In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Fiasco that would shame the third world

Posted by seumasach on May 11, 2010

Mark Almond

Daily Mail

8th May, 2010

Hung parliament or not, the General Election produced one clear result on the night. All the TV pundits agreed that this was one of the most shambolic, incompetent and fraudulent elections Britain has ever witnessed.

From widespread allegations of postal-vote fraud, to the hugely unreliable electoral register, to the scenes of mutiny outside polling stations that were closed before hundreds had been able to vote, this was a disgrace to the democratic process.

These are abuses of process one might expect in a banana republic, not in the land that gave us the Mother of all Parliaments.

Having acted as an official observer in more than a hundred polls across the old Communist bloc, I have witnessed more incompetence and corruption than I care to remember. Yet this week’s British election has shocked even seasoned monitors like me. As one friend from Azerbaijan remarked archly to me yesterday, ‘At least in my country, we have managed chaos.’

What he meant was that while many corrupt governments around the world actively fiddle elections, in Britain we have witnessed fiasco rather than state-sponsored fraud.

Or am I being complacent? Given the incompetence we have witnessed, can we really be confident that rogue political operatives aren’t already taking advantage of the chaos to fix some results?

The tragedy is, we used to have a world-class electoral process. The ‘Westminster Model’ was the acme of political fair play and quiet efficiency. But the flaws in our election system crept in when New Labour swept aside the system that had served the nation so well since Victorian times.

Until then, local authorities were in charge of the voting process in their own constituencies. Since they knew the area and its demographic patterns well, they knew best how to deploy resources on election day. But faced with falling turnouts, Blair and his cronies decided that political apathy should be remedied by reforming the voting process itself.

To that end, New Labour turned voter registration into a free-for-all. Coupled with unfettered immigration, keeping accurate electoral records was thus reduced to little more than guesswork.

Ingenious fraudsters  –  usually in minority communities  –  were soon competing to see who could squeeze the most imaginary voters into one property.

Worse still, Blair also opened up postal voting to anyone who requested it, making the scope for fraud even greater.

To oversee this new system, Blair took powers away from the local authorities and handed them to a new quango, the Electoral Commission.

A classic New Labour job creation scheme, it now employs no fewer than 156 full-time staff. Small wonder, then, that its cost has soared from £7.6million in 2001 to £24million.

That might not matter so much if the commission had brought higher standards to the electoral process.

Alas, as we have seen, the opposite has been the case. Yet even when faced with the chaotic scenes on Thursday night, the quango’s chairman Jenny Watson was busy blaming everyone but herself, claiming that inadequacies in the voting system were ‘a legacy of the Victorian era’.

The opposite is true: it was the Victorians who taught the world how to run honest elections. Besides, much higher turnouts were successfully managed before the quangistas got involved.

A proper inquiry has now been promised, but don’t expect it to produce the right results. Ironically, polling officials who used their common sense on Thursday and allowed people still queueing after 10pm to cast their vote now face disciplinary action while the jobsworths who shut up shop on the dot are congratulated for their service to the public.

No, true reform will come only if the Electoral Commission and its culture of bureaucracy, complacency and buckpassing are swept aside. That is even more essential if  –  as looks possible  –  some form of proportional representation is introduced for future elections.

If that happens, every single vote will count, meaning the risk of fraud is even greater.

In many other nations I have visited, an election as incompetently managed as Thursday’s would result in riots in the street. In Britain, we just seem to shrug our shoulders.

That is an insult to all those who have fought through the years to preserve a democracy we could once be proud of.

Oxford historian Mark Almond is Visiting Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara

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