ERITH and Thamesmead MP John Austin is demanding a police investigation after attempts to select a new Labour Party candidate for his constituency collapsed in disarray.

The proposed hustings due to be held last Saturday (April 18) were called off om Friday night, after it was discovered the ballot box containing postal votes had been broken open.

The hustings meeting, for all constituency party members, was to have chosen the candidate to fight the seat for Labour at the next election, in place of Mr Austin, who is standing down.

It is understood the ballot box was locked in a cupboard in an office at London Labour’s headquarters in Victoria Street, London.

The box had not just been opened, but a number of postal votes had been torn, although the envelopes containing them had not be previously opened.

Now a furious Mr Austin has written to the Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson asking for a criminal investigation into the incident.

He said: “"Prior to the tampering, I had written to the party’s general secretary about my concerns of alleged irregularities in the postal vote process."

He claimed: ”My concerns were ignored.”

A constituency insider said: “It was an odd thing to do, because none of the votes had been opened.

“If anyone wanted to stop the ballot, all they needed to do was break the seal on the box.”

The insider claimed Labour Party rules say, in the event of interference, all the postal votes should be destroyed.

The insider added: “There could be an implication that some of the postal votes were fraudulent and whoever did it would know the evidence was likely to be destroyed.

“Or they wanted to stop the process because the preferred candidate was not going to win.”

Controversial candidate 'not likely to win'

And party insiders claim it was former Bexley councillor Teresa Pearce who was likely to win, not the controversial candidate Georgia Gould, 22.

Miss Gould, who is currently taking a Masters degree at the London School of Economics, is the daughter of former Tony Blair advisor Lord Gould.

There have been claims that she is being parachuted by the central party into the safe Labour seat.

The insiders say Miss Gould was in second place, with Kensington and Chelsea councillor Marianne Alapini, who gave up her Woking nomination for Erith and Crayford, running a distant third.

One insider said: “Miss Gould has claimed it was forces of the old left who were trying to prevent her from winning the nomination.

“I think it was the opposite. Ms Pearce was going to win.

“Ms Pearce also probably had 30 to 35 postal votes in comparison with estimates in the mid to high 20s for Miss Gould.”

Mr Austin has also complained about Olympics minister Tessa Jowell speaking at a meeting in support of Miss Gould, in his constituency without informing him first.

Ms Jowell has now apologised.

MP Austin 'issues angry statement'

But according the the insider, Mr Austin has now gone further and has written to Erith and Thamesmead Labour Party members about his concerns and suggested they back Ms Pearce as a “good, qualified, local candidate”.

He has also issued an angry statement.

The insider added: “If there had been any skulduggery and there were lots of postal votes going for one candidate, it would have become apparent at the hustings something dodgy was going on.”

The insider said the number of postal votes had been around 100, about a third of the electorate, which they said was “at the higher end, but not unheard of”.

The insider added there was evidence Miss Gould’s team was “at the forefront” of encouraging postal votes.

The insider said there was a lot of unhappiness within the constituency party, firstly because an all-women shortlist had been forced on it and then London region had taken over the running of the ballot from local official John Pegg.

The insider added: “There was no evidence of a suggested battle between the Blair and Brown camps, but there was resentment Miss Gould was the central party’s choice and she was clearly getting a lot of help.”

Her resources included party figures such as Alastair Campbell who had phoned party members on Miss Gould’s behalf, and Ms Jowell who spoke at one of Miss Gould’s hustings meetings.

The insider said: “It was nothing personal, but people are concerned Miss Gould is only 22 and has little experience.”

With no limit on candidates’ spending when seeking a nomination, party members were said to be concerned about Ms Gould’s apparent help from a PR company owned by former Labour Party general secretary Margaret McDonagh, to run her campaign.

The insider said: “While other other candidates probably spent a total of £1,500 on leaflets, postage and travel, Miss Gould was producing 12-page glossy brochures and has probably spent four times more.”

Ballot box incident investigated

The ballot box incident is now under investigation by top party officials including current general secretary Ray Collins.

The insider said: “It was a very risky thing to do.

“The box was locked up in a regional party office which has limited access.

“People have to sign in and there may also be CCTV.”

The insider added: “If it was a full-time officer, they will lose their job.

