Beyond Kaminski

Have we forgotten the Latvians and the rest?

Has the Kaminski brouhaha distracted us from the bigger picture? The Tory blogosphere may want us to change the subject and move on, but the reality is that the cuddly Cameroonian Conservatives remain allied, in Brussels, with a bunch of whackjobs, loons and bigots. Will Straw has the details. Does David Cameron, for example, know that the Lijst Dedecker in Belgium includes an MP who has -- in a manner reminiscent of the BNP's Nick Griffin -- described Islam as a "cancer" and called for "global chemotherapy" against it? Does Cameron even care?

Perhaps most shameful of all are the Tories' new allies from Latvia, the For Fatherland and Freedom (LNNK) party, whose sole MEP, Robert Zile, sits in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, and even attended the Conservative party conference in Manchester.

The Tories have been keen to defend this controversial party, which honours Latvia's Waffen SS veterans each year with an annual parade in the capital city, Riga, on 16 March. The shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, and the party's chairman, Eric Pickles, have both condemned Labour and the Lib Dems for recycling "old Soviet smears" and "endorsing Soviet propaganda" against the Latvians. Hague and Pickles have claimed that the so-called Lettish Legion consisted of conscripts and that the parade is a mainstream and official event.

This, however, has been refuted and disproved by, among others, the journalist Peter Beaumont (the Observer's award-winning foreign affairs editor) and the Israeli historian Efraim Zuroff (from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre). Up to a third of the Latvian SS region were volunteers -- and deeply implicated in the Second World War-era massacres of Riga's Jews. Moreover, the 16 March parade is not an officially sanctioned event and, says Beaumont, "When the head of Latvia's armed forces participated in the march, Latvia's parliament voted to have him removed from his position."

The Speccie's Rod Liddle -- not normally a man I agree with! -- summed up the situation early this month:

It is not the slightest use Eric Pickles insisting that Latvians who fought for the Waffen SS -- who were honoured by the party in question -- were merely patriots and that to argue otherwise is a Soviet slur, because it is simply not the case. Further, presentationally, the words "Waffen SS" have, historically, tended to have a negative impact upon the British voter. The man in the street associates the phrase -- perhaps wrongly -- with all manner of bother, all kinds of horribleness. Also, it is the sort of phrase which sits uncomfortably with the notion of "caring Conservatives", even caring Conservatives who are going to freeze the wages of everybody except bankers as soon as they take office. How did they allow themselves to get into this position, then? Either through stupidity or principle, one supposes. I am not sure which of the two is worse.

It is not David Miliband who owes the Tories -- or the Poles, or the Latvians -- an apology; it is Hague and Pickles who owe all of us an apology: for aiding and abetting in the rehabilitation of the Waffen SS while presenting false and inaccurate information in defence of their absurd and amoral position.

Note: Before the Tory trolls descend on this blog to feign outrage and disgust and point to Labour's dodgy allies in the European Parliament, let me remind them (again!) that Labour, unlike the Conservatives, did not go out seeking new allies and new groupings. Nor is the Party of European Socialists, to which Labour belongs -- unlike the European Conservatives and Reformists, to which the Tories belong -- dominated by bigots, weirdos and extremists on the far-right fringe of European politics. Is that clear?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Q&A: What happened at Barnet's polling stations this morning?

Eager democrats who arrived early in the morning to vote in the London elections were turned away. 

What’s going on?

When polls first opened at Barnet’s 155 polling stations at 7 this morning, many registered voters found that they were not on the station’s voting lists, meaning they were unable to cast their vote. Many reports suggested that the overwhelming majority were turned away. Rules were later relaxed in some, but not all, polling stations to allow those who arrived with their polling cards (which explicitly state they are not needed to cast a vote) to vote.

Why is this happening?

It is, needless to say, unclear. But some reports have suggested that polling station staff only had the updates to the electoral register (that is, those who have newly-registered) rather than the entire register itself. Which makes you wonder why nobody realised before 7am that there might be rather more people wanting to vote in Barnet than the lists suggested.

Is this a conspiracy?

No, of course it’s not. And if you think it is, take the tinfoil hat off and stop watching Russia Today. Barnet is a Tory-led council. If this mess harms any party it is likely to be the Conservatives. We don’t know how Barnet voted for mayor in 2012, but we do know the votes of Barnet plus predominantly Labour-supporting Camden: Boris Johnson got 82,839 first preference votes while Ken Livingstone received 58,354. But remember London’s not just electing a mayor today. It is also electing the members of the Greater London Assembly – and one of them represents the constituency of Barnet and Camden. The incumbent, Andrew Dismore, is from the Labour Party, and is running for reelection. He won fairly comfortably in 2012, far outperforming Ken Livingstone. But Tory campaigners have been talking up the possibility of defeating Dismore, especially in recent days after Labour’s anti-semitism ructions (Barnet has London’s largest Jewish population). Again, if there are voters who failed to vote this morning and cannot to do so later, then that will hurt the Conservatives and help Dismore.

Is it the fault of nasty outsourcers?

Seemingly not. As we’ve written before, Barnet Council is famous for outsourcing vast proportions of its services to private contractors – births and deaths in the borough are now registered elsewhere, for example. But though postal votes and other areas of electoral administration have been outsourced by Barnet, voter registration is performed in-house. This one’s on the council and nobody else.

What has Barnet done about it?

The council initially issued a statement saying that it was “aware of problems with our voter registration lists” and admitting that “a number of people who had not brought their polling card with them were unable to vote”. Which was a bit peculiar given the polling cards say that you don’t need to bring them to vote and there were plenty of reports of people who had polling cards also being denied their democratic rights.

As of 10.40am, the council said that: “All the updated electoral registers are now in place and people can vote as normal.” There appear to be no plans to extend voting hours – and it is not possible to reopen polling tomorrow morning for the frustrated early birds to return.

What does this mean for the result?

It’s very hard to form even a vaguely accurate picture of how many voters who would otherwise have voted will not vote because of this error. But if the margin of victory in the mayoral election or the relevant GLA contest is especially slim, expect calls for a re-run. Frustrated voters could in theory achieve that via the arcane procedure of an election petition, which would then be heard by a special election court, as when Lutfur Rahman’s election as Mayor of Tower Hamlets was declared void in April 2015.

Some have suggested that this may delay the eventual result, but remember that counting for the London elections was not due to begin until Friday morning anyway.

Is there a dodgier barnet than this Barnet?

Yes.

 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.