Published On: Mon, Mar 20th, 2017

Thanet South: the most controversial campaign of all

As the reader may know, the Channel 4 News investigation into alleged election expenses misdemeanours by the Tory Party during the 2015 General Election has identified a number of constituencies where a so-called national effort had become localised, but the money spent on it not declared in the local campaigns. Of particular and great noteworthiness is how a report (found here) on this investigation has pronounced the Thanet South election the “most controversial campaign of all” – and as well it should, because although there is not, in this report, an explicit reference to the possibility of someone interfering with ballot papers to engineer a Tory victory, the #thanetrigged legend looms large in a good portion of the public consciousness, and as such its folk lore status cannot go unrecognised. Undoubtedly, the Thanet South election is the most controversial in years, let alone of any in the 2015 General Election. It certainly does have the potential to radically affect public trust in the British Government, if not the Conservative Party (depending on who would take the fall), and trust in the result of any election – if only it was investigated properly, and if the criminality many would expect an investigation to find was finally exposed. Naturally, any corporate-media outlet wouldn’t like things to go so far and so Channel 4 would never open such a can of worms itself (it seems to the author that C4 is merely concerned with questioning the legitimacy of the Tory Executive Branch in connection with undermining Brexit). Moreover, Kent Police have already brushed off allegations of vote rigging – and that is probably solely down to the fact that, according to a statement released by Thanet Council at the time, “the council’s returning officer is satisfied that the correct processes were followed and a member of the Electoral Commission was present at the election in Thanet” (source). And yet, certain unresolved questions remain, with the most solid piece of evidence being a wholly inadequate statement made by the Thanet Returning Officer that does more to invite accusations of cover-up rather than smoothe over the ruffles.

Consequently, people rightly think the Thanet South election stinks to high heaven, and as such (bringing us back to the “most controversial” description) there is bound to be reference to the smell for ever more. The event is crying out to be investigated in a broader way, and the expense fraud claims should be providing activists with an opportunity to redirect attention, or spread it toward the more serious crime of meddling with votes, to build pressure for such an investigation. And so FBEL plans to reopen the 2015 General Election casebook, and use constituencies identified by Channel 4 to investigate if there is any overall correlation between possible vote meddling and alleged election expense fraud, and also finish a project (abandoned at the time because of other commitments) looking at other target UKIP seats that were controversially not gained by that party. In the meantime, this article will briefly repeat the evidence (first presented here) that suggests that the Thanet South election was indeed tampered with in ways beyond the mere alleged expense issues, and incorporate into our case study what could be significant information arising from the Channel 4 News investigation.

Channel 4 News seems to suggest that Tory HQ basically took over the running of the party’s Thanet South election campaign. It could have a point; look at the names and the positions of certain people who Channel 4 News claims became directly involved. Stephen Parkinson is Theresa May’s Political Secretary. Chris Brannigan is the Director of Government Relations at the Cabinet Office. Henry Macrory was formerly the Conservative Party’s Head of Press. Nick Timothy is Theresa May’s Co-Chief of Staff. Bearing this data in mind, the reader is asked to recall how Theresa May was selected to be Prime Minister, and consider the power behind her required to bring that about. Remember what happened. Leading so-called Eurosceptic parliamentary Tories either inexplicably got out of the way, or lost to a membership vote to Andrea Leadsom – possibly the only authentic Leave campaigner to stand for the leadership – until only her and Theresa May, a confirmed Remain campaigner, stayed in the contest. Remember, dear reader, how Leadsom suddenly appeared to get scared off. To spell it out, the author suspects the work of the British Government – not the Tory Party in office (although in terms of personnel, who is to say that there isn’t a good degree of overlap, and that that overlap is in evidence in the above list). So, take another look at that list of “Senior Tories” named by Channel 4, and look at the connections to May, and consider the help we think she received to become the PM, and notice that at least one holds a Government post proper.

