Friday, March 16, 2012

In The Name Of Democracy

Most conspiracy theories are ludicrous. Those who peddle them are unhinged, unappreciated loners with wild imaginations and too much spare time. This is, at least, what officialdom would have us believe. According to Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76), the explanation with fewest assumptions is usually the most credible, but not always. Some theories hold true, but remain obscured, the passing of time becoming the saviour of the conspirators.

Still, there have been occasions when even the most outlandish claims are proven conclusively. Perhaps the most famous is the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. In a nutshell: the Democratic Party HQ in Washington, DC was burgled by associates of White House staff. Criminal investigations led to the conviction of 43 individuals and, unprecedentedly, the impeachment and subsequent resignation of the incumbent (Republican) president, Richard Nixon (1913-94).

The world, understandably, recoiled in astonishment. When I read Fred Emery’s definitive account of the saga, I could not help but wonder: what if there are scandals of similar enormity out there, unsuspected by all except some distrustful, underemployed nobody living in a trailer park or bedsit? Few would listen, because such a person would be damned by his own circumstances as soon as he opened his mouth. We must, however, acknowledge another reason why conspiracy theories tend to be championed by outsiders: they, unlike most, have little by way of reputation to lose and thus not much to fear from ridicule.

In my own lifetime, only one such theory has persistently intrigued me. Twenty years ago, almost to the day, a general election was held in the UK. John Major’s Conservative government had been languishing in the opinion polls. Its nationwide unpopularity stemmed from many issues, not least the nation’s membership of the European Union’s currency exchange rate mechanism, which was prolonging a bitter recession (in much the same way that Eurozone membership is crippling Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain today). Meanwhile, Neil Kinnock’s Labour opposition was on the up, having purged itself of self-defeating Marxist tendencies in the 1980s. Most political analysts predicted a comfortable Labour victory. Opinion polls concurred, right up to – and including – the Election Day exit polls.

The result was the biggest electoral surprise in decades. Major and his beleaguered Conservatives won with a majority of 21 parliamentary seats (Figure 38.1), having polled 2.5 million more votes than Labour. It was the highest single-party vote in British history. The pollsters had missed the target by a whopping 9% (Figure 38.2). There have since been four further general elections, the results of each having been forecast accurately, as opinion polling becomes ever more sophisticated. 1992 was a stark anomaly – indeed the only one in the last 40 years of British elections.

Figure 38.1: A look of surprise? John Major, back in Downing Street in 1992

Copyright © 2010 Sky News

Figure 38.2: The result that none of the pollsters had come close to predicting

Copyright © 1994 Market Research Society

The Market Research Society held an inquiry into the shock result. One explanation it gave was that thousands of Conservatives, when questioned, had lied about their voting intention. Another suggested factor was Kinnock’s cringeworthy behaviour at a pre-election rally in Sheffield (Figure 38.3). In my view, both hypotheses seem too far-fetched and, in any case, lack direct evidence.

Figure 38.3: Neil Kinnock’s misplaced pre-election triumphalism (on April Fools’ Day)

Copyright © 1992 BBC

Could there be an alternative explanation? Did the polling organizations really get it so hopelessly wrong?  

Let me begin by stating the obvious. The first and principal objective of any ruling elite is the preservation of its own power. History provides repeated proof of this, and some rulers will stop at nothing, especially if they believe they can hoodwink the masses. Even the basic tenets of democracy can be viewed as mere obstacles to be overcome. (Look no further than the European Union.) Ballot-rigging is rife throughout the world, not only among despotic regimes paying half-baked lip service to ‘people power’, but also among developed nations. During the US presidential election of 2000, for instance, there were so many voting discrepancies in the crucial state of Florida, it was scarcely believable that a repeat ballot was not ordered by the Supreme Court.

On this issue, the UK has no right to look down on Americans with any sense of moral superiority. Voting ‘irregularities’ are equally commonplace this side of the Atlantic. The simplest method is to conjure non-existent voters. There have been documented examples of derelict properties supposedly housing multiple residents (Brighton, 1993), and foreign students unknowingly having their identities used (Hackney, 1998). Furthermore, no one ever checks electoral registers for fraudulent registrations. In 1999, it was reported (by George Howarth, MP) that electoral register discrepancies accounted for a staggering 10% of all entries, enough to swing even the most one-sided contest.

Another godsend to fraudsters is the law allowing postal voting. This was designed for the benefit of expats and those with a nominated proxy. Unfortunately, as the Guardian’s Nick Davies pointed out in 2001, postal vote applications can be collected and rewritten as applications for proxy votes, then cast by, for example, party activists. This happened in 1992. In a residential home in Cornwall, a Conservative Party worker collected postal vote forms from elderly residents, before applying for proxy votes in the names of his co-workers. There were more than 70 post-election complaints; although some individuals raised no objections, having died prior to ‘voting’.

I admit, the numbers are small. Nevertheless, the 1992 result was determined by fewer than 1,300 votes in just eleven marginal constituencies. A mere twenty residential homes, dotted across the country, would have provided enough weight to tip the national balance.

Two years later, the government stated: ‘Voting in person at the local polling station in general provides the least opportunity for impersonation or electoral fraud.’ Despite this being self-evident, postal voting has since been made available to everyone, no questions asked. One is entitled to speculate why postal vote applications rose by up to 2000% within a month of the legislation being passed.

The fact that all British political parties have engaged in localized ballot-rigging (Figure 38.4) compels us to ask: could electoral fraud be orchestrated systematically by the State? This outrageous question might one day be asked about Thursday, April 9th, 1992 – by disreputable conspiracy theorists and sober historians alike.

Figure 38.4: Fact or fiction?

Copyright © 2010 Thailand Times

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

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