Probe into “undue spiritual influence” in Birmingham election


An election petition has been launched into the May 2015 local elections in Birmingham. I want to be clear about a few things at the outset.

These proceedings are all about principles of public importance and the protection of democratic elections. It is about preventing future recurrence of kinship voting swaying bloc votes in favour of a political party. It is about the corrupt practice of providing fertile battleground for Pakistani political parties to flex their muscle during local British elections. It is about undue spiritual influence installing fear in the minds of the voter that if they don’t vote the party endorsed by the spiritual leader, punishment awaits them in the afterlife. It is about the illegal practice of segregation of men and women at political rally in contravention of the Equality Act 2010. These practices have no place in modern politics and for any political party to turn a blind eye to such practices amounts to selling values for votes.

In the recent Tower Hamlets case of Lutfur Rahman, the Courts held that Mr Rahman was culpable in deploying the practice of undue spiritual influence when his campaign circulated a letter signed by 101 imams supporting his candidacy or that they used the visit of the grand imam of Mecca as political currency to galvanise support for his campaign. The Courts had to apply a 100 year old law to send out a message that religious interference in elections will not be tolerated by the Court.

In Rotherham sex grooming cases, kinship (Biraderi) politics was linked to organised crime. The inherent misogyny and mafia like threats associated with kinship politics to exclude and punish those who break the code of silence in the community means many crimes going unreported. Such homogeneity do provide fertile ground for consolidating a bloc vote for the astute politician. Another tactic of kinship politics is to be seen with figures of power like spiritual leaders or foreign political heavy weights of the same ethnicity or religion as the prospective voter because the perception is that these voters understand power in a way that the empowered middle classes don’t. The candidate is sending out messages: look at me, I can look after you, I can do things, don’t challenge me, I am more important than you.

The purpose of these proceedings is to clean up the politics in Birmingham. The Courts have been consistent in sending out the right messages that such practices will not be tolerated. In 2004, the Court held that the election practices involving postal vote fraud in Birmingham would embarrass “a banana republic”. The Court has another opportunity to scrutinise the election practices in Birmingham albeit on different grounds. However, political parties do bear responsibility to protect the election process. Elections must be free and fair!


* Shamsur Rehman is a local campaigner and political commentator on human rights

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  • Peter Chapman 22nd Jun '15 - 7:39pm

    this problem will never be solved until postal voting is reduced to virtually nothing. In many Pakistani families the whole household fills in the postal votes as a family based on who the leader of the house has decided the votes of his family will go to. Elections need to be over 2 days over the weekend with early polling at the town hall.Until this is done in many communities democracy is dead. P.s. Don’t expect anything to many vested interests like things as they are

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Jun '15 - 8:17pm

    I agree with Peter. I have to point out, though, that during the recent general election I encountered a very middle class pink-skinned woman telling me that if it was politics, I needed to speak to her husband. 🙁

  • Simon McGrath 22nd Jun '15 - 9:28pm

    The law against ‘spiritual influence’ was passed in victorian times and was linked to anti catholic bigotry. Liberals who believe in free speech should not be seeking to stop priests, imams or any other religious leader suggesting how people should vote

  • Simon,
    Anyone should be entitled to suggest any direction of voting in our society: but it is vital that those suggestions are not accompanied by personal threats or promises to the voter, whether material or spiritual in nature…

  • I don’t think postal voting per se is a problem. There are simple ways to allow postal voting that are don’t allow for fraud, voter intimidation, or third-party verification of a vote. At all events Liberal Democrats should not support moves that will make it more difficult for qualified persons to vote.

  • Hmm… I’ve experienced many Labour campaigns that could have been queried on these grounds. I actually have doubts about whether publicising the support of a large number of imams (or bishops or Humanist academics or trade union chiefs or leading business-people) should be banned. If Richard Dawkins’ intervention on behalf of Layla Moran earlier this year had been followed by similar statements by a dozen other leading atheists, and Layla had used this in a leaflet, would she have faced the same charge?

    Unfortunately, as Shamsur suggests, many people in some groups vote along lines that are not so much religious as crypto-feudal – automatically following the instructions of “community leaders” whose power may be based on their domination of religious structures. The natural Liberal response to this would be to work to free people from these shackles – not of religion but of deference; and time and social trends should help.