That being pointed out for consideration, let’s turn our attention back to the chief evidence from the South Thanet election that instructs us that further and official investigation is required. It’s not tales of missing ballot boxes, or stories of ballot papers being destroyed before they need be, it’s an official statement submitted to the Electoral Commission by the then (acting) Returning Officer (RO) of Thanet Council, Madeline Homer. Regulations state that if counting doesn’t start by 2am of an election night, then a statement must be recorded that serves as an explanation in two parts; the first part being a description of what the Council did to avoid a late count, and the second part being a description of what went wrong to cause a late count – to put it all very simply.

The statement (downloaded from here) made by Madeline Homer entirely omits the first part. The following is as recorded:

Please refer to the chapter on “Factors influencing the timing of the count” within the count toolkit (starting at paragraph 3.12) as a guide for the types of steps which, as a minimum, should be covered.

At first, and he believed it for a long time, the author thought that the wholly inadequate entry in this first section of this statement had been entered by Homer. However, it occurred later that this is the default text of the form – meaning Homer didn’t make any entry as was required. The author does wonder at the state of the country when this data is readily available and is so obviously wholly inadequate, that people would then mock any who thought there was something terribly wrong with the Thanet South election result. Previously at FBEL, this omission and neglect by the RO was construed as being indicative of a cover-up. For, in the second part, the RO, Homer, did offer one of two things: no real good excuse for what went wrong, or information that couldn’t be fully understood because of the failure to submit the first-part information. Again, because the information is incomplete, we don’t know if the failings were due to a lack of foresight and preparation, or something else beyond the Returning Officer’s control. If we were able to judge the reasonableness of what went wrong at Thanet South, we could judge if it was in fact unreasonable. The major omission that we find in Homer’s statement, then, could well be deliberate obfuscation, and a cover-up is evidence of a conspiracy.

Perhaps the most damning information provided by the RO at Thanet was that specified under her own points 5, 6 and 7.

5 Postal vote delays – we did not get the verified postal votes back after verification by the postal voting team into the Count Centre until after 3.30am.

6 Due to limitation in space explained in 8 below, we were not able to verify all the late received postal votes at the count venue which would have been our preferred solution and would have prevented some of the delays but it was not technically and physically possible.

7 Verification was not completed until after 5.30am.

We seem to be being told that postal votes that were received late could not be accommodated at the Count Venue, and so were verified elsewhere (this is something that we would not expect to see, as we’ll explore below). These same votes did not arrive at the Count Venue until after 3.30am, and then the verification that we would expect to see lasted until beyond 5.30am. Let’s be conservative and say verification lasted 2 hours. These times are crucial because they define the entire problem. And there are others we need to recall. We know (see the initial FBEL article) from reports from the ground that the actual counting started around about 7am (incidentally, contradicting the time officially entered by the RO). We know that the declaration happened at about 10.30am. Let’s call the intervening period “counting time” and pronounce it to have taken 3 and a half hours. We know that the council had previously predicted the declaration to take place at 6am. So, if we presume 3.5 hours for “counting time” and also 2 hours (at least) for verification, let’s suppose the council might have expected verification to start at 12.30am – if not even midnight, which would make sense if the start of counting was hoped for before 2am – and to expect all postal votes to be at the venue by that time (because, given that they are mostly already in the council’s possession, they are expected to be pretty much ready for verification come the time, and even the first voting papers to go into that process)

However, the Thanet RO tells us that these postal votes were potentially 4+ hours late to the count.

Now, the author would normally say that it would be vital to comprehend what exactly the RO meant by “late received” postal votes to then fully understand our reading of her statement. Councils are allowed to process postal votes in preparation for verification well ahead of polling day (see the full explanation in the initial FBEL article on this subject – and please look at the comment made by a reader at the foot of the page). This means, potentially, if a council is so inclined, that the only postal votes that need to be processed for verification on polling day itself are the ones that turn up on the day. This is what we might normally understand to mean “late received”.

