Allegations of dirty tricks marred last week's Birmingham City Council elections. Public Affairs Editor Paul Dale reports from the battleground of Aston.
Labour-supporting shopkeeper Walyat Hussain has been having a busy time. Mr Hussain, who seems to have dedicated his life to exposing what he sees as Liberal Democrat dirty tricks, has turned his Aston newsagent's into a one-man publicity machine for the Labour Party.
Newspaper headlines and articles unfavourable to the Liberal Democrats, and in particular to Lib Dem city councillor Ayoub Khan, are seized upon by Mr Hussain, photo-copied, and handed daily to his customers. Coun Khan reckons the "obsessed" Mr Hussain distributed hundreds, if not thousands, of articles from The Birmingham Post and national newspapers during last month's bad-tempered council election campaign.
It's all part of an exhaustive war of attrition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in this run-down part of Birmingham.
Accusations of corruption and general nastiness on both sides have been flying thick and fast since 2004, when Coun Khan was instrumental in bringing forward an election petition alleging ballot-rigging and postal vote fraud on a huge scale by Labour councillors and party members.
The resulting court case ended with a coruscating judgement from Elections Commissioner Richard Mawrey QC, in which Labour was found guilty of masterminding a city-wide plot to fix postal votes because the party knew it would lose support from Muslim voters as a result of Government backing for the Iraq war.
Corruption uncovered at an election court hearing, including the forging of more than 2,000 postal votes, led Mr Mawrey to remark that antics in Birmingham "would have disgraced a banana republic".
Labour insists to this day that Mr Mawrey got it wrong, and point to the fact that one of the three Labour councillors involved, Muhammad Afzal, managed to clear his name on appeal. Two other former councillors did not appeal, but are believed to still be Labour Party members.
Denial of any wrongdoing is a familiar theme in Aston, on both sides of the political divide.
Another election court hearing earlier this year rebounded badly on the Liberal Democrats in general and Coun Khan in particular.
Elections Commissioner Timothy Straker QC dismissed claims by Khan that Labour won the 2007 Aston council election off the back of a smear campaign against Aston Lib Dem council candidate Saeed Aehmed.
Khan was denounced by Mr Straker for taking part in a "scurrilous" plot to frame Coun Afzal for witness intimidation and for perpetrating an "unsubstantiated" allegation that Labour supporters were responsible for torching a Range Rover belonging to a Lib Dem supporter, while Mr Aehmed was branded "dishonest" for exaggerating the extent of his many illnesses when applying for disability housing improvement grants.
The findings proved an unexpected bonus for Walyat Hussain and his publicity machine in the vital four weeks before the May 1 council elections.
Mr Straker, who sat through 24 days of evidence before delivering his judgment, "got it wrong" according to Coun Khan, a barrister, who is preparing the paperwork for a judicial review challenging the Election Commissioner's findings.
Last month, this newspaper likened Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Aston to two First World War generals grinding each other into the dust in an attempt to win the merest scrap of territory.
The analogy holds firm following a bad-tempered council election campaign, which saw Coun Khan triumph over his Labour opponent by 352 votes, and the predictable aftermath in which both sides have accused each other of dirty tricks.
The charge sheet, in chronological order, is as follows:
* March 2 - Straker judgement prompts Labour to demand Khan's sacking as council cabinet member for local services and community safety. Walyat Hussain distributes photocopies of Post front page with headline 'Lib Dems heap election shame on Birmingham';
* March 26 - Mystery of the libellous email falsely accusing Labour's Aston election candidate Amjad Hussain of benefit fraud and tax evasion. The email is signed by someone calling himself concerned Labour Party member Ayoub Khan. Coun Ayoub Khan denies all knowledge and reports the matter to the police. Nothing more is ever heard of this;
* April 22 - Labour ask police to investigate after Ayoub Khan delivers 200 postal vote application forms to the council 15 minutes before deadline for registration expires. The delivery breaches Electoral Commission guidelines designed to prevent hoarding of postal votes, but Coun Khan explains he had been "bed-ridden" with flu for two weeks and could not take the forms sooner;
* April 23 - Lib Dems publish picture of Aston Labour councillor Ziaul Islam entering house in Frederick Road a day after postal ballot papers were sent out by the council. Householder Shah Alom says he told Islam to "get lost" after Coun Islam asked whether the postal vote had arrived;
* April 24 - Labour demands police and council inquiry into allegations that Ayoub Khan recruited a mini-army of Somalian helpers to tout for postal votes. Khan hits back, insisting all of the Somalians are EU citizens and entitled to vote. Labour retaliate by leaking picture of "surprisingly chipper" Ayoub Khan addressing lunch meeting of Somalis while apparently suffering from flu;
* May 7 - Labour report Lib Dems to police over allegations that residents at a hostel for unemployed men in Aston were put under pressure to fill in postal ballot papers in favour of Coun Khan. Claim that hostel owner is an Ayoub Khan supporter are rejected by Khan who says hostel has a "long history of Labour activity". Lib Dems say allegations are part of a plot to undermine Coun Khan and report Labour to the police.
And so the war goes on, and will continue to do so in the run-up to the 2010 council elections and the next General Election, where Coun Khan will contest Ladywood for the Liberal Democrats.
To understand Aston it is necessary to have an appreciation of Asian politics and the extent to which family connections determine the way people vote. This was captured by the recent Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust report, Purity of elections in the UK - Causes for Concern, which warned the "biraderi" system imported to this country by British Asians provides perfect conditions for widespread rigging of postal votes and could even lead to a shift in the balance of power on Birmingham City Council.
Put simply, extended family and kinship networks, frequently with their origins in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir, are mobilised by political parties to secure the support of hundreds of electors, effectively constituting a block vote. In other words, it's not what you know, it's who you know.
This led Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming to make the astonishing assertion that "it is sometimes more productive for candidates to canvass votes in Kashmir than in Birmingham", while Respect party councillor Salma Yaqoob believes family pressure to vote in a certain way is so strong in areas like Aston and Sparkbrook that the abolition of postal voting on demand is the only answer.
For Walyat Hussain, a Labour Party member for 43 years who sat through almost every day of this year's Aston election court hearing, there can be no compromise.
Mr Hussain trained the CCTV cameras guarding his shop to focus on the Whitehead Road polling station, where he says he detected evidence of fraud throughout polling day on May 1. He said: "I was recording from morning to late at night. People who were not entitled to vote, who I know do not live in Aston, were voting and many other people who I know to be abroad were having their votes cast by someone else."
Coun Khan accuses Mr Hussain of running a "vindictive" campaign from his shop.
He said: "Rumours have been spread that I am going to go to prison for six months. The community here is misled very easily and I have had numerous calls asking what is happening and whether I am going to prison."
He also notes what he says is a worrying trend by Labour to demand that "innocent people prove they are innocent".
Sir Albert Bore, leader of the city council Labour group, has insisted twice in recent weeks that Liberal Democrat officials prove the Ayoub Khan's actions have been above board - in the case of the last-minute delivery of postal votes and the incident at the hostel.
Given the past history of politics in Aston, such accusations can only become more commonplace as the General Election approaches.