SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Reports over Croydon’s local elections have been lodged with the Electoral Commission and with Scotland Yard.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
There could yet be further repercussions around Katherine Kerswell’s chronic mishandling of Croydon’s “never-ending” election count, which earlier this month took four days and made the council more of a national laughing stock than it was already.
In a separate development, Inside Croydon understands that a specialist electoral fraud unit at Scotland Yard is investigating the qualifications to be a candidate of at least two people who were on the ballot papers in the Croydon elections, among more than 30 such cases of suspicious activity across the capital being reviewed by the Metropolitan Police.
Inside Croydon has also learned that senior officials from Labour and Conservative parties attended the count on the Saturday and Sunday, May 7 and 8, after concerns had been raised by both sides about the failure to follow usual, and basic, procedures to ensure the integrity of the votes counted.
Tory sources say that their official was present only as a matter of routine. But others say that by the Sunday – the fourth day of the Croydon count – returning officers from around London were called in to help run things and provide independent adjudications. Sources confirm that reports about the Croydon count have been submitted to the Electoral Commission.
Croydon’s vote count was conducted across three halls, and for a while even in the canteen, at Trinity School, a fee-paying secondary in Shirley run by the Whitgift Foundation, the borough’s wealthiest landowners.
But the count for the Mayoral election could not begin in earnest there until 5.30pm on Friday, May 6, because the school needed the venue to conduct A level examinations.
Investigations by Inside Croydon have discovered that the decision to use Trinity was made only because no one at the council – in the four years before the May 5 local election date – had bothered to reserve the council-owned Fairfield Halls for the count.
It was 1am on Saturday, May 7, more than seven hours into the count, and the result for the Mayoral election was still nowhere near complete, when Kerswell, the council chief executive and Returning Officer, was approachex by a deputation of mayoral candidates and agents to postpone the count for the borough’s 28 ward elections and their 70 councillors, as it was clear that they could not be completed in one night.
After initially “strongly refusing”, Kerswell finally told the ward election candidates that they might as well go home. By then it was close to 2am on Saturday, after a wasted nine hours’ wait…
In the event, the Mayoral election result was not declared until nearly 5am on the Saturday, following a recount which Kerswell had herself ordered.
First and second preference votes gave Conservative candidate Jason Perry a majority of fewer than 600 over Labour’s Val Shawcross.
The council wards election count began early on Saturday evening (the school sports hall was again booked during the day for other purposes), and part-completed that night, before resuming on Sunday afternoon.
The count was not completed until 7.20pm on Sunday, May 8, almost 70 hours after the polling stations had closed.
The intervention of candidates was needed on a second occasion, too.
On Day 2, the school’s sound system failed. Step forward Major Richard Howard (retd), the LibDems’ mayoral candidate who in a previous existence had worked in bomb disposal in a war zone. A few loose wires in a south London private school proved barely a challenge at all to such a hero, and he had a whole new sound system and speakers in place in 15 minutes.
But the continuing delays also presented a series of questions about the reliability and accuracy of the count in the interrupted process.
And those very serious worries began as the first sacks of votes started to arrive at Trinity just after 10pm on Thursday night, when candidates, agents and their scrutineers were refused access to the count for at least 20minutes. The scrutineers were told that the delay was over the checking of their security clearance to attend the count.
While dozens of politicians and their officials, who were there to scrutinise the work of the council’s election count staff at all times, were excluded from the process, this crucial 20minutes period is now being regarded as a massive flaw in the integrity of the Croydon election count.
“I did not see any showing of empty ballot boxes or the showing of number of ballot papers issued matching number of ballot papers received,” one experienced election candidate observed.
Andrew Pelling, a former Tory MP and London Assembly Member and ex-Labour councillor, was contesting both the mayoral and the ward elections this time as an independent.
“We were reassured that nothing would happen in the period between the queue being dealt with and scrutineers getting in to the count. But when we got inside the count at 10.20pm, votes were already being counted.
“It’s entirely unacceptable that there was a process set up to stop scrutineers getting in at start.
“We are asked to take this all on trust. But a council that has mislaid £193million can not be trusted.
“What happened in that hidden 20 minutes?”
