Birmingham Labour Party is attempting to come to terms with a damning High Court judgment which found six councillors guilty of corruption and a systematic attempt to rig the 2004 city council elections.

Richard Mawrey QC, the Election Commissioner, said he was in no doubt there had been a Birmingham-wide campaign by the local party to use thousands of bogus postal votes to counter the adverse impact of the Iraq war on Muslim communities in inner city wards.

Labour candidates and supporters set out to steal, forge and fiddle ballots in huge quantities and were helped by the almost total lack of security checks on postal vote applications.

In the first finding of fraud and corruption by an elections court for more than 100 years, Mr Mawrey sacked six councillors in Aston and Bordesley Green, cutting Labour's strength from 53 to 47 seats.

He decided the six - Shah Jahan, Shafaq Ahmed and Ayaz Khan in Bordesley Green and Mohammed Islam, Muhammed Afzal and Mohammed Kazi in Aston - were guilty of corrupt and illegal practices.

The six, who deny the accusations, immediately ceased to be councillors and cannot stand for election for five years. By-elections will be held in both wards.

Costs of the court hearing were awarded against the six, who face financial ruin in meeting legal bills estimated at more than #200,000.

Details of the case were passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions and criminal charges may follow.

In a 192-page judgment, Mr Mawrey was scathing about the system for postal voting on demand, introduced by the Government in 2001.

The Commissioner, in a report to the High Court, will say it is his "melancholy duty" to warn there is every prospect that the General Election is likely to be marred by the types of fraud that occurred in Birmingham in 2004.

Referring to a previous Government statement which said there were no proposals to change the rules governing election procedures for the next ballot, Mr Mawrey told the packed courtroom at the Birmingham and Midland Institute: "Anybody who has sat through the case I have just tried and listened to evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic would find this statement surprising."

Labour responded to the judgment by suspending the party membership of the six and appointing Mike Griffiths, who heads Labour's National Organisation Committee, to oversee the General Election campaign in Birmingham.

Mr Mawrey was critical of the council's elections office and returning officer, Lin Homer, who allowed "corners to be cut" when sorting and counting postal votes.

But he said her decision was understandable given the quantity of postal ballots, which Mrs Homer and the elections officer John Owen could not have foreseen.

Although Mrs Homer's decision to allow postal ballot papers to be transported to the count in plastic shopping bags was "the direst folly", it was not a serious enough breach to declare the result unsafe.

Faced with an impossible position and the very real possibility that the count might have to be abandoned, the elections office "threw the rule book out of the window", although the election was conducted substantially in accordance with electoral law.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs last night said officials would be writing to all electoral returning officers to reinforce action against fraud and there would be additional funding to improve ballot administration at the General Election.

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