On the other hand, it appears that some councils do do all the preparation for verification on polling day, and if that’s what Thanet did, we could conceive of the possibility of the entirety of the postal vote being late to the count venue for verification. However, it has been demonstrated that if councils prepare the right facilities, they can manage the workload in a timely fashion. Crucially, we don’t know what Thanet Council did to enact measures to process “late received” postal votes so that they wouldn’t cause a delay, and we don’t know how they went about preparing postal votes (in sessions ahead of time, or on the day?), and so we don’t know how many postal votes were supposed to have come to the count venue late. It’s important because a small amount of processing to be done would not be a reasonable excuse for excessive lateness – and the Thanet count was catastrophically late. In fact, given the extremely wide margins, there would appear to be no good excuse for the lateness no matter what the volume of voting was, and irrespective of the RO’s pathetic account. This is what is actually so damning about the RO’s evidence. There is nothing in the RO’s statement that accounts properly for the delay. As was said before in the previous article “the Returning Officer failed to account properly for whatever did happen; i.e. the extraordinary happening is not explained. This points to it being all too extraordinary to be mentioned.”

So, to summarise at this point in our progress, we can’t understand the extent of the problem at Thanet South in terms of how many votes needed to be processed in good time because of the RO’s statement, but nevertheless, it looks like that the delay was such that there could be no good excuse for even a worst case scenario – suggesting that the RO could never adequately address it, hence the omission, hence the suspicion of cover-up.

And there is more, because the reader surely did not fail to notice that in the RO’s statement, she admits to postal votes being verified at a location other than the Count Venue. Now, it could well be that this RO has mixed up her terminology, and has misnamed the preparation of postal votes as “verification”. How likely is this? Should this RO even be overseeing an election if she can’t use the correct terminology on an official form – well, we’ve already seen in what contempt the process of being held to account is held (and the Electoral Commission doesn’t have the slightest problem with it either), so why should she care about being accurate in that process? All that aside, on the face of it she seems to be saying that papers were looked at vote-side up or “face up” before they got to the Count Venue – a strict no-no. It’s right there in black and white on an official document. In the author’s opinion, this alone warrants a session with the police.

Even if the RO is just confused, what we have is a situation where ballot papers have been away from the Count Venue for potentially 4 plus more hours than need be or might have been expected. Then, there is other stuff to throw into the mix, like how UKIP won the council, and not the Parliamentary seat (FBEL analysis concludes that it should have been very unlikely that the Tories acquired the margin that they did). Especially suspicious is the fact of the high proportion of ballot papers in Thanet that were rejected for want of an official mark.

In the 2010 General Election, there were 640 ballot papers all told rejected for this reason. In 2015, there were 1355 (source). This is quite something in itself, and further research is going to be done regarding this 111% increase in dodgy voting papers compare with performance for previous years. For now, consider how there were 197 ballot papers in both Thanet 2015 parliamentary elections that were rejected for want of an official mark. That constitutes 15% of the entire total. Could it be realistic to say that Thanet accidentally accrued this concentration of illegitimate votes? Could we ask, given the incredible concentration of illegitimate votes, was it possible that there were yet more that weren’t rejected? The verification and count is concerned with, respectively, checking the number of ballot papers tallies with a given number, and then separating papers out by vote. Establishing if papers have official marks, as far as postal voting is concerned, is all done in the preparation ahead of verification. Could it be possible that real votes were swapped out for counterfeited ones when postal ballot papers went missing for hours on end at the South Thanet election?

The author thinks that all the evidence points to an affirmative answer – vote rigging in the Thanet South election as described above was possible, and vote rigging, one way or another, did happen. Furthermore, it appears that normal right thinking people come to the same conclusion when they decide to become familiar with the details of the case, and in some delicious irony, the more they do, the more the continued failure of the authorities to investigate will inevitably amount to the same kind of damage to the Establishment as would be caused by actually uncovering the deep seated corruption that the evidence suggests. It’s a no win situation for the Establishment – unless, of course, the alleged expenses fraud is used to deescalate and extract the tension; in other words, justice gets seen to be done through another channel that mitigates the scandal for the Establishment. In that case, maybe the sitting Tory MP for Thanet South is about to get called off the lake, and we need to be focussing on the next attempt to keep proper opposition out of Parliament.

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