It has become the stuff of political legend that the 1960 US Presidential election was effectively decided by Chicago’s Mayor Daley allowing for thousands of votes for Republican candidate Richard Nixon to be dumped in Lake Michigan. This being Chicago, there were dark rumours that the Mafia was also involved…
The election result saw Democrat John F Kennedy win the 27 Illinois state electoral college votes, after taking 49.98per cent of the Chicago vote to Nixon’s 49.80per cent. Kennedy, of course, went on to become President.
The nearest “lake” to Trinity is miles away, so while that does not seem to be a likely explanation for Croydon conspiracy theorists in 2022, the 20-minute gap in scrutiny of the emptying of ballot boxes and securing the votes remains a serious breach of election process.
But according to a senior source with many years of experience in management within Croydon Council, the conduct of the 2022 election count serves only as a reminder of the entrenched issues at the local authority.
“The management and execution of the elections is a key indicator of corporate culture, they told Inside Croydon, “and based on this year’s performance, Croydon is in a very bad place.”
Amid rumours that a senior member of staff was taken seriously ill during the count, due to the pressure of work, there were also suggestions from our source of “a lack of practical operational experience across all aspects of elections management”.
This, in part at least, is due to the round-after-round of redundancies conducted at the council over the past decade, and especially since 2020 and the council’s financial collapse.
“With a shrug of my shoulders, I accept that this is typical of Croydon Council,” said our source, who has years of involvement with organising elections in the borough. “Croydon hires the wrong people, and makes redundant the ones it needs to get things done.”
They said, “The key weakness is that electoral services have relied on people outside of their own department for the last 15 years and have never shown a lot of interest in learning how to plan the behind the scenes logistics management required to carry off an election smoothly.”
The source says that warnings were given to Jon Rouse, one of Kerswell’s predecessors, in 2008 or 2009. Rouse was told “to address this weakness as key individuals were being made redundant”.
But, according to our source, “He did nothing.”
They said, “Rouse had no understanding how complex and pressured the behind-the-scenes ops are. So for the 2010 election, Croydon had to ask those individuals to come back for three months to help out.
“Croydon still relies on external people to do the key background work.
“Senior council management are consistently disinterested in the nitty-gritty of operations, interested only in keeping in with councillors. Their disinterest leads to ill-informed decisions being made time and time again.
“They have no idea what has to be undertaken from beginning to end in an election. Even those responsible for elections tend to function in a compartmentalised manner, limiting themselves to detailed knowledge of their immediate areas of work.
“This year’s election chaos has been wearing on key individuals and there is the risk that one person, who has a pivotal role as a contractor in organising the polling station equipment logistics and issuing the polling station materials, will refuse to do it again.”
Sources say that ahead of this year’s borough-wide elections, the council’s electoral services department brought some functions back in-house from a logistics contractor, such as assembling packs and ballots, ordering delivery trucks, and did it themselves in the Town Hall. But it is suggested that council officials failed to check that key orders had gone through to suppliers and they failed to double-check the pack assembly.
Deliveries to polling stations around the borough were therefore delayed, with ballot papers being received by polling officials too late to allow time for an essential check that the numbering was correct. “This was all far too late and should not have happened,” said our source.
There was more than one suggestion from scrutineers of serious miscounts occurring on Saturday and Sunday, as fatigue began to play some part in the work being done by the tellers.
Tellers broke cover to relate “the worst ‘work’ experience of my life”, as scrutineers and those working for the council overnight observed a breakdown in organisation and management.
“I think I counted less than 2,000 votes in 12 hours Friday,” one teller, Leigh Armstrong, tweeted once the count was over.
“I think 31 hours of my time was quite enough to count a 30per cent turnout of one ward for council and 40per cent for another ward!
“I worked for 25 hours over three nights adding up low [thousands] of votes in total and earned 860 quid for doing so. There were likely 300 to 400 staff all told doing various jobs. Turnout 30-odd per cent! Cost an absolute bomb and was an awful inept process! Croydon is a national embarrassment!
“Was the worst ‘work’ experience of my life! No food or hot drinks Saturday, nothing for hours Friday night and no breaks for the last eight hours. One 15min break Thursday and Friday, all tellers in food queue at same time!
“Utter chaos and scandalous waste of money!”
Others present at the count say that it was “hugely error-strewn”.
Confirming Armstrong’s account of tellers being left to twiddle their thumbs for hours on end with little or nothing to do, a scrutineer told Inside Croydon, “For most of the time, the counters were not employed.” They observed a bottleneck of senior officers checking the results, including adding up numbers.
