Carpetbaggers in frenzy ahead of Nationwide vote

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Tens of thousands of new building society investors joined the speculative frenzy yesterday as they rushed to open new accounts in a bid to gain free shares if their chosen targets are forced to de-mutualise.

Many of the top 10 building societies said membership applications continued to flood in, despite attempts to staunch the flow by raising investment limits. The dash to open accounts comes ahead of the elections to the Nationwide board, with the results expected tomorrow.

The ballot, in which more than a million members have voted, is being contested by five de-mutualisation campaigners. If they do well, the vote could also mean the death knell for many smaller societies.

A spokesman for Portman