    There may be special cases where the grip of unequal and enslaving structures is too strong, but I’d be cautious.

  • Jayne Mansfield 23rd Jun '15 - 10:32am

    I think that Shamsur is being very brave in raising awareness of these issues.

    If the courts are sending out the right messages, why is the behaviour continuing? I have worked in a country where political corruption is so endemic as to be seen as the norm. In my experience it is the weakest individuals who suffer when corrupt practices go unchallenged, because it is not the case that people who behave like this have their best interests at heart. Instead the most vulnerable are kept in ignorance of their rights, or through what can only be describes as coercive manipulation denied access to the power to change their lives.

    Viewed from the perspective of another culture, I also became very critical of the way power is exercised in this country by people or a pinker complexion! I don’t think we use the ‘corruption ‘ word enough. Sometimes one has to stand outside one’s own culture to see its blind spots.

  • David Howarth 23rd Jun '15 - 11:33am

    The existing law isn’t quite what people here are saying it is. Electoral activism by religious authorities is not in itself banned. There has to be not only ‘undue influence’ but also influence specifically exercised through a threat of ‘spiritual injury’. It is, nevertheless, not entirely clear what this covers and the targeting of religion is certainly an objection to the offence as it stands. The Law Commission is therefore proposing to abolish it and to subsume it into a more general offence of ‘abuse of a position of influence’ For further details see: especially at pp 246-7.

  • The problem is that the whole political culture is rife pressure groups exerting undue influence as well as other forms of influence. A lot of the time people vote the same way as their parents etc. So you have to be clear about spiritual influence. In the cases as reported this seems to be Imams saying that a vote for anyone than their preferred candidate is a bad Muslim or words to that effect, but to me you really should be surprised. When people migrate they don’t just bring themselves, They bring customs, and norms of culture, good, bad or indifferent. To me the answer is to focus on cases where intimidation and corruption are involved because the idea that you can prove less concrete cases is problematic.

  • Shamsur,
    I was interested in your article.
    It struck me that parts of it could have been written in the 20th Century  about Irish Roman Catholics in the USA.

    This section —
    “…The inherent misogyny and mafia like threats associated with kinship politics to exclude and punish those who break the code of silence in the community means many crimes going unreported. Such homogeneity do provide fertile ground for consolidating a bloc vote for the astute politician. Another tactic of kinship politics is to be seen with figures of power like spiritual leaders or foreign political heavy weights of the same ethnicity or religion as the prospective voter because the perception is that these voters understand power in a way that the empowered middle classes don’t. The candidate is sending out messages: look at me, I can look after you, I can do things, don’t challenge me, I am more important than you.”

    A friend of mine grew up in  Chicago in the 1960s the daughter of an Irish immigrant who managed on arrival in the USA to get a job with Mayor Daley thanks to a distant cousin who had done the same a few years earlier.   He described himself as ‘one of the Mayor’s men’.

    He was one of hundreds of Mayor Daley’s men who ostensibly were local authority employees but whose day to day activities would not necessarily be recognised as such.    They were intensely loyal to the Mayor.

    I am talking about Mayor Richard J Daley as opposed to his son Mayor Richard M Daley who also (not coincidentally) was mayor of Chicago for six consecutive session meaning that Chicago “benefited” from a Mayor Daley for decades and decades.

    I noticed similar loyalty to the recently disgraced Mayor of Tower Hamlets.   Perhaps those in the Westminster Village who keep trying to impose elected Mayors on UK Cities might take note.

  • Lester Holloway 23rd Jun '15 - 12:54pm

    @ David Howarth – It would be interesting to see how this proposed change (‘abuse of a position of influence’) relates to a whole range of organisations, particularly trades unions. It all hinges on where the line is drawn. There are many Christian churches who feel passionately about certain issues (abortion, marriage) – including ‘mainstream’ evangelical churches – who might fall foul. I know a very big church in London whose English senior pastors are immensely homophobic. Will the congregation in these churches feel pressure to vote against parties, like our own, who are enthusiastically in favour of LGBT equality? If so, should they be taken to court over it? Doing so may be the right thing to do, but it would certainly cause tensions in itself.