Labour supporters attended mob-handed and were accused of deliberately operating rugby-style rucks at count tables to block the view of others as the count was taking place. More than once, the Returning Officer was called upon to intervene and disperse the red-rosette crowd.
“Labour were nasty and aggressive in the counting rooms, with their regional officers clearly good at count discipline and nasty sledging.”
As another observer said, “The school was only available for counts at night times. This became unsustainable by the time we got to Night 3. Errors and tempers rose.”
In the case of some campaigns, their supporters might have been out delivering leaflets and “getting out the vote” since before the polls opened at 7am on Thursday. Council election officials, too, will have done a long day’s work at polling stations on Thursday, with many of them expected to be on duty through Friday night and into Saturday.
Returning Officer Kerswell opted to conduct “flick counts” on several occasions during the course of the weekend. These involve checking votes by bundles at a time. If candidates and their agents agree to conducting a flick count, they then cannot ask for a full recount later.
But when some observers discovered bundles mislabelled, assigning Conservative votes to Labour candidates, further concerns about the overall conduct, and accuracy, of the count were raised. One senior council official is subject to a formal complaint as a consequence of their conduct on the night, after he threatened to call security when a scrutineer raised the alarm over the mislabelling of Tory votes for Labour.
While the bundle errors as discovered were corrected, as one witness said, “How many other mistakes managed to slip through, unchecked?”
This loss of faith in the reliability of the count resulted in some lengthy, and possibly needless, time-consuming recounts being called for: in the case of one three-seat ward, a recount was demanded to check the outcome of third and fourth place – between candidates from the same political party.
There were some instances in cases where ward counts were held-over from Saturday to Sunday where the Labour agent, the ineffectual Carole Bonner (“Hugely out of her depth,” according to one party source), received advice that Returning Officer Kerswell was acting against electoral law. “Carole should have just told the Returning Officer ‘you are breaking the law and need to start again with a full recount’. But she did not.”
With margins so tight around a council election result that ended with no overall control, even the difference of one or two seats either way might have proved crucial.
In the mayoral election, in a borough with a population of 380,000, for a winner to be declared with a margin of fewer than 600 votes, any doubts about the accuracy of the count become magnified in importance.
It is thought that in the early hours of Saturday Kerswell herself ordered the recount of the second preference votes to provide her and her senior staff with the assurance of the count’s outcome. But others at the count think that Bonner and Shawcross’s Labour team made a massive error in no seeking a recount on the first preference votes.
With the status of one of the mayoral candidates subject to a police inquiry, the accurate outcome of those first preferences could be a crucial piece of evidence.
“Labour should have pushed for a full recount at Stage 1 and called for the count to stop when so many errors were being made,” Pelling told Inside Croydon.
“I even told them that openly in front of the Returning Officer and the other candidates in the candidates’ meeting. I also told Stuart King. He said it wasn’t his responsibility.”
Others relate that Labour’s Shawcross “looked crushed” by the outcome of the first preferences poll, and was heard saying that she really did not wish for a recount of second preferences, after Perry had hung on to his early lead, even by such a small margin.
And with Jason Perry “elected” twice over the long weekend, once as Mayor and then later as a councillor in South Croydon ward, Kerswell and some of her staff will get to do the whole thing all over again – at least, across one ward – when a by-election is held at the end of June to elect a councillor replacement for the new Mayor.
Read more: From bankrupt to laughing stock as council count continues
Read more: Tory Perry wins historic Mayor election by less than 600 votes
Read more: Police investigate Mayor candidate for ‘election offence’
Read more: Kerswell’s election count will get off to a very slow start
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What a buggers muddle… and they say a fish stinks from the head down.
“Croydon hires the wrong people, and makes redundant the ones it needs to get things done.”
This is so true and as reported in this article has been the case for a decade plus now. Those that actually deliver are the first to go leaving those that sit, think and talk.
The dislike of scrutiny across this fiasco and many others speaks volumes about the confidence the Councils senior staff has in its decisions.
As for rehiring former staff, one hopes their recall is not within a 12 month period which is forbidden in the redundancy terms, preventing them working for the Council or the Council rehiring them. The Council would not do that on a regular basis now would it?
Katherine Kerswell must step down.
She is not capable of running the election or this council.
“I also told Stuart King. He said it wasn’t his responsibility.”
