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Outrageous sentence for TUSC agent in 'misleading electors' court case
Chris Fernandez, the local election agent for eight Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates at the 2016 council elections in Derby, was sentenced on 13 February to 15 months' imprisonment for 'electoral fraud'.
After a two-and-a-half-week trial in December, Chris had been found guilty on 12 out of 14 counts of 'misleading voters' into signing the TUSC candidates' nomination papers.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) argued many electors signed believing they were backing a petition against the closure of Derby's Moorways swimming pool, and not a local election nomination form.
TUSC's national election agent, Clive Heemskerk, present at the sentencing, said:
While recognising the jury's verdict, it is important to understand that in this case there was no question of actual votes being fraudulently cast, of ballot papers being interfered with, of people's right to vote how they wish being denied, of impersonation of voters, or postal ballot irregularities.
Nor was public money misspent, or any financial or other material gain achieved, by Chris's acts. It was purely a question of the formal process by which candidates are enabled to appear on ballot papers in local elections.
That is why the comments at the sentencing hearing by the trial judge, Peter Cooke, that this case "strikes at the heart of our democracy," were frankly ludicrous.
Candidates for election to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, and Greater London Authority regional list seats, for example, unlike local council candidates, can all self-nominate, without going through the process of collecting signatures before they can appear on the ballot paper.
Do these elections too 'strike at the heart of our democracy'?
In reality a 15-month prison sentence is totally disproportionate, even if the offences had been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
But what is most disturbing about this case is that there was, in fact, plenty of doubt.
I attended throughout the trial in December and submitted a 22-page account to the TUSC national steering committee, raising serious questions about the CPS's case - which, unfortunately, were not addressed in the trial. These include:
- There is no statutory test that canvassers are expected to make to ensure that 'subscribers' to nomination papers have 'sufficiently understood' what it is they have signed. But the CPS, unchallenged in court, set the bar not far from the level of a Mastermind contestant
- There is no statutory or even informal guidance on what political campaign material canvassers can or cannot take with them when they collect signatures for nomination papers, and the closure of the Moorways pool was a burning local political issue
- There was no discussion in court on what responsibility people have for their own actions when they sign a form headed "Local government election - nomination paper," which includes two declarations that the person signing is agreeing to nominate an election candidate
- There was no questioning of the role of the police - yet officers visited the 80 electors who nominated the TUSC candidates, sometimes on two or three occasions, and spent more time with them than Chris Fernandez did! How did that shape what people 'remembered' from their earlier encounter with Chris?
As Chris begins his prison sentence, it is impossible not to draw the contrast between the Crown's approach to this case and that of the Conservative Party's 'Battle Bus' 2015 general election expenses scandal.
The Tories' extra spending then on the 20 or so marginal seats involved may well have made the difference in their winning the election, and everything that has followed from that.
Yet in the Battle Bus case, while the CPS accepted that Tory candidates' election returns "may have been inaccurate" and therefore breaking election law, they decided it was "not in the public interest to charge anyone referred to us."
Who said what on the doorstep during a municipal election in Derbyshire was obviously of greater concern!
In reality the CPS wanted a prosecution on the extremely unusual 'false pretences' charge to satisfy the demand from the Tory government to clamp down on so-called 'sham nominations'.
This is part of the Tories' moves against democratic rights, including electoral rights, as a response to the accumulating rage at their never-ending austerity agenda.
However, this was one case, with specific circumstances, tried in one court. It does not establish case law which could be applicable to other possible instances in the future.
The vindictive political prosecution of Chris Fernandez should not cow trade unionists, socialists and working class community activists - or stop them from taking their battle against austerity, and for a new society, to the ballot box.
- The TUSC report on the trial, challenging the CPS case in close detail, is available at tusc.org.uk
- Please send messages of support to Chris Fernandez (21-12-1957), A5447ED, B wing, HMP Nottingham, 112 Perry Road, Sherwood, Nottingham NG5 3AG. The envelope should include your name and address on the back
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