Labour plunged into race row after Sikh candidate suspended hours before crunch meeting
Labour has been plunged into a race row after a frontrunner to become the candidate in a safe seat was suspended just hours before a crunch selection meeting.
Party bosses were accused of a "political stitch-up" after disciplinary action was taken against Jas Athwal.
Mr Athwal, the leader of Redbridge Council, had been seen as the favourite to win the nomination to stand for Labour in Ilford South at the next general election.
It is understood that a sexual harassment complaint was made about him nearly two months ago, but no action was taken until just after 6pm on Friday.
His suspension meant he was banned from taking part in a hustings event due to take place on Saturday morning.
Sources said his removal from the race meant that rival candidate Sam Tarry, an ally of Jeremy Corbyn, was now the favourite to claim the nomination.
Councillor Athwal's supporters said the selection process should have been postponed until the disciplinary process is fully complete.
In a statement, the Sikhs for Labour group said: "Does Labour still have a space for Sikhs?"
And the Black and Minority Ethnic group of Labour MPs said: "We are very concerned that as a candidate in the Ilford South selections he was placed on administrative suspension at 18.06pm the day before the selection meeting.
"The partry were aware of the complaint against Jas many months ago and despite that decided to allow the selection process to continue. We request the Labour party to suspend the process until Jas has had an opportunity to respond to the complaint."
At the selection meeting, Kat Fletcher, Labour's deputy director in London, said Mr Corbyn "would like to ensure members have the opportunity to fully participate in the democratic process".
The meeting then agreed to reopen applications for the seat to allow other candidates to throw their names into the ring.
In a statement, Mr Athwal said: "Untrue allegations were made against me on 13 August. I responded in detail to the Labour Party on 20th August, with supporting evidence including witness statements, proving the allegations were untrue. No reply was received from the Labour Party.
"Nothing was heard until late yesterday, my solicitor was emailed at 11 pm, advising that I was suspended from the Labour Party.
"This is not a fair process. It is contrary to natural justice. All I seek is a fair hearing and due process.
"The Labour Party has had every opportunity to deal with this matter properly and fairly in the past seven weeks and chose only to act late yesterday by suspending me when I have no time to challenge that decision. This is why people are so upset."
Wes Streeting, the Labour MP for neighbouring Ilford North, said: "The Labour Party must suspend the selection process in Ilford South immediately. Proceeding under these circumstances will only confirm for many our suspicion that the suspension of the local frontrunner, councillor as Athwal, just 15 hours before the vote is politically-motivated and biased in order to stitch up the selection.
"While it is right for the Labour party to take all complaints seriously, the selection process must be suspended until this matter is fully investigated and resolved so that every candidate is given a fair chance and every member of Ilford South Labour Party is given a real choice.
"Many of us have been calling for an independent complaints procedure for some time because of our fears that the process can be manipulated for political reasons.
"Suspending the leader of Redbridge Council on the eve of a selection on the basis of a complaint that the Labour party has sat on for months underlines our concerns."
A supporter of Mr Athwal said: "They are doing to Jas Athwal what they tried to do to Tom Watson at Labour conference. If they cannot win fair and square they seek to remove their opposition."
But a source close to the Labour leadership said: "Anyone claiming this is a stitch up is dismissing extremely serious allegations against this individual.
"This decision was taken by a panel following a report from an independent investigator from an a specialist organisation. The case was anonymised so the panel did not know who the individual was.
"The timing has nothing to do with the selection process. Yesterday was the earliest opportunity for the case to be reviewed following the independent investigator’s report."
A Labour spokesperson said: "National executive committee officers have decided to reopen the applications to allow for other candidates to put their names forward.
"The meeting has supported this course of action."
Following the meeting, Sam Tarry tweeted: "I am gutted that the selection process in Ilford South has been suspended today, but it's absolutely the right thing to do.
"I am proud to have run a positive, people-powered campaign with hundreds of local supporters. I look forward to winning the vote when it comes back."