What a legacy for Blair to leave!

THE shame of it! What a parlous state we're in after 10 years of Tony Blair - the UK's electoral system is so flawed that this week the Council of Europe sent in rapporteurs to examine the risk of malpractice and whether our elections require official monitoringEuropean monitors more used to supervising elections in Palestine, the Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Congo and the Philippines may soon be seen at a polling station near you to check on fraudulent voting.

By Graham Dines

THE shame of it! What a parlous state we're in after 10 years of Tony Blair - the UK's electoral system is so flawed that this week the Council of Europe sent in rapporteurs to examine the risk of malpractice and whether our elections require official monitoring

European monitors more used to supervising elections in Palestine, the Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Congo and the Philippines may soon be seen at a polling station near you to check on fraudulent voting.

Imagine the damage to the nation's credibility if Europe decides we don't have free and fair elections. What a legacy for the Prime Minister to leave.


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The problem arises because of the Government's refusal to introduce individual voter registration (IVR), which the Conservatives, Respect and the Liberal Democrats are demanding before the next election. Only two democracies don't have IVR - the UK and that haven of free elections, Zimbabwe.

The Electoral Commission called for tighter security after postal and proxy voting on demand was introduced in 2001. It repeated warnings of possible abuses in 2004 when nothing had changed and in 2005, a judge hearing a case of alleged postal voting fiddles in Birmingham said the evidence of electoral fraud “would disgrace a banana republic.”

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Shadow constitutional affairs secretary Oliver Heald said in a Commons debate that Labour had “tinkered with the electoral system and repeatedly ignored cross-party warnings and have thereby damaged the integrity of our electoral system.

“The Government has wanted to increase the ease and convenience of voting which is a perfectly laudable aim, but at the same time it hasn't provided the parallel measures which are needed to minimise the risk of fraud and that is where it has failed.”

Mr Heald said the Committee on Standards in Public Life had compiled evidence of 342 cases of electoral malpractice and he warned that no proper checks were being made on the accuracy of the electoral register. “The absolute missing piece in the jigsaw is that we should have IVR in a country where the individual has the right to vote.”

Elections Minister Bridget Prentice said the Electoral Administration Bill had introduced a raft of new offences and safeguards and she insisted that politicians had a duty to encourage electoral registration and participation.

She said about 3.5 million people in the UK were not on the electoral register but were entitled to vote - the equivalent of 40 parliamentary constituencies. While the Government had no objection in principle to personal identifiers, the current system was “fair, free and secure.”

For the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes backed the Tories' demands and supported individual registration while Tory John Horam said the idea that the electoral system was as secure as possible was “demonstrably not true.”

He added: “It will not be true while we have household registration, something no other country in the world, apart from Zimbabwe, has. Until we go to individual registration with some individual identifiers, it will not be as secure as it is possible to be.”

Respect MP George Galloway said the Government's introduction of lifelong postal voting on demand undermined a key democratic right: to cast the ballot in secret. “The claimed justification for the changes to the postal voting system are that they will increase voter participation. Of that there is not one jot of evidence but there is plenty of evidence of how wide open to corruption it has made the political system.”

Mr Galloway has alleged widespread voting fraud in his east London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow during both the 2005 General Election and last year's local elections. “In Tower Hamlets last May we witnessed the most corrupt election held in Britain since 1872.

“Hundreds and hundreds of votes were purloined by crooks applying for postal votes and getting them redirected to an address sometimes just doors away from the registered address of the voter.

“Whole blocks of flats woke up to discover that every single resident in the block had applied for a postal vote to be redirected to another address without their knowledge. This system of postal voting on demand is leading to this banana republic perception.”

However, the Government doggedly stuck to its line that Britain's elections are fair - the Tory call for “urgent steps” to restore public confidence and integrity in the electoral system starting with individual voter registration, was defeated by 282 votes to 219, majority 63.

NO CONNECTION WITH N9S

I'M happy to make clear that the England First Party, which polled 7% of the vote in a Burnley council by-election two weeks' ago, has no connection with the far right N9S Britain First Party.

BOUNDARY CHANGES A STEP NEARER

THE government this week tabled the Boundary Commission's proposals for new parliamentary constituencies in England, which create an extra MP for Essex.

This is the penultimate process in changing the electoral map. The Commission's recommendations have not been amended by the Government even though they favour the Conservatives by reducing the number of seats in urban and inner city areas and increasing those covering rural and suburban England.

It's the luck of the boundary draftsman's pen. The 1997 boundary changes favoured Labour, helping Tony Blair towards his landslide. In Essex, that review chopped most of the rural parts off Harwich and enabled Labour's Ivan Henderson to pull off his shock victory over Iain Sproat.

This time, the Harwich seat disappears and Harwich town and Dovercourt are absorbed into the new Harwich and Essex North seat which also includes Manningtree and Wivenhoe. Clacton has an MP in its own right for first time in election history, and includes Frinton, Walton, and Jaywick.

Election statistics provided by Electoral Calculus suggest that had Harwich & Essex North existed at the 2005 General Election, the Tories would have had a majority of 3,788 while in Clacton, the Conservatives would have triumphed by 5,590. On current aggregate opinion poll standing, the Tory majority in Harwich & Essex North would rise to just under 6,000 if an election was held today, while in Clacton it would jump to 10,000.

Electoral Calculus also suggests that two of Essex's three Labour MPs will lose at the next election because of boundary changes. Angela Smith is given no chance of holding Basildon South & Thurrock East while Bill Rammell will be a goner in Harlow. Labour can only count on Thurrock.

It predicts the Liberal Democrats will hold Colchester with a slashed majority and that the new seats of Chelmsford, Witham and Braintree are dead certs for substantial Conservative victories.

However, these predictions take no account of the latest opinion poll, undertaken by CommunicateResearch for The Independent, which says the Tories are on course to win the next general election by enough to give David Cameron a 100-seat majority in the Commons.

This spectacular turn round in fortunes gives the Tories 40% support, 29% for Labour, and the Liberal Democrats 17%. On these figures, Suffolk's two Labour held seats, Ipswich and Waveney, would be lost and the Tories would romp home in Colchester and narrowly win Thurrock.

It may be a rogue poll, but it's given enough ammunition to opponents of Gordon Brown to start casting doubt on his electability against Cameron.

GUMMER PLAYS CHICKEN!

A SPEECH given by former Conservative agriculture minister John Gummer at the annual conference of the National Farmers' Union was interrupted by the noise of a chicken squawking.

As officials hurriedly looked for any poultry farmers - or worse bird 'flu agitators - who had breached security in Birmingham, the Suffolk Coastal MP was forced sheepishly to admit that it was his mobile phone ring tone.

Turning the phone off, Mr Gummer, whose Suffolk Coastal constituency was hit by the outbreak of avian influenza at Holton last month, said: “I like to be reminded of the countryside wherever I am.”

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