Labour investigates vote-rigging claims
The Labour Party is to investigate claims of voting irregularities in a constituency selection process that could see the daughter of one of Tony Blair's closest allies handed a safe seat.
Georgia Gould, 22, the daughter of one of the architects of New Labour, Philip Gould, hopes to beat seven other women shortlisted to represent the party in the safe seat of Erith and Thamesmead, south-east London. The crucial vote takes place today.
But the selection process has developed into a bitter row over the tactics used by Ms Gould's campaign team. About a third of local party members have registered to vote by post, leading to allegations that those behind Ms Gould's campaign have been distributing postal vote forms pre-filled with voters' names, addresses and telephone numbers to make it easier.
John Austin, the Labour MP who is stepping down from the constituency at the next election, has asked the party's general secretary, Ray Collins, to investigate the claims. He is also furious that prominent Blairite figures, including Alistair Campbell, have been backing Ms Gould's campaign. He accused the Olympics minister Tessa Jowell of behaving "highly inappropriately" by making a speech in support of Ms Gould.
"I started off the campaign saying I was going to remain entirely outside the process but such has been the interference in the later stages that I have been urging people to vote for one of the four local candidates," he said.
Labour rules are clear on voting by mail, declaring that postal ballots "shall only be granted to those who are unable to attend [in person] – not to those who choose not to attend".
They also state that interference in the voting process is banned. "No shortlisted nominee or any person acting on behalf of a nominee should benefit from interference in the process of applications for, or the issue and return of, postal votes," they add. "Any evidence of such interference may lead to the disqualification of the nominee concerned".
A spokesman for the party said the complaint would be taken "very seriously" but added that its initial queries suggested that the total number of postal votes did not look likely to be "unduly high".
Ms Gould has close ties with New Labour. Her father was a key figure in reshaping the party along with Lord Mandelson, and she works part-time for Mr Blair's faith foundation. Her likely selection in Erith and Thamesmead, a largely working-class area where Labour has a majority of 11,500, has been described as a New Labour "stitch-up" by some local activists. The central party has even wrested control of the contest. Ms Gould is unable to comment because of party protocol.
Her potential selection, despite her father's close links to Mr Blair, is not the only constituency battle causing disquiet within the party. A senior Labour figure told The Independent yesterday that the use of postal ballots had to be looked at across the country after similar concerns were raised about the selection of another friend of Mr Blair in Calder Valley, Yorkshire.
Steph Booth, the stepmother of Mr Blair's wife, Cherie, was chosen after receiving a large number of postal votes despite losing the ballot among those who voted in person after listening to the candidates. There is no suggestion of vote-rigging in this instance.
Peter Kenyon, a member of Labour's governing National Executive Committee, said he had concerns about the number of postal votes being cast. "There are signs that the use of postal votes has moved on from the way in which the rules state they should be used," he added. "We need to have a look at the changing use of postal voting."