  • Lester Holloway 23rd Jun '15 - 12:54pm

    @ Simon Banks – Terms like ‘crypto-feudal’ and ‘shackles’ simplify the issue. These communities are neither medieval nor are instances of people being coerced and forced to vote for Labour against their will the norm. It’s a secret ballot. I’d like someone to explain how a strong ‘community mood’ in Asian communities towards Labour differs from the strong community mood in northern white working class towns towards Labour. What is the difference between an Imam vocally supporting Labour and the chairman of a working men’s club and union branch leader doing likewise? I’m uncomfortable with any part of society having an overly partisan atmosphere where people feel any sort of community pressure to vote a particular way, but let’s not racialise it unnecessarily.

    I’m not in any way excusing what may be happening in Birmingham. When I was a news reporter for Eastern Eye, the biggest selling Asian weekly newspaper, I had a front page story on the former Labour MP for Birmingham Hall Green Roger Godsiff living on a (primarily Asian) street where every single voting age adult was a paid-up member of the Labour Party at the time. The joke in the newsroom was that new born babies got their party membership cards before their birth certificates. Godsiff was very upset at the story but he refused to deny it and the facts of the story were never challenged.

    I’m no expert but I always got the impression Pakistani elders got to be councillors and they supported the white MPs in a mutually-beneficial circle. I strongly suspect that Shamsur’s case is about more than the particular ward, it’s about the whole of Birmingham, about power in city hall and embraces several of their MPs, and goes back at least two decades. In other words, it is very big. I can’t see this being cracked by one case. There is a need to unpick all of this, but as I say above, we need to draw parallels with other similar heavily pro-Labour community ‘atmospheres’ elsewhere which go beyond individual communities.

  • David Howarth 23rd Jun '15 - 3:35pm

    Good questions. This is only a proposal for consultation and there is a long way to go before anything new becomes law.
    But for what it’s worth, the Law Commission’s further explanation of the proposed offence is that it would cover situations ‘where a special relationship of power and dependence exists between the person exerting the influence and the voter’. In the old days of the closed shop that might well have brought trade unions within its ambit, but I don’t think it would now. Unions don’t really have ‘power’ over their members any more, nor are their members ‘dependent’ on them in the way they used to be. It might apply to employers or landlords, however.
    On churches, one would have to know a lot more about the circumstances – perhaps including the theology of the group concerned. It also has to be an ‘abuse’ of the special relationship, which implies something like taking an unfair advantage of the situation.

  • Lester Holloway 23rd Jun '15 - 3:58pm

    @ David Howarth – Thanks for your reply. Ill-defined concepts seem to be all the rage at the moment, from banning mind-altering substances (coffee, tea?) without defining what this means, or the education bill listing ‘coasting schools’ without the foggiest idea of what constitutes coasting.

  • David Howarth 23rd Jun '15 - 4:04pm

    To be fair to the Law Commission, the way they work is to consult very carefully over an extended period and when they are clear about what they want to proceed to an equally careful drafting stage. I can’t think of anything more different from that than the process that has produced the Psychoactive Substances Bill.

  • Chris Rennard 23rd Jun '15 - 11:33pm

    I raised some of these issues in a debate in the House of Lords recenty:
    Comments from Lib Dem members welcome as to how we might tackle electoral fraud issues.

  • Qassim Afzal 23rd Jun ’15 – 3:45pm
    “…recognised politicians posing for leaflets and websites with tokenism immigrant looking children, Hijabi Muslim Women or Turbaned Sikh Men many of whom we don’t know from Adam when we are chasing for our election photo ops…”

    You make an interesting point here. I know what you are driving at but it begs the question is it not the same if the photo is with someone wearing grubby trainers and cheap clothes from Sports Direct? Someone dressed in this way in front of a typical council house door is clearly not an Old Etonian Toff. So what is the message of the picture?

    Is it tokenism? Or is it saying “we are on your side”?
    Or perhaps it is saying –
    “Politics is about more than young men who went to a posh school and look like Jacob Rees Mogg and Nick Clegg”.

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