I've Seen Fairer Elections in East Europe Than in Blair's Britain

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Byline: JOHN LAUGHLAND

We cherish the view in this country that our elections are a model of propriety.

When Britons go to the polls we do so in the knowledge that our voting system is fair, free and honest.

But that's what Americans thought about their system until November, when the process of electing the president of the world's greatest democracy was shown to be a disgraceful and corrupt shambles.

Now Britain has introduced procedures which are an open invitation to cheats. Having observed elections all over Eastern Europe throughout the Nineties for the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, I can confirm that many countries with only ten years' experience of democracy have much safer electoral rules than we now do.

The declared purpose of the Representation Of The People Act 2000, which Labour slipped quietly through Parliament last year, is to increase the turnout at the polls. In reality, this is just a way of garnering more votes for Labour. Voter turnout in Britain was in no need of being increased: more than 70 per cent of us habitually vote in General Elections. It is just that Labour calculates it can get votes out of the remaining 30 per cent.

This was made clear last Tuesday when it was revealed that trade union leaders promised to deliver Tony Blair 500,000 votes on polling day. The unions have said they will go round factories distributing forms for postal votes.

When I observed the general election in Byelorussia last October, one of the main complaints was that the workplace was being exploited for electoral purposes. Byelorussia was roundly condemned by the international community but apparently it is all right for Britain to do the same.

A key change brought in by the new Act is that we can now all vote by post if we want to. There are effectively no controls on these postal votes and their widespread use cuts the link, essential in an electoral system based on constituencies, between where you live and where you vote. There is little to stop someone using a friend's or relative's address to get on to the electoral register in a marginal seat.

Postal votes could, therefore, be targeted to have maximum effect on the outcome of a General Election.

There is also little to stop anyone casting postal votes in two or more places. It is, of course, a crime, but people are rarely caught because there is no central database which would enable constituencies to check if a voter appears on more than one register. And with postal votes you do not physically have to be in two places on the same day.

Worst of all, even within constituencies there are very lax checks to stop people sending in multiple postal ballots. A postal vote is supposed to be accompanied by a Declaration of Identity, signed by a witness, which correlates with a number on the official envelope containing the ballot paper. …