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http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,6903,1426408,00.html

Democracy under fire

What the Chartists fought to achieve - the secret ballot - is being undermined by the postal vote

Nick Cohen
Sunday February 27, 2005
The Observer


On 28 February, 1837, 3,000 working men met by the Hope and Anchor pub on the Strand in central London to demand that Britain become a democracy. The Chartists, who were to convulse the country with riots, strikes and enormous demonstrations, were showing for the first time that they could inspire a mass movement.

The right to a secret ballot was as important as the right to vote. Indeed, they couldn't imagine the one without the other. The Chartist leader, Henry Vincent, told the meeting: 'We believe that the only security against the corruption of the few and the degradation of the many is to give the great body of the people their equal political and social rights. To obtain these rights it is necessary that every male above 21 years of age have the power to choose his representative without loss or injury which can only be effected by secret voting.'

Without secret voting, employers could intimidate workers and the rich could bribe their way to power. Anthony Trollope described his wretched experience of trying to run a Liberal campaign which didn't include sweeteners in the 1868 election for the seat of Beverley. His supporters thought he was an idiot. 'There was something grand in the scorn with which a leading Liberal there turned up his nose at me when I told him that there should be no bribery, no treating, not even a pot of beer,' Trollope wrote in his autobiography.

The Chartists had been defeated 20 years before Trollope went to Beverley. But as so often in the history of British radicalism their cause triumphed under another name. In 1872 William Gladstone passed the Ballot Act which introduced the secret vote. Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats current chief executive, told me it was one of his party's finest achievements because it guaranteed a minimum level of honesty in politics.

'What a long time it has taken to achieve this victory in the cause of justice,' cried the Dundalk Democrat when the Ballot Act became law. 'The great argument against it was that it was un-English. That is, that the English people were so stout and manly that they liked to vote in the faces of their neighbours, and act according to their convictions, careless what any one might say of them. This argument, however, was only a fancy sketch. There never was a people who required secret voting more than the English. It was really a painful sight to witness at some elections to this and other counties, men of intelligence voting contrary to their convictions. They permitted themselves to be driven to the poll like a flock of sheep to a fair, and it was humiliating to the manhood of those looking on, to see them recording their suffrages for a person who would sell them and their country to the highest bidder.'

British democracy can only really be said to have been completed in 1929 when all women got the vote. Mass voting, mass membership of political parties and secret ballots went together in the democratic twentieth century, when all sides believed that what Parliament did mattered. By the time Tony Blair won the 1997 election Britain was in a post-democratic world. Successive Prime Ministers, the European Union, the City, multinationals, the media and the judiciary had sucked the power out of Parliament. Turnouts became risible. You marked yourself as an eccentric if you joined a political party. As participation withered, so the right to a secret vote began to shrivel.

Last week the High Court heard allegations that the greatest electoral fraud in England since the days of Old Corruption had taken place in Birmingham last year. Lawyers for the People's Justice Party, a group for Birmingham Kashmiris, alleged that the drive to get millions to vote by post had destroyed the integrity of the ballot.

Postal voting? It sounds such a handy innovation; such a modern way to help busy consumers who can't tear themselves from the television or the shops to cast a conventional vote. But all the glib talk from the modernisers about the need to find customer-friendly ways of voting by post, text and email has ignored the hard truth that once you allow ballot papers to leave polling stations the opportunities for fraud multiply.

In Birmingham, so the case before the court goes, they spread like bindweed through a well-dug bed. In the 2004 council elections Labour is accused of forging 3,000 votes in one ward - Bordesley Green.

Correction fluid was used to white-out crosses on postal votes for the People's Justice Party, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and replace them with crosses next to the names of the Labour candidates. Gangs of children and Labour supporters allegedly toured the streets snatching ballot forms from letter boxes and postmen, and warning householders that they would face a 5,000 fine if they didn't hand over the postal votes.

About 90 people told the court that they hadn't applied for a postal vote, but were recorded as voting by post for the Labour candidates none the less. Those who turned-up at the polling station were surprised to learn that they had already voted and must go away. When it came to the count, three boxes were found, containing 1,700 postal votes. By a remarkable coincidence, every last one of them was for New Labour. Stranger still, all the forms seem to have been filled out by the same hand and with the same blue pen.

The case is continuing and I cannot anticipate the decision of the judge. The Bordesley Green case is just the start. In a few weeks the Liberal Democrats will bring a petition against New Labour alleging 'massive electoral fraud' in the Aston ward and pretty much every other ward in the city.

'Postal voters were pressurised by Labour Party candidates and agents into casting their vote for the Labour slate while the Labour Party agents stood over the voter watching them cast their vote,' the Lib Dem petition reads. 'Bribery occurred.'

Away from Birmingham, there are fraud investigations in Reading, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire and West Yorkshire. It is amazing that they are happening at all. The Association of Chief Police Officers says that electoral fraud is all but impossible to investigate. Rudimentary precautions are not in place. There is no register of signatures and it is perfectly possible for me to pretend to be you and ask for your postal vote to be diverted from your house to mine without you ever knowing about it.

The Chartists were more worried about intimidation than fraud. What haunted them was the spectre of the factory owner or the landlord bullying his subordinates. True to their fears, modern postal votes are allowing the intimidation of one group the Chartists rarely thought about: women.

Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for Keighley, said that in Asian houses in her constituency fathers were filling out postal votes for the whole family. Asian peers have said the same thing and talk as if intimidation is confined to the ethnic minorities. But sexism is no respecter of skin colour. I am sure anyone who has canvassed white homes will have had conversations such as those I used to have when I was politically active.

Man: 'Yes, I'm voting for your lot.'

Me: 'And your wife?'

Man: 'She'll vote the way I tell her.'

I would walk away wondering how he could be so certain. It was, after all, a secret ballot cast in the privacy of the polling booth where she could vote for whoever she damn well wanted. Not any more. With postal ballots, the husband can force a wife to follow his orders.

The police will never uncover this new oppression of women. Years from now we may hear about it in oral histories and memoirs.

There's an almost pathetic desire in everyone with a stake in the democratic process to make postal and internet voting work. A senior official at one very respectable organisation told me he wished I wasn't writing this piece because it would send the 'wrong message'. I'm sure he didn't mean it the way it came out. He was just desperate to get more people involved and break the contempt for politics of the post-democratic age.

It is an honourable aspiration. But the political class doesn't seem to realise that the post-democratic attempts to make voting customer-friendly are reviving the corruptions of the pre-democratic age, and forcing us to fight the battles of the Chartists all over again.