taking tips from Tariq Mahmood,” while asking: “Are the Tories any better?”

Mr Mahmood was jailed in 2008 for postal vote interference in the Peterborough local elections.

The PT can reveal that Mr Bristow’s campaign team has been warned by Peterborough City Council after sending postal vote application forms to residents and advising them to return the forms to the Peterborough Conservative Association, rather than to the Electoral Registration Office.

This goes against the Electoral Commission’s Code of Conduct which states: “Campaigners should ensure that the local electoral registration officer’s address is clearly provided as the preferred address for the return of registration and absent vote application forms.”

A Conservative spokesman said: “We have received advice from Peterborough council and will ensure our correspondence is marked as requested.”

A council spokeswoman said: “A complaint was received alleging postal vote application forms were being sent to electors showing the local political party office as the return address.

“We have advised that campaigners should ensure that the local electoral registration officer’s address is clearly provided as the preferred address for the return of such forms, which in this case is the Town Hall.

“This is to ensure voters can make their own choice about how to return these forms, even if an alternative address is also given.

“It also helps to minimise the risk of suspicion that completed applications could be altered or inadvertently lost or destroyed. As is standard practice we have referred the complaint to the Electoral Commission, which will be reiterating the guidance to political parties nationally.”

Mr Greene has also now raised a complaint against Mr Bristow with the Electoral Commission, the body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK.

Although Mr Bristow’s team has so far declined to respond to the provocative comments made by Mr Greene on social media, the pair have been repeatedly using Twitter to call on the other to stand down so as not to split the Leave vote.

Meanwhile, Mr Bristow has continued his attacks on Ms Forbes for her Brexit voting record, after she opposed Boris Johnson’s deal, while the Labour candidate has made repeated comments about ‘Tory cuts’, with both main parties expecting the contest to be between their candidates this time around, as opposed to June when insiders recognised it was a two horse race between Labour and the Brexit Party.

So with four weeks to go until polling day, and Peterborough primed for another close contest, the campaign may still get more heated.