It started yesterday – but already all charges against one of the Defendants have been dropped.
After last May’s mayoral election, four individual Tower Hamlets electors petitioned the election court, claiming that Lutfur Rahman could not have won the election fairly and must have cheated and John Williams, the Council’s Returning Officer, probably committed offences under election law too. The hearing of the petitions began in the High Court today: and immediately the charges against the Returning Officer were dropped.
John Williams said: “I welcome the decision of the petitioners to withdraw any allegations against myself and my staff. I have always maintained that those allegations were without foundation. This was a hotly contested election run in challenging circumstances. As returning officer I am politically neutral and my only concern is to run an efficient, free and fair election. I am pleased that the petitioners accept that this election was conducted in accordance with the law and that I acted in an entirely professional manner throughout.”
This means that the hearing will now focus exclusively on the actions of Mayor Lutfur Rahman. It also means that for some weeks now the papers will be full of the racist drivel we have grown so used to.
The hearing raises several questions for the political geography of Tower Hamlets: the main one being what, exactly, is the role of the main opposition party (the largest party in the Town Hall) in the election petition?
Officially it has no role: the petition has been lodged by private individuals who, between them, have supported Respect, Labour and UKIP. Labour signed up to the Borough’s pre-election protocol which committed it to raising any concerns about election practices to the police via a dedicated phone number and/or email: it raised no such concerns during the whole election process and only suggested there had been problems after the result was announced.
On one hand, Labour’s losing candidate (John Biggs) is a key witness for the petitioners: it is unlikely he has taken this step without at least tacit backing from the Party. On the other hand, for whatever reason, Labour has not lodged a petition in its own name – which the petitioners must find rather strange. The Labour Party has a habit of taking out election insurance for all its local parties to cover legal costs in the case of any claims being made to the election court. The four individual petitioners who are actually bringing the case have had to raise substantial sums to cover their legal costs. If Labour has such a strong belief that the claim will succeed, why did it not offer to cover the legal costs out of its pre-election insurance?
Watch this space.