POLITICS
14/12/2017 07:52 GMT | Updated 14/12/2017 21:53 GMT

Labour Suspends Watford Parliamentary Selection Race After Claims Of Postal Vote 'Irregularities'

Unite in bitter battle in key marginal after 'procedural errors'

Matt Cardy via Getty Images

A Labour selection battle for a key Parliamentary marginal has been suspended amid claims that postal balloting rules were broken.

The controversial race to be the party’s candidate in Watford was due to be decided on Thursday but took a fresh twist when regional officials intervened to halt the process and re-run part of the vote.

In an email seen by HuffPost UK, Labour’s Regional Director for East England has informed the local party that “a number of procedural errors did occur such that cannot be ignored”.

The final selection has now been postponed until the New Year, with February 1 the new date.

One source said that 88 emergency postal ballots were applied for, a large number for in a party of 800 members and where just 37 normal postal votes had been requested.

Unite the union formally complained that blank postal vote application forms were being handed out with a required signature and that votes were not kept in a secure location, both of which would be a contravention of party rules.

But local moderates declared that the decision to postpone the contest “stinks” and claimed that “1970s-style backroom deals” were being used to ensure Unite got its own candidate selected.

They claim that Unite “took fright” when it realised in recent days that of the 125 postal votes, at least 89 were supporters of Chris Ostrowski, who fought the seat in June.

NIKLAS HALLE'N via Getty Images
Jeremy Corbyn with candidate Chris Ostrwoski in an eve-of-poll rally in Watford.

With a Tory majority of just 2,000, the seat is one of 76 targeted by Labour to win the next general election and the bitter battle for selection underlines once more the ongoing splits between centrist activists and Momentum and union supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.

The contest for Watford has already been dogged by in-fighting after union-backed London taxi driver Mike Hedges was re-installed on the shortlist by the ruling National Executive Committee following complaints he had been unfairly excluded.

Unite official Hedges, who once ferried Corbyn around in his black cab during his first leadership campaign and has the strong backing of Momentum, was rejected by the constituency’s officers at interview stage.

However, Unite complained that branch meetings were not convened and argued that Hedges should have been on the shortlist as he was the only candidate formally nominated by trade unions.

Ostrowski supporters say he is backed by large numbers of members, including Momentum members, and the issue is one of local democracy rather than left versus right. “He’s simply a very good candidate,” one source said.

Allies of Ostrowski, including the chair of the constituency Labour party (CLP), had already written to the party HQ to protest the re-instatement of Hedges on the shortlist by the NEC.

The letter, signed by the local procedures secretary and others, warned: “Watford is a key marginal and any perception that a candidate is being imposed on local people by Labour Party HQ or an affiliated union will end up handing this seat to the Tories.”

One member of the Watford Labour party told the Observer this month that the actions of the NEC were “more like North Korea than a party that pretends to want to become more democratic”.

But Unite and Momentum have hit back, pointing out Hedges has strong backing not just of six trade unions but also many local members.

HuffPost UK
A Mike Hedges leaflet.

He has won endorsements from Shadow Cabinet ministers John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and Richard Burgon, as well as non-aligned figures such as MEP Claude Moraes.

On Wednesday night former regional director Alan Olive, who lives near the Watford seat, tweeted that the real reason for the delay was that Hedges was behind on postal votes.

“So hard left intervention because they realise how far behind Unite sponsored Mike Hedges is. This is after they arm twisted the NEC to impose him on to the short list. It stinks.”

A statement from Ostrowski’s Chris4Watford campaign said it was “dismayed” at the decision by the national Labour Party to delay the process.

It said the suggestion of any insecure ballot papers was “wholly unsubstantiated”.

The campaign added that the blank application forms issue “was a fault in an early edition of the Emergency Postal Vote form as it did not ask for a signature” but “this was quickly rectified” and there “was nothing irregular”.

One source admitted administrative errors had been made but stressed most of the postal vote applications were because people were too busy in the run-up to Christmas to attend the selection meeting in person.

“In our view this complaint by the UNITE candidate is wholly motivated by the fact that he has been unable to secure the support of local Watford Labour members and was shocked by the number of people who had applied for postal votes – both ordinary and emergency,” the statement said.

“Canvass returns based on contacting members shows that there is overwhelming support for Chris Ostrowski as our tried and successful local candidate.

HuffPost UK
The statement from the Chris Ostrwoski campaign.

“In our view the manipulation of the process stinks. It feels to us that Watford CLP members are once again being faced with unwarranted interventions and a delay in our selection procedure until members can be trusted to vote for the UNITE candidate.  We all support Jeremy Corbyn and most of us are trade unionists but we are concerned that the ‘new politics’ are being subverted by 1970’s style backroom deals.”

The Chris4Watford campaign also pointed out that Jim Kennedy, the NEC organisation sub committee chair who intervened in the shortlisting, was himself a Unite official. It added that “this decision to impose a weaker candidate was made despite the NEC Observer at the Selection interviews signing off the short listing process as fair”.

“Two days later this NEC Observer, himself a union official, wrote a letter to the Chair of the Organisation Committee saying exactly the opposite.”

Postal votes are sometimes applied for if members can’t make a selection meeting. Emergency applications are granted beyond a fixed deadline if members can provide a written reason for why they hadn’t previously applied not to vote in person.

After HuffPost revealed the delay to the process, a Labour Party spokesperson said: “The Labour Party is proud that local party members can participate in the democratic selection of their own local candidates. We are satisfied that selections are taking place in line with Labour’s rules and procedures.”

The letter from Regional Director Cameron Scott to the local party’s procedures secretary states that the postal vote application process will now be run by the regional office but stresses mistakes were made ‘in good faith’.

HuffPostUK
An extract from the Regional Director letter

“Some complaints/concerns have been raised with me and other officers of the Labour Party in relation to the applications for and issue of postal ballots for the Watford Parliamentary Candidate selection.

“I have investigated these issues and discussed them at length with yourself. It is my view that while attempts were made to rectify mistakes in good faith by you and others, a number of procedural errors did occur such that cannot be ignored.”

“Postal ballots will subsequently be issued and returned to the Regional Office. As a consequence of this a new hustings event will need to be scheduled in the New Year where ballots shall be cast by those who have not requested a postal ballot. The hustings event planned for tomorrow evening can go ahead if the committee wishes, but no votes shall take place.”

The suspension of the process followed a letter of complaint from Unite political director Anneliese Midgely which alleged “procedural irregularities” that also included claims that membership data sent to Hedges was incomplete, edited and not sent out by the region.

The letter points out that party rules state “On no account should blank postal vote forms be made available to anyone other than the person who requested the postal vote.”

CLP chair Mike Jackson has backed Ostrowski, who appeared with Corbyn at a high-profile rally on the eve of the June election, for the seat. His name appears as the promotor on leaflets promoting the Chris4Watford campaign.

In the bitter race, moderates point out that Hedges was unimpressive in interview and is based in Islington. Ostrwoski’s critics claim he was a Tory when a student at the University of East Anglia and failed to defeat Chloe Smith in the Norwich North by-election in 2009.

During one election campaign event, Corbyn was asked why Ostrowski did not live in the constituency and was resident in nearby St Albans instead.