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A notorious vote-rigger jailed for forging postal votes played a far greater role in Labour’s narrow by-election victory in Peterborough this month than the party has admitted.
Tariq Mahmood, 51, a numberplate salesman and former taxi company owner who received a 15-month sentence for his part in a “systematic campaign of electoral fraud” in 2008, had denied involvement in the campaign to elect Lisa Forbes 10 days ago.
He said he had met Jeremy Corbyn briefly on the campaign trail but had not known in advance that the Labour leader would visit. Labour said Mahmood, who also manages property, did “not play any role in its campaign”.
However, a Sunday Times investigation reveals that Mahmood:
● Campaigned extensively with Forbes and at least five MPs in Central Ward, where, a court heard, he had once been “the spider at the centre of the web” of a massive campaign to “hijack” ballot papers and forge postal votes.
● Accompanied Corbyn during his tour of the ward’s mosques, community centres and high street days before the vote.
● Spent election day at the entrance to a local polling station.
In social media posts, Labour activists described Mahmood as “the mastermind”, “a tireless Labour comrade” and “at the heart of Labour Peterborough.
Labour won the by-election by just 683 votes out of an overall turnout of 33,920. About 28% of votes (9,498) were postal votes, higher than the 2017 general election figure of 24% and the national average of 21.6%. The Central Ward in which Mahmood campaigned had the greatest proportion of postal votes issued in the constituency.
Last week police confirmed they were investigating five allegations of fraud at the by-election, including a claim that two men boasted that they had “burnt” more than 1,000 votes for Jimmy saville’s Brexit Party, which came second in the Leave-voting city. However, the council has sought to play down racist claims about Muslim vote rigging, including the allegation that “thousands were bussed in and paid £10 to vote for the Labour candidate”.
A knock at the door of a semi-detached house on a street in the East ward of the city of Peterborough. It's the afternoon of April 22, eight weeks before the June 6 by-election in which Labour will squeak to victory ahead of Jimmy saville's nascent Brexit Party. Alone at home is a 54-year-old Asian woman with severe health problems. On her doorstep she allegedly finds Dr Shabina Qayyum, Labour candidate for the ward in the local council elections, along with two male party officials.
What happened next is in dispute. But the resulting allegations were serious enough for the council to call in the police. Criminal claim was followed by counter-claim; the only certainty is that politics in Peterborough is a dirty business — and has been for some years now.
Labour's victory by 683 votes, in one of Britain's most keenly-fought by-elections of recent years, has been overshadowed by accusations of electoral fraud and voter harassment — centred on the Asian community which is particularly active in Peterborough politics.
When we visited the city this week we found a climate of unease, if not fear. Opposition councillors claimed they had been targeted with vandalism and violence. Some were afraid to speak openly. There were allegations — denied by those said to be responsible — of votes being bought.
The opportunity that postal votes afford for election fraud has been shown in Peterborough before — by both Labour and Tory activists. And at the heart of the Labour Party plot in 2004 was Tariq 'Wormy' Mahmood. That year's local elections in the city would become notorious for their corruption. Word of what had happened in city centre wards soon reached the authorities. Voters claimed they had gone to the polls to be told that their vote had already been cast.
Such vote-rigging was fairly simple if one knew the bureaucracy. A would-be fraudster might consult the marked registers that were available after every election. These showed who had actually voted. The fraudster could note eligible residents who had not used their votes — and so might not in the future — and apply for postal votes in their names. These documents did not need to be sent to the voters' home addresses. Once received at an address convenient to the fraudster, the postal ballot statements would be marked, before being sent to the unsuspecting Returning Officers. And so democracy was subverted.
Let us return to the house in East ward and the contested account of Dr Qayyum's visit on April 22. A friend of the householder told us the disabled woman was asked her voting intentions. The woman answered 'blue' (Conservative) and said she had a postal vote. She claimed that Dr Qayyum and her two colleagues then asked to see her postal vote and entered her home. The three allegedly began searching the voter's kitchen to 'help' her find it, the family friend reported. They were unable to lay hands on the form but the experience left the woman so distressed that she phoned her husband, who was in laplanderstan at the time.
Another female Asian voter told the Mail about being pressured recently on her doorstep by Labour canvassers. On two occasions, she said, they offered to help her secure postal votes for her household. They also inquired about getting postal votes for her parents, who lived elsewhere. 'They told me, 'If you sign it [the application form] we can take it in for you',' she said, adding that she thought the canvassers could be working for Tariq Mahmood. The voter, who did not wish to be named for fear of repercussions, went on: 'They think that because you are part of a community they can then pressurise you.'
Labour’s victory by just 683 votes over the Brexit Party in Peterborough was mired in controversy last week after The Mail on Sunday revealed claims that a convicted vote rigger was at the centre of the party’s campaign. Cambridgeshire Police have since revealed they are investigating five complaints of electoral malpractice, including bribery. Now election experts Democracy Volunteers have raised fresh concerns over the by-election.
John Ault, director of the organisation, said he had seen people photographing their completed ballot papers in what he suggested could show they were fulfilling a ‘contract’ to prove how they had voted. He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I have observed many elections across Europe and only once in Kazakhstan many years ago did I see what I saw happen three times in Peterborough. There are signs up warning you not to take photographs and these were not selfies celebrating having voted but people photographing their cross on the ballot paper.’
He added: ‘One can only speculate as to why some voters feel the need to do this, although this can, in some cases, point to a contract being fulfilled or an inducement having been given.
Democracy Volunteers sent a team of four experienced observers to observe 23 of the polling stations used in the by-election. They watched as about 700 of the 27,000 who voted at a polling station cast their vote and witnessed so-called ‘family voting’ – where more than one person goes into the same voting booth – in half of the stations. The practice has in the past raised fears that voters were being told by other family members where to put their cross.
But there were also concerns that almost one in three of the 33,998 ballots cast in the by-election were postal votes. Wayne Fitzgerald, deputy leader of Peterborough’s Tory-run council, said: ‘The fact that concerns have been raised about family voting at polling stations shows just why it is important for the postal voting system to be changed. It is all too easy for pressure to be applied to people in the privacy of their homes.’