Blair's drinks party raises Tory hackles

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair has been accused of breaking 19th-century laws against "corrupt practices" by providing voters in two key marginal seats with free drinks.

New voters coming on to the electoral register in Blackpool were invited to a party on the Saturday before this month's Labour conference for the chance to meet Tony Blair and "have a good night out".

Harold Elletson, the Conservative MP for Blackpool North, yesterday threatened legal action under the law against "treating" - the practice of providing free food or drink to influence electors which was an accepted feature of British elections until the Reform Act of 1832.

Most of the drink at the party for young people was sold at a cash bar, but some was provided free by Creation Records, the Oasis record company which sponsored the event.

The local Labour Party invited people on the electoral roll in the two Blackpool constituencies who turned 18 this year, and some who have reached voting age since the last election. They were contacted by telephone and around 200 turned up at the Norbreck Castle hotel.

A Labour spokesman said the purpose of the event was to let young people see that "we're not all anoraks with glasses held together by sticking plaster". The party featured the pop band 18-Wheeler. "It was a normal Saturday night out," the spokesman said.

But Mr Elletson told The Independent: "I am shocked and disgusted by such a blatant attempt to undermine the democratic process."

He is defending a notional 7,000 majority on new boundaries; Blackpool South is now an ultra-marginal seat with a majority of less than 400 and a Tory MP, Nick Hawkins, who has gone on the "chicken run" to a safe southern England seat.

Mr Elletson said he had taken advice from Tory Central Office, which was that, if the event was held on behalf of the Labour candidates in those seats, it could be illegal. "This appears to be a corrupt practice. If the Labour Party cannot provide answers as to exactly what they were up to, I will take this further," he said. The Labour spokesman described the complaint as "nonsense".

"Treating" was outlawed in 1883, in measures now incorporated in the Representation of the People Act 1983. An official at Central Office in London, said he was "looking for people at the event who would be prepared to testify". He said the party was reminiscent of the days of rotten boroughs and bought elections. It was "something that most agents would not do because it's too close to breaching the spirit of the law if not the letter".

For treating to be a criminal offence, somebody has to be "corrupted and induced by treating" to vote in a particular way, which would be difficult to prove. But it would still be illegal if "refreshments were deliberately provided to influence an election", according to one summary of electoral law.