‘Many councillors bend electoral laws’ - Motion to remove images of fraudulent Peterborough mayors is condemned

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A call to remove the photos of former Mayors of Peterborough who have been found guilty of electoral fraud was roundly condemned by members on the city council.

The proposal made by Councillor John Knowles was comfortably defeated after being labelled as “petty” and a dangerous attempt to re-write history.

But the harshest criticism came from Cllr Charles Swift, a councillor for over 60 years, who told the meeting of the full council that he could write a book on councillors who have “worked it between them.”

Explaining that he himself was not “whiter than white”, Cllr Swift added: “There aren’t many councillors, many politicians, that have strictly adhered to the rules and regulations of the electoral law.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve fiddled them, but I’ve gone very very close on occasions. And in 1952 when my mother first stood for election, I didn’t know the law from back to front and I did about everything. I would have been put into prison at that particular time.”

The motion by Cllr Knowles, an independent, called on the council to remove the photographs of mayors in the Mayor’s Parlour if they have been convicted of electoral fraud.

It comes more than seven years after ex-Conservative mayor Raja Akhtar and ex-Labour mayor Mohammed Choudhary were jailed for interfering with postal votes in Central Ward during the city council elections.

Cllr Knowles claimed that the shame of knowing that their mayoral photograph would be removed from the chamber would be a good deterrent against electoral fraud.

He said: “In my time as a councillor I personally have looked up to the mayors that I have known.

“When I see the photographs of mayors that have committed electoral fraud and those photographs are still there, I personally am gutted.”

But he was quickly rounded on from all sides of the council chamber, especially from Cllr Swift of the Peterborough Independent Forum, who stated that the former two mayors found guilty of electoral fraud had in fact been harshly treated.

He said: “I am very saddened to see this notice of motion. Now I went to court to speak on behalf of those two people.

“They should have never - and I made strong representations - they should have never been convicted. They were used as stooges.

“So such a petty resolution, it’s beneath anybody’s dignity and I hope it’s thrown out completely.”

Following his accusations against other councillors, Cllr Swift was reminded by the current mayor, Cllr John Peach, that “we have the new chief constable here so be careful what you say.”

To which Cllr Swift responded: “With great respect I’ve known chief constables in the past and they’ve been rogues.”

Conservative cabinet members Cllr Gavin Elsey and Cllr Nigel North also criticised the motion.

Cllr Elsey said: “Irrespective of electoral fraud, the people who acted out the role of mayor did so to the best of their abilities and are part of our history.

“In the same way that I disagreed with the burning of books and the burning of records in historical events, I just think this is petty and I think ‘where do you draw the line’?

“Those people served as mayor and it’s part of our history.”

Cllr Nigel North said: “Whilst I would support harsh punishments for those who are engaged in electoral fraud, I’m a big fan of the book 1984 and I think any attempt to re-write history is wrong and is dangerous.”

The Liberal Democrat Cllr Nick Sandford said people wanted to see severe penalties against electoral fraud, but he mocked Cllr Knowles’ motion.

“We all agree that electoral fraud needs to be deterred,” he began.

“If I was somebody who was the Mayor of Peterborough, if I were to get out of bed in the morning and say ‘I’m going to commit electoral fraud, it could get me some extra votes’, am I going to then think ‘oh no, if I commit electoral fraud my photo will be taken down from the Mayor’s Parlour’?

“That is the logic that this motion is putting forward. It’s just plain crazy and I think we should throw it out.”

Cllr Peach’s predecessor as mayor, Cllr David Over said: “I’m the newest ex-mayor and I’m terribly proud of my photograph that’s gone up on the wall.

“And one day if I have grandchildren I want them to come along and say ‘there’s grandpa and grandma’.

“But one of the things that is important is you have a continuity of history of this city, of this council, in the Mayor’s Parlour.

“There’s a blank space and rumour has it that one ex-mayor said ‘you’re not going to hang me up there with all those thieves, rogues and vagabonds’. So there is a suspicion there already.

“You have a look at the mayors from the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s and to get elected they just went along to their mates in the city and just said ‘vote for me,’ and they would go off and treat their friends with some beer, some meals and everything was sorted out.

“So I can’t accept this. There are many things to be proud of this in this city and the Mayor’s Parlour is one of them.”

Cllr John Whitby, from UKIP, said it was inconceivable that any councillor, let alone mayor of the city, would be found guilty of electoral fraud and openly celebrated in the Mayor’s Parlour.

He added: “Not to be seen to take strong action against these people who have been convicted of these crimes will invariably be perceived in some quarters as condoning their actions.”

Cllr Knowles told councillors “this is not an intention to re-write history, it’s just pictures on a wall.”

But his motion was defeated with only five votes in favour and 36 against, on top of four abstentions.

Earlier on Wednesday (October 14) Cllr Knowles had had success with a separate motion which called on the council to write to the Electoral Commission calling for a change in the law so that anyone convicted of electoral fraud was given a lifetime disqualification from standing for office again.

Cllr David Seaton said: “We hear regular allegations of electoral fraud in Peterborough and indeed in 2014 we were one of I believe 16 areas termed higher risk and investigated by the electoral commission.

“An individual convicted may work hard in the community to try to make recompense, and I’m all for giving people a second chance.

“However, when we stand for election we are asking residents to put their trust in us. By trying to cheat the democratic process we are breaking that trust in the worst possible way.

“We therefore need to take a strong stance.”

Cllr Whitby added: “The concept that elections should be free and fair is one of the bedrocks of UK democracy, something we have exported around the world.

“However, that whole edifice will come crashing down if people do not believe that the electoral process can be trusted.

“In the same way that a fraudster would be banned from practising as an accountant, so should any elected official found guilty of electoral fraud.

“At a time when the honesty of politicians is very much in question, we should not see them treated better than any other criminal.”