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Opinion

May 12, 2015

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Vulnerable to fraud

So, the British general election is over. David Cameron won a surprise overall majority, the pro-independence Scottish National Party took 56 of 59 seats in Scotland (an increase of 50 seats since the last election) and a record 13 Muslim MPs were voted into the new parliament. That is up from the 8 Muslims who won seats in the 2010 election. Muslims now have 2 percent of seats whereas on a strict representative basis they would have 3.8 percent of the total.
Eight of the 13 Muslim MPs are women. In terms of party affiliation Labour has nine, the victorious Conservatives three and the Scottish National Party one. If you categorise by heritage, 10 of the Muslim MPs are of Pakistan origin while 3 can trace their roots back to Bangladesh.
There were two especially high-profile results involving Muslim candidates. Perhaps the most controversial victory was that of Naz Shah who defeated George Galloway in Bradford. And in Scotland Anas Sarwar in Glasgow, son of the former governor of Punjab, was the only sitting Muslim MP not re-elected. It wasn’t so much that he lost his seat but that the SNP won it as part of its remarkable surge in support all over Scotland.
Elections in Pakistan invariably come with accusations of widespread vote rigging. In many parts of the country malpractice has become routine. In the UK such allegations are far less common.
Last weeks’ vote attracted hardly any complaints. In Scotland police are investigating a claim that an elderly man was threatened with violence if he did not vote for the nationalists. And around the UK the police are looking into a handful of possible voter impersonation cases. A recently published report from the University of Liverpool and University of Manchester found that between 2008 and 2013 there were just 20 convictions for electoral offences which mostly related to local council elections. It’s a tiny figure given that there are thousands of council elections each year.
Both the Pakistani

and Bangladesh communities will be relieved that, so far anyway, they are not being accused of fraud in the 2015 vote. Such allegations have been made in the past. There is a perception in the UK that when fraud occurs it is more often than not a scandal involving postal ballots in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.
Postal ballots do offer opportunities for fraud. If you are not going to be at home on election day you can ask the authorities for a postal ballot which gets sent to your home. The claim is often made that some Pakistani and Bangladeshi household heads insist that their relatives ask for postal ballots and then complete them themselves. The universities also heard claims that party activists went door to door collecting postal ballots that they would then fill in themselves, returning later to collect signatures.
Such claims are highly sensitive and those making them can be accused of racial stereotyping. But there is, in fact, reason to believe that Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are more prone to electoral fraud than the general population.
The UK Electoral Commission, responsible for the conduct of elections in the UK, asked the universities of Liverpool and Manchester to study the issue. In a report published earlier this year it found seven reasons why Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities were more susceptible to becoming victims of fraud than the rest of the UK population.
Five of the vulnerabilities were largely self-explanatory: discrimination in candidate selection; language and knowledge barriers (especially for recently arrived women); community loyalties and pressures; kinship networks and inadequate fraud prevention measures. In one sense, by mobilising block votes, kinship networks help engagement but they also undermine the fundamental principle of individual free choice as to who you vote for.
The universities’ research found that in some cases elders denied women and young adults access to their postal ballots. It concluded that such practices were more likely to happen in local elections in which the ethnicity of the candidate more often matched the ethnicity of the voters. The most high-risk areas were those with two competing ethnic or linguistic groups which would organise behind rival candidates. Reports of fraud tended to emerge only when a prominent local candidate had been defeated.
There is good reason, however, to believe that such practices might decrease. Many young members of the British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are not happy with the role of elders for all sorts of reasons. They find the idea that their older relatives and community leaders can control voting blocks to be increasingly old fashioned and unacceptable.
The remaining two sources of vulnerability identified by the universities’ report were lack of mainstream party engagement and economic deprivation. The first point relates to the tendency of the larger parties in the UK to let kinship groups organise blocks of support and then fail to engage directly with voters. Why go out canvassing when a few promises to an elder can secure the support you want? And such practices, the universities found, were more common in deprived areas were people had fewer opportunities to break free of kinship groups.
Young British Muslim activists might be tempted to argue that these concerns are an example of mainstream British society portraying British Muslims unfairly. In fact, the universities found it that it was Pakistani and Bangladeshi interviewees who expressed concern about fraud. Most believed the solution lay in tighter and better-implemented rules to prevent malpractice.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @OwenBennettJone

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