Out of all the national ‘neo-sleaze’ stories recently, such as Peter Hain’s ‘oversight’ (it really does come to something when a Minister of State’s best defence is that he’s incompetent – “the defendant’s pleading is that he is simply an idiot m’lud”) and, lets be balanced here, Mr. Conway’s ‘irregularities’(at least he had the decency to apologies to the House immediately), none is quite as down right and dirty as the Labour and Lib Dem smear campaign/fraud trial going on right here in our City.
It is alleged that Muhammad Afzal won the Aston seat for Labour in 2007 after publishing leaflets and using loud-speaker messages stating that Liberal Democrat candidate Saeed Aehmed was guilty of fraudulently obtaining disability grants and had been arrested for postal vote fraud. In a detail to warm the cockles of any committed multiculturalists the ‘loud-speaker messages’ yelled outside the polling station were made largely in Bengali.
As unedifying as that spectacle may have been, the real devil is in the detail of this one and the true level of grubbiness and sleaze only came out under good old cross examination in court.
One witness for example told the court that ‘it was common practice for Councillor Afzal and other Labour councillors to offer to pay the annual subscription fees for Labour members in return for their votes at selection meetings for council candidates’.
Another witness, Iqbal Khan, told the court he had signed a witness statement ‘which had been written for him while sitting in Saeed Aehmed’s car in the dark. He could not see the statement or read it since he does not speak English’.
Some witnesses that have been compelled to give evidence have refused to attend such is the fear for their own safety.
The Claimant in all this, Mr. Aehmed, has claimed disability benefit for 25 years and admitted to the court that ‘he wanted to become a city councillor because he thought it would be an easy life’. Where do the Lib Dem’s get these people from? All allegations are denied by the senior Labour Councillor Afzal.
On top of all this the man who will decide if the Director of Public Prosecutions will take criminal action against the Labour defendant is a man who is married to a Labour councillor. I’m sure this man is wholly independent and beyond impeachment, but if we’re aiming for complete trust and transparency in the political process then surely it’s not beyond the realms of mankind to appoint a barrister that has no familial connections to the Labour party?
In another case this week police have tried to charge a certain Mohammed Khan with 11 accounts of electoral and postal ballot fraud. Unfortunately he has absconded to Pakistan. The offences relate to a 2006 campaign for the inner city Nechalls ward, scene of a bitter battle between Labour and the Lib Dems at the time.
The potential fraud cases don’t even stop there with the Birmingham Post reporting that ‘Several other police probes into suspected electoral fraud in the region are currently being conducted by the police force’s Economic Crime Team’.
At the top of this blog I made a jokey reference to what Mr. Hain’s defence in a court could be – ‘I’m an idiot m’lud’. Obviously a poor attempt at irreverent humour your thinking. Well in the first case Mr. Aehmed actually said the following to the court as part of his defence; ‘I am unfit to work. I have asthma, I have back pain and I suffer from depression’. Just the kind of go getter we need in public office then eh! At one point Mr. Aehmed was said to be so ill that ‘he was drifting in and out of consciousnesses’. Yet this is a man, the defendant said, that had ‘spent much of the 1990’s clambering up ladders to attach posters to lampposts’.
I make no judgement on Mr. Aehmed’s ethics, but if this is the candidate that the Lib Dems have picked, on more than one occasion, to fight a council ward then what on earth was up with the others? And how can anybody ever have respect for the political process when things like this are going on and candidates like that are being selected? When the sleazy side of politics, both nationally and locally, are the most prominent and most talked about stories democracy could be said to be in real trouble.
I don’t think we should underplay the significance of these trials. The highest standards are expected in public office. These standards are largely driven by the holders of that office.
When I first came across this story I though it was no bad thing that these men were willing to fight tooth and nail for public office because it shows that to hold office is still respected. That it still means something. It seemed a good antidote to the apathy most people display toward local politics. But actually it’s not at all. The common denominator of both parties here seems to be shady business deals and favouritism.
But the debacle is slightly heartening for one reason; these people have been hauled in front of the courts to face this country’s honest kernel, one Britain’s greatest ever exports, the rule of law.
Contrast Kenya’s reaction to election rigging and ours; brutal murder and anarchy there, a few chippy comments on a blog here. So in the end it doesn’t really matter if Politicians are sleazy or have there snouts in the trough. It only matters if they don’t get caught. And they do.
The trial continues….