“If it was a candidate, they will never be one again and if it was a candidate’s supporter, they are likely to be expelled.”

The insider said it was possible the nomination could still be decided within a month.

They explained: “The party could reissue to the postal ballot forms and rearrange the hustings.

"It could suspend the local party and imposed its own candidate or it could disqualify all the current candidates and start again.”

The insider added: “Whatever happens, this has been a gift for the opposition.

“Whoever wins the nomination is going to be under a shadow, and coming on top of everything else, it is bad for politics generally.

“There are bound to be some people who will not vote Labour in the constituency at the next election, but I do not think they will be a significant number.

”It has left a very nasty taste, which will be difficult to shake off.”

London Labour Party statement

Ken Clark, Labour’s London director said today (April 21) the hustings, where the candidate will be chosen, had been rearranged for May 16.

All the existing postal votes have been declared void.

He said: “Until the ballot box seal was found to have been broken, there was no evidence of any breach of the selection rules or any postal voting irregularities.

“Immediately the broken seal was discovered, the process was suspended and an investigation is now underway.”

A party spokesman added: “We are restarting the process and will reissue the postal ballots.”

He added: “We are determined to ensure our members in Erith and Thamesmead will have the opportunity to pick the candidate of their choice, and this incident will not prevent that.”

He admitted the party did not know if it would ever find the person responsible.

He said: “It was clearly a deliberate attempt to disrupt the process and cast doubt on its integrity, that of the staff and everyone else.

“But we will not allow the process to be disrupted any further.”

He said he did not know what would happen if the party found the person responsible.

He added: “But it was clearly a very serious thing.”

John Austin’s statement

Mr Austin claimed: "The running of the selection process was hijacked by the national party, who removed local party officers from the procedures and cancelled, without any consultation, a meeting of the local party's general council which had been properly convened to interview all nominated candidates and draw up a shortlist.”

He said: “The national party then sent out a letter to all members of Erith and Thamesmead Labour Party stating the general council had drawn up a short-list of all eight candidates when it had not.

"The shortlist was imposed by the Labour Party's general secretary.

“The whole procedure was under his control."

Mr Austin explained: “All postal votes were delivered directly to the Labour Party headquarters in Victoria and were supposed to be held in a secure place.

“On Friday 17 April, less than 24 hours before the selection meeting was to be held, the party announced that the ballot box had been tampered with and the selection meeting was postponed.”

He declared: "Those ballot papers were the property of the members of the Erith and Thamesmead Labour Party.

“I have no confidence in an internal inquiry, especially not one involving anyone who had responsibility for security of the ballot and nor will the general public."

Mr Austin said there were widespread concerns about the ability of the national party to run a free and fair election and he has called for a new process overseen by an independent body such as the Electoral Reform Society.

What the candidates said

All candidates and their representatives have been forbidden to talk to the press while the affair is investigated, but several have commented on their websites.

Ms Pearce said: “After many months of hard work by myself and other members of the party it is a huge disappointment that we can not finalise the selection of our candidate.

“During the many weeks of activity and speculation in the media, our members have been quietly getting on with what they do best, using their common sense and experience to distinguish the things that matter from the things that don’t.

"I had nothing to fear from the postal votes or from the hustings as I had done my work and counted my supporters and I believe that today would have given us the result to prove my projected figures right.

“I am sorry for myself, the members and the other candidates who have played by the rules, that this affair is now far from over.”

Meanwhile Miss Gould posted a letter on the LabourHome website, saying: “I am very angry about this action - it is offensive and anti-democratic.

“We cannot allow such people to use underhand techniques to disrupt our democracy and tread all over members' wishes.

“We saw these tactics in the old days in the Labour Party from people who thought they could prevent change just because they don't like the outcome.

“This is old-style politics. It's not the future we want for our Party and our politics.

“I personally feel the meeting should have gone ahead and the postal ballots re-issued.

“Cancellation will let the disrupters win if we stand by and do nothing.

“That is why we are all going to stand together over this.

“Together we party members can stop this behaviour and refresh our party.

“I will not let these people hijack our party because they don't like change.

“I will be asking for an open and transparent inquiry by Labour's NEC to find out exactly how members' postal votes were destroyed.”