Charles Dickens’ debut novel The Pickwick Papers gently lampoons English politics before the Great Reform Act, with a caustic depiction of the chicanery the fictional Honourable Samuel Slumkey needed to use to secure victory at the Eatanswill by-election.
Dickens, a young parliamentary journalist at the time, played safe by describing Slumkey only as ‘the Blue candidate’. But there is little doubt to which affiliation the label is intended to point.
Getting on for 200 years later, the Blue Party of the 21st century is also engaged in corrupt electoral practices. It’s just that in Hackney, the Tories are so desperate, they have to engage in foul play not to win, but just to get the chance to lose their deposits.
Last week saw Diana Danescu, Conservative agent for Hackney South at the 2018 council contest, receive a suspended sentence after being found guilty on 16 counts under the Representation of the People Act.
She falsely posed as a Labour or Green representative to get the ten names needed for each nomination form, the court heard. And when impersonation did not secure the desired results, she turned her clearly versatile hand to outright forgery.
Blatant skullduggery made no difference to the outcome, as her defence brief was reduced to pleading in mitigation. The Tories didn’t win a single seat in the south of the borough. Indeed, Conservative support fell so low as to put strong emphasis on the last two syllables of the word ‘nugatory’.
Motivation for this descent into criminality, according to Judge Jeffrey Pegden QC, was her belief that finding the requisite number of fictitious assentors would commend her to her employers at Conservative Campaign Headquarters.
And who knows? Given the government’s casual attitude to breaking the law in limited and specific ways, perhaps it did. Nobody likes to see natural-born entrepreneurs hemmed in by red tape.
She has also wasted public money. A lot of public money. Costs in the case came to almost £40,000, of which she will repay just £2,000. That sum would better have been spent on Hackney schools and hospitals.
In his summing up, Judge Pegden told Ms Danescu she was lucky not to be behind bars. As a socialist, I’m sure that is the right decision. She is after all a non-violent offender, and Britain’s prisons are grotesquely overcrowded as it is.
But the judge added pointedly that she has shown ‘little remorse’ for what she did. Given the magnitude of her mendacity, the contempt for the electorate on display could not be starker.
At the very least, Ms Danescu should apologise personally to local voters whose names she stole, and to the other candidates, who faced competition from people without even backing in the community needed to run.
Finally, I leave you with this thought. What does it say about local politics when the party in power in Westminster since 2010 is so detested in Hackney that its paid employees have no option but to stoop so low?
Why do the Conservative associations in this borough not have thriving mass memberships, or strong competition for the honour of flying the Blue Party’s colours in local election contests?
Neither Hackney constituency has ever returned a Tory MP since their inception in 1945. At the town hall level, Tory representation is down to just five councillors.
Nearly 90 per cent of Hackney voters rejected the Johnson government at the last general election. In so doing, they rejected Tory austerity and they rejected Tory no-deal Brexit.
And if the matter had been in the public domain at that point, they would have rejected the illegal Tory corner-cutting of Diana Danescu too.
Dickens, of course, knew the streets of Victorian Hackney, some of which feature in his novels. If nothing else, this sorry tale would have provided him with first-rate source material.
David Osland is a Hackney-based journalist and Labour Party member, writing in a personal capacity