ELECTIONS EXCLUSIVE: Our Sutton dodgy goings-on editor, JERRY MANDER, on how the rules of purdah have been broken repeatedly by the local Liberal Democrats as they ignore orders from council officers not to abuse taxpayer-funded resources
The Liberal Democrats who have run Sutton as a one-party state for nearly 30 years appear to believe that the strict rules governing the conduct of elections do not apply to them. Candidates from other parties are now openly accusing Ruth Dombey’s Sutton LibDems of “cheating” in a win-at-all-cost approach.
Last month, Sutton LibDems had tens of thousands of leaflets printed for the candidates in the 18 wards in the borough. As these were election leaflets, the law states that they must not contain council email addresses or phone numbers, as the use of council resources for electoral purposes is strictly forbidden, especially during the period of “purdah”, when local authorities have to temper their public statements to avoid favouring one political party over any others.
Sutton Council’s democratic services team had already met with candidates’ agents before monitoring officer Jessica Crowe issued a letter to all councillors on March 28, two days after purdah began. The message was clear – council emails and phone numbers must not be used in election materials, nor council assets or materials.
Following complaints from Conservatives and Labour that LibDem election leaflets were breaking these rules across the borough, Crowe took up the issue with the Liberal Democrats. Inside Croydon understands that Crowe was given a firm assurance that the offending information would be redacted.
But for the past two weeks since that promise was made to the council official, thousands more LibDem leaflets have been delivered to households with the offending information still included.
Crowe sent a second email to all councillors on March 30. It’s content was very clear:
“For the avoidance of doubt and following a complaint and discussion with the Chief Executive, I am writing to all members to set out the Council’s expectation that council email addresses and phone numbers will not be published in election literature.”
In respect of breaches of this rule, Crowe continued: “We will have no option but to restrict emails coming from the public to members via their council email addresses.”
But still the deliveries did not stop.
Inside Croydon understands that the LibDems informed Crowe that they would cross out the offending email addresses and phone numbers from the leaflets before delivering any more. In Nonsuch ward and Sutton North, some leaflets have been seen with redactions, but this was not before some materials showing the council addresses and phone numbers had been delivered here.
“Some poor volunteer must have spent hours with a marker pen going through the leaflets, one-by-one, to cross out the rule-breaking details,” a candidate for another party in Sutton said.
“It all looks a bit amateur hour. You wonder why the LibDems didn’t just take the decision to pulp the leaflets that broke the rules and get some amended ones printed – are they short of cash? Couldn’t they afford to get another set of leaflets done?”
An alternative explanation is that the marker pen work has only been done on a small proportion of the rule-breaking leaflets for appearances sake.
Sutton LibDems are very proud of their local volunteer network, and utilise two Facebook groups to coordinate deliveries and their election strategy. With email and telephones, as well as a hierarchy that includes individual ward organisers, it seems improbable that they could not get the message out to their volunteers to halt deliveries within a matter of hours.
It has been suggested that the LibDem leadership simply chose to allow their volunteers to continue to deliver the leaflets, leaving them unaware they were breaking purdah rules.
In one ward, two sitting LibDem councillors have been observed delivering unredacted leaflets. David Bartolucci and Ali Mirhashem were seen on the Benhill Estate in Sutton Central. The shamelessness is compounded because, as councillors, they would have received the “stop” email directly from the monitoring officer a week previously.
In all, Inside Croydon has seen evidence of materials being distributed on behalf on 19 serving LibDem councillors who are seeking re-election across half of the borough’s wards. The list includes the ward of council leader Ruth Dombey and that of Mary Burstow, the wife of former LibDem MP, Paul Burstow.
Inside Croydon understands that Crowe has carried out her threat, and the council has already restricted the email facilities of some of these councillors.
Opposition candidates are furious about the actions of the LibDems, who are noted for their electoral campaign “dexterity”.
Andy Cook, a Labour candidate in the Sutton West ward, said: “Sutton LibDems have once again shown blatant disregard for residents, Council Tax-payers, council officials and the political process. Their ethics are seriously questionable.
“This is another example of the LibDems ignoring the very clear purdah rules, sent out by the council’s monitoring officer. Despite a number of complaints, including one from me about Councillor Mary Burstow, they are still doing it.
“This is a party that will do and say anything for power. Rules don’t matter to them.”
Tony Shields, the Tory councillor who is standing for re-election in Sutton South, told Inside Croydon that Sutton LibDems “are simply cheating”.
Shields said: “They knew what the rules were when purdah kicked in. I have seen these leaflets pretty much every day on doormats in flats and in people’s porches. The LibDems were warned nearly a fortnight ago to stop delivering these leaflets. They have total contempt for the monitoring officer and for residents.”
Opposition parties say they will also be keeping a close eye on the LibDems’ expenses returns. Any materials distributed during the purdah period must be fully costed as part of the election campaign, even if the cost was incurred before purdah began.
Sutton’s LibDems have form for ignoring the instructions of the monitoring officer. Last September two versions of the fake LibDem newspaper, The Gazette, were produced in Sutton and Cheam, with the second version in Carshalton and Wallington.
In one publication, a photograph of Beddington Park was used without the permission of the photographer, Michael Heath.
More importantly, these LibDem party publications used promotional photographs paid for out of taxpayers’ money by Sutton Council, which is forbidden. When challenged, the LibDems pledged to stop distribution. Council leader Ruth Dombey promised Jessica Crowe that the offending newspapers would be taken to the dump for recycling.
But the copyright material also appeared without permission or payment on the Sutton LibDems’ website.
In a written answer to November’s council meeting, Dombey said that the error was an “honest mistake” and that all members had been written to, to remind them not to misuse resources in the run up to the May elections. Yet for weeks after Dombey had made her solemn promise to stop using the stolen material, her party’s fake newspapers were still being “recycled” – by LibDem councillors, who continued to push them through the doors of Sutton residents…
- Read more: Shameless – the 19 LibDem councillors cheating election rules
- Check out our previous 2018 local election reports here
- BECOME AN INSIDE CROYDON SUPPORTER: For just £4 per month, you can support the local journalism that brings you Inside Croydon. Click here to sign-up as a donor
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon is the borough’s only independent news source, and still based in the heart of Croydon
- 1.4 MILLION PAGE VIEWS IN 2017
- “Monitored” by the council CEO since 2010
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS 2017: Inside Croydon was source for two award-winning nominations in Private Eye magazine’s annual celebration of civic cock-ups
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, a residents’ or business association or a local event to publicise, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org