If King had acted, Shawcross might now be Mayor. That he dodged taking responsibility and is now leader of Croydon Labour doesn’t say much for the party elite’s understanding of “leadership”. Then again, they allowed Thundercrap Newman to wreck the borough yet remain a member.
Kerswell was temporarily parachuted into Croydon to make people redundant. Judging from the number of pending claims against the council and her personally I don’t think she’s been successful at this either.
However, when the full time CE post came up, Kerswell should never have applied for it nor have been accepted for it. That was a mistake.
In addition to her inability to manage people or events it’s her aloofness, refusal to engage with residents or even reply to their emails and messages that sets her aside as Bering wholly unsuited for this role.
Croydon has had a spate of terrible Chief Executives – let’s act with Katherine Kerswell now.
A perfect example of why you should not recruit to a post if you only have one candidate. Perhaps if less than 3 candidates are available the post should remain advertised until there is a reasonable choice.
Politics in the UK is now corrupt to the core. Local democracy is a waste of time and money. 7 out if 10 people don’t vote. Frankly, local government should be about running services and a few other things. Poisonous party politics has no place in running anything with other people’s money.
Local authorities are complex organisations with a vast array of services delivered, many of which are unlike each other. The challenge in managing a local authority is capturing that complexity and creating an organisation capable of delivering. This degree of complexity is very different from the private sector. And unlike the private sector, local authorities cannot simply suspend services that are either unprofitable or not aligned with the core business objectives.
A compounding factor is that career progression is based on departments and their budgets. So the aspiring senior manager will seek to work in an environment with a high profile and large operational and project budgets to gain the experience needed to progress. Although this person may ascend to senior strategic management, they may never experience operations elsewhere in a local authority.
If the person is recruited on the basis of their connections with central government departments or industry representatives, this person may have no insight into the complexities of managing operations, logistics or projects and simply not recognise that they don’t know, and that specific skills, aptitude, knowledge and experience are required. This is, I think, Croydon’s real problem.
Prior to 2009, electoral services in Croydon borrowed key staff from other divisions to provide these skills. In the 2010 elections it had to bring back the staff that had been made redundant.
Local authorities have been subject to successive rounds of cuts for at least 15 years. In Croydon this is compounded by the additional financial issues. As departments are required to make cuts, their focus is on core departmental activities based on whatever operational targets there are for that department. They are very unlikely to consider the interests of another department that has been borrowing their staff members for specific projects from time to time. So the departments don’t consider the impact on another operation.
Identifying these risks should be with senior strategic management, but while the small operation that has relied on borrowing staff may raise the risk issues, its voice can be lost among the lobbying by the bigger players – each with their own mission critical issues. It may be that pressures to get on with the cuts lead to the statement “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” and no one remembers to plan for arriving at the “bridge”.
It may also be that no one in senior strategic management has any operational experience nor an appreciation of the tasks, and thus dismisses it. It may also be the case that members of the senior management team simply do not like the head of a service and don’t listen to him or her. Or it could be a combination of all of them.
The same largely applies to the lack of an available Council premises to hold the count. Most secondary schools are not under the control of the local authority, and so even if they have suitable space to host the count they are not obliged to make it available. Commercial premises will have been let out. The Town Hall, which once had committee rooms on the ground floor, is now occupied by the registry office and used for marriages etc. The decisions to dispose of premises assets through transfer, lease or sale will been made at some point, and in all likelihood the consideration of elections will have been fairly marginal at best.
Directing opprobrium at Katherine Kerswell is in some respects rather unfair. She has inherited the a mess created by Rouse, Elvery and Negrini under both Conservative and Labour administrations that took at least a decade and a half to create and will take just as long to unpick, if we’re lucky.
Although I agree with much of what you say Rod, Katherine should not have put herself forward as Returning Officer, but with her great strategic abilities found someone who had experience or knew what they were doing, rather than ‘having a go’; no doubt purely for the entry in her CV.
She did it for the £30k + salary – its a little CEO perk that is mostly kept quiet. You could also call it being greedy.
However, KK producing the worst performance in the UK has let the cat out of the bag and allowed it to shit all over her doorstep, shoes, the counting hall, tellers, observers, everywhere!!
This is a well written and considered argument, but what does it underline? If you want to perpetually keep cutting back and reducing resources to any human activity it at some point becomes impossible to provide that activity to any reasonable standard. It becomes diminished to irrelevance. This underlines that public governance provided locally (and as today has demonstrated centrally too) has cracked.