Politics must clean up its act, says Mike Whitby
Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby has broken his silence over the Aston election court case, warning that a judge’s criticism of Liberal Democrats could prove to be a "defining moment" in the battle to root out malpractice at the ballot box.
While taking care not to directly criticise his Lib Dem coalition partners, the Tory council leader said all political parties equally bore a responsibility to clean up politics in Birmingham.
"Those who manipulate votes will sabotage our democratic system. It is a defining moment and we need to take time to reflect," Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) warned.
He was talking a week after Elections Commissioner Timothy Straker QC threw out a Lib Dem-inspired election petition claiming that Labour councillor Muhammad Afzal won the 2007 council election in Aston off the back of a smear campaign against Liberal Democrat candidate Saeed Aehmed.
Mr Straker criticised Mr Aehmed, who bought the petition, for "dishonestly" obtaining £16,000 of disability improvement grants for his Bevington Road home.
He found that Mr Aehmed, who has been claiming incapacity benefit for 27 years, "grossly exaggerated" his symptoms when applying for the grants.
Mr Straker also found that Aston Lib Dem councillor Ayoub Khan, who sits in Coun Whitby’s cabinet, had taken part in a "scurrilous" plot to falsely implicate Coun Afzal in an attempt to intimidate witnesses.
Mr Straker added that his judgement, running to 67 pages, should "not be taken as a finding that either Mr Aehmed or Ayoub Khan behaved, in this regard, either creditably or honourably".
The Commissioner’s findings came three years after another Aston election court found Labour candidates to have been involved in extensive postal-vote rigging, with judge Richard Mawrey QC likening democracy in Birmingham to that of a banana republic, and a month after an election court in Slough found a Conservative councillor guilty of "corrupt practices".
Coun Whitby said the latest Aston court case demonstrated that much needed to be done to clean up the electoral system. He said: "Behaviour patterns are challenging the very core of our democracy. There is no place for such behaviour.
"If people lose confidence in our system they will cease to vote."
He went on: "We need to deter people who are tampering with something that is held dearly in the hearts of everyone. It is alien to us, we don’t want it, all political parties should be giving a clear message.
"Each party has to look to itself and each party has to say to thine own selves be true."
And in a message timed to coincide with the run-up to the council elections on May 1, Coun Whitby added: "I do need to make it clear to every candidate that we don’t condone tampering with results, we don’t condone gerrymandering results. It is still a relatively easy system to manipulate.
"It is a challenge to us all if you have people or groups of people who beguile others into losing the sanctity of their vote."
Conservative party leader David Cameron also weighed into the debate when visiting Birmingham on Monday.
Mr Cameron said: "These are issues for the Lib Dems but clearly every party has a responsibility to root out unacceptable behaviour and meet all the rules and regulations for proper behaviour in politics.
"It is an issue for them, but we all have a duty where malpractice is involved to act."
The Liberal Democrat Party has launched an internal inquiry into the actions of Mr Aehmed and Coun Khan.
Both men remain board members of the £55 million Aston Pride regeneration project, while Coun Khan continues to hold the cabinet portfolio for local services and community safety.
Coun Khan plans to appeal against Commissioner Straker’s decision through a judicial review.
His supporters insist the court did not hear the full story because Lib Dem witnesses were too scared to give evidence, or were pressured into changing their evidence.