Controversial election petition may not be heard until next year

Oldham Times pic election petition pic

Much has been written elsewhere on this website regarding the various controversies surrounding the local council elections in May, 2021.

Not least the sustained and disgraceful smear attack that saw the removal of the Leader of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, Sean Fielding. The outfall from which is still attracting coverage in the local, regional and national press.

At the time, he did consider challenging a poll that saw him defeated by Mark Wilkinson of the hyper-local Failsworth Independent Party, by way of a petition to the Electoral Commission. Instead, he opted to pursue a career as a public affairs professional with a leading firm in the region.

Cllr Wilkinson, in a short few months as the elected representative of the Failsworth West ward, on the very outskirts of Manchester, and the Party chaired by his wife, has also attracted significant controversy. Indeed, they are rarely far from it (read here and here and here).

One aggrieved candidate did, however, file a petition at the High Court in London on 24th May, 2021. It reads as follows:

In the Matter of the Representation of the People Act, 1983
And in the Matter of a Local Government Election for Coldhurst ward, Oldham
Held on the 6th day of May, 2021 

The Petition of Montaz Ali Azad shows:

1. That the Petitioner Montaz Ali Azad is a person who was a candidate at the above election

2. That the election was held on the 6th day of May, 2021, when Jean Betteridge, David James Cahill, Abdul Jabbar and Mick Scholes, were candidates, and on the 6th day of May 2021, the Returning Officer returned Abdul Jabbar was declared to be duly elected.

3. That the local election was badly run. My polling agents were not allowed to enter polling stations from 7am until around 12.30pm to represent me in the polling stations due to elections office error.

4. That the ballot boxes could not have been checked it was empty before it was sealed by the presiding officers.

5. My polling agents could not assist me in detecting incidences of personation by not being able to enter the polling stations.

6. That the polling station mobile unit co2, maygate, had a very small portacabin allowing one in one out which resulted in  long queue and this deterred would be voters waiting in the adverse weather.

The Petitioner therefore pray

(1) That it may be determined that the said Abdul Jabbar was not duly elected [or returned] and that the election was void.

(2) That the petitioner may have such further or other relief as may be just

(3) That a re-election is authorised.

The present position, according to a spokesperson in the Queen’s Bench Division at the Royal Courts of Justice is that a hearing took place on 27th August, 2021 to, ostensibly, fix a date for the petition to be heard.

“Mr Justice Soole ordered that the petition be assigned to a Commissioner and the trial should take place in the Metropolitan Borough of Oldham, at the Civic Centre, on a date commencing not before 1st November 2021. A further directions order has been made by the Commissioner assigned to the petition but, as yet, there is no date set for the trial”.

The spokesperson later added: “Due to the various directions that the parties will need to comply with I think it is unlikely that the trial hearing will be listed until a date/s in December, 2021 or January, 2022”.

Oldham Council say, ‘It is inappropriate to comment with legal proceedings ongoing’. The Returning Officer at the May elections, Dr Carolyn Wilkins, left the Council by mutual consent in August, 2021.

A Commissioner holding an election court is usually an experienced barrister, not a judge. This is a case where no wrongdoing is alleged against the successful candidate, the grounds all concern the alleged defective running and managing of the poll in Coldhurst by the the Council’s Returning Officer and her staff.

Montaz Ali Azad, a former Labour councillor, also cuts a controversial figure in the town and a discredited pre-election stunt (read more here), that appeared to be staged by another local politician, Gary Tarbuck, and the disgraced Tameside-based Conservative Party activist, Raja Miah.

The enterprise was designed only to smear leading figures in the Oldham Labour Party and any further reference to it was dropped completely once the ‘Absent of Evidence’ article was published. Miah is presently on extended bail, whose conditions include a night-time curfew, over suspicions of racially aggravated public order and malicious communications offences. He strongly denies wrongdoing, claiming his dawn raid arrest was ‘politically motivated’ (read more here).

Tarbuck recently defected from the Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth Party (the POOS) to join Miah in his support of the local Tories. Both regularly praise Montaz Ali on social media, overlooking his history as a people trafficker, and are rabid in their collective condemnation of the Labour Party.

The Coldhurst election was hotly contested and the Labour Party’s Cllr Abdul Jabbar, Deputy Leader of the Council, prevailed by just 71 votes.

In the Oldham East and Saddleworth Parliamentary constituency, the defeated Liberal Democrat candidate, Elwyn Watkins, petitioned against the election, in 2010, of Phil Woolas, a former Labour Minister, alleging that the result was affected by false statements of fact about his personal character.

The election court, held in November of the same year, which heard the case ordered a re-run of the election after finding him guilty of making false statements against his opponent during the original campaign. The following month, Woolas sought a judicial review of the decision, but was unsuccessful overall as that Court upheld the decision of the Election Court in relation to two statements, whilst quashing the decision in relation to a third. He won the first election by just 103 votes.

The last election court, following a petition from a local councillor rather than a prospective MP was held in 2012.

The Electoral Commission has been asked, via a freedom of information request, to provide copies of documents relevant to the petition and a date for the hearing. They have confirmed that a response will be provided on, or before, 2nd December, 2021.

Page last updated: Thursday 3rd November, 2021 at 0945 hours

Photo Credits: Oldham Times (James Mutch).

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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