Labour general secretary Ray Collins has hit back at accusations about the integrity of the selection process for London Mayor, levelled by Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse. Fitzpatrick claims the party rigged the selection process in favour of ex-mayor Ken Livingstone.
Fitzpatrick is backing Oona King's bid to be the party's mayoral candidate. Ms King is the ex MP for Bethnal Green and Bow who was defeated by George Galloway in 2005.
Collins assured the MP that Labour's procedures are "fair and democratic" after Fitzpatrick claimed that the party had failed the "openness and fairness" test in the selection process.
Fitzpatrick wrote to members of the party's ruling body, the National Executive Committee, calling for a number of changes, including ensuring candidates have equal access to information, and a review of the electoral system used to select the candidate.
Collins published his own response today to "correct a number of inaccuracies".
London Labour party members had expected the contest to begin at the end of this year but in a surprise move last month, the party announced the selection would run almost parallel to the Labour leadership election and would be completed before the annual conference in late September.
Some party insiders fear it gives potential contenders, including MPs who lost their seats at the general election, little time to consider their options .
The deadline for nominations for the London selection is 18 June and the candidate will be announced on 24 September, a day before the new Labour leader is announced.
Just two candidates have so far put their names forward: Livingstone, who was mayor for eight years, and King.
The east London MP told the Guardian: "If there is not an open contest there is not a level playing field ... it is in my view rigged on the basis that it is not going to be a fair contest. Ken is already the favourite to take the nomination because he has been preparing for this since the last [mayoral] election in 2008 ... now the party has given him the advantage of time and information and it does not seem fair."
The Labour chief said the party's National Executive had discussed the mayoral selection in March and had agreed to receive a report after the general election "to ensure Labour's candidate was in place for this year's annual conference".
He said that far from keeping King's campaign team in the dark, they had already met Labour party officials and they were briefed on the process, timings and had the opportunity to ask questions.
Collins also rebutted a suggestion by Fitzpatrick that the fact that the former mayor's chief of staff, Simon Fletcher, who is leading Livingstone's campaign, worked until recently in Labour's London regional office "raised legitimate questions as to whether unfair advantage or insider information has been given to one campaign over any other as a result of these arrangements".
Collins said Fletcher's temporary contract as a political researcher during the general election had come to an end immediately after the election.
"I am absolutely determined that the party's administration remain neutral in these contests and can assure you that no assistance has been given to any candidate to disadvantage another," he wrote. "I do not accept that being a former staff employee gives one mayoral candidate or leadership candidate an unfair advantage over another."
Livingstone has coveted the role since losing office and routinely attends City Hall events to watch his successor being grilled by the London assembly. He has held two London conferences in the past 18 months under the banner of the Progressive London coalition, which has been widely seen as preparation for his bid to be reselected as Labour candidate.
Fitzpatrick, who admitted relations with Livingstone were tense after the former Labour mayor shared a platform with Fitzpatrick's political opponent at the general election. Respect candidate George Galloway, also complained that it was "extraordinary" that the selection process, including the electoral process, had been "rushed through" rather than ratified by the wider party at the conference.
Collins pointed out that the process was agreed in 2002 – before the 2004 mayoral election – and had simply been "reconfirmed" last month.
He also assured Fitzpatrick that all shortlisted candidates would have "equal access" to party lists on payment of a £100 fee.
Oh dear it seems that the mayoral contest will be a kind of carnival of the failed. But it is nice to know that dirty tricks are still the order of the day in the Labour Party. Whatever happens with Boris thrown in the London Mayoral contest should be a hoot.