Exclusive: Party says “voter fraud” during MP ‘trigger ballot’ an “isolated incident”

Elliot Chappell

The general secretary of the Labour Party has described an instance of “voter fraud” found to have taken place during the ‘trigger ballot’ process in Ilford South Constituency Labour Party as an “isolated incident”, LabourList can reveal.

In an email exchange with David Evans, seen by LabourList, Sam Tarry MP explained how one member who had not taken part in the trigger ballot and had not been present at the meeting for his ward had nonetheless received confirmation that he had submitted a vote for the option: “I wish to have a full selection.”

The general secretary of the party told the Labour MP that it was “extremely disappointing that an individual has taken it upon themselves to impersonate a member in a meeting” but described the case as an “isolated incident, adding: “We do not believe it constitutes a widespread problem.”

Local parties are currently deciding who will contest their seats for Labour. LabourList revealed earlier this year a first tranche of 14, followed later by an additional 21, Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) allowed to start a ‘full selection’ process.

Where there is an incumbent Labour MP, an electoral college of local party branches and organisations (branches of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies) affiliated to the CLP first vote to decide whether the MP automatically remains as the Labour candidate or whether they would like to hold a full selection.

The Ilford South MP is facing a selection process after a majority of party and affiliate branches voted 57.5% to 42.5% in favour of triggering a full process.

All ten party branches voted for a full selection. 17 affiliate branches voted to automatically stick with Tarry as their candidate while three voted for a full process. LabourList understands that all meetings in the Ilford South CLP were supervised by a member of staff from the central party.

Tarry also alleged that the behaviour of local council leader Jas Athwal “could point to a potential rule breach” of rules set by Labour’s national executive committee for trigger ballot processes not to campaign for an alternative candidate until the trigger ballot process has finished and a full selection begun.

Tarry told Evans the instance of voter impersonation was brought to the member’s attention when he received a message from Athwal “thanking him for his attendance”. Tarry said this is “consistent with my own eye-witness testimony” of a “ground campaign” by sitting councillors “in order that Cllr Athwal can stand as a candidate”.

Evans said the messages “don’t indicate anything other than the fact Cllr Athwal is campaigning for a full selection”. He said the party is “further investigating” but that “at present we don’t have grounds to pause the process due to this incident”.

LabourList understands that the party has received a small number of complaints relating to the trigger ballot process in the Ilford South Labour party and that these are currently being assessed.

A local member supportive of Tarry claimed Athwal breached the rules by disparaging Tarry in a WhatsApp message, seen by LabourList, in which Athwal can be seen telling a member that the MP “supports the demonisation of Kashmiri Muslim” after Tarry attended the showing of a controversial film in parliament.

One local Labour source, however, told LabourList that this rule prevents “public” disparagement – and does not cover a private WhatsApp message. Another disagreed, saying the point of guidance could apply to one-to-one communication where sent to multiple members.

Tarry made allegations of other “procedural irregularities” in his email. He said one member had not been admitted to the meeting, because of a dispute over membership arrears despite having paid, for a ward in which he lost by one vote. Evans said the member had not paid in time to meet the agreed deadline.

The Labour MP and shadow transport minister also alleged in his complaint that the number of ballots cast in one Labour Party branch in his constituency, Newbury, had been more than the number read out in the prior roll call. Evans said that, after investigation, he understood that the executive member “misspoke”.

“David, individually these instances are cause for concern, together they paint a picture of an attempt to influence the outcome of the trigger ballot using systematic voter fraud,” Tarry wrote. “I believe there is now enough evidence to warrant this process be suspended pending investigation.”

The general secretary told Tarry in response to his complaints that it would be inappropriate for him or party staff to “intervene to halt a campaign for full selection” and that it is a “constitutionally recognised process in our rule book”.

“I’m afraid I don’t agree that you have provided any ‘clear breaches’ of Labour Party rules or members’ protected data aside from the allegations submitted by… which I trust the above demonstrates we have taken extremely seriously,” he wrote.

In a statement released after being ‘triggered’ earlier this month, Tarry said he had been subject to the “vilest smears” over the past three years and attacks had been “designed to dangerously whip up communal tensions in a diverse community”.

He added that some have “libellously insinuated” that he had “in some way influenced the outcome of the selection that I won fairly against a sitting councillor and other candidates in 2019”. ASLEF and the TSSA have also voiced concerns.

Labour suspended Athwal in October 2019 after an NEC panel dealing with sexual harassment complaints decided to refer his case upwards, as reported by LabourList at the time. The move took place the night before the Ilford South selection meeting, a race in which Athwal was considered the frontrunner.

The leader of Redbridge Council was cleared of wrongdoing by Labour’s highest disciplinary body, the national constitutional committee (NCC), in September 2019. The then junior shadow minister Wes Streeting called on Keir Starmer to launch an investigation into what he described as a “stitch up”.

A local source who knows the trigger ballot process told LabourList that the recent claims made by Tarry are “pathetic tactics from a man now scared of being held to account and set up an organisation to campaign for open selections”. Tarry helped set up Momentum, which has campaigned for open selections.

Trigger ballot processes are undertaken in all constituencies with incumbent Labour MPs. Under Keir Starmer’s leadership, the threshold for the trigger ballot process was raised to its current level in a rule change at the last Labour Party conference – effectively making it more difficult to trigger sitting MPs.

Tarry was elected as the MP for Ilford South at the general election in 2019, succeeding outgoing MP Mike Gapes, with a majority of 24,101 votes. The constituency has been held by Labour since 1992 and is considered a safe seat.

Sam Tarry, Jas Athwal and the Labour Party have been contacted for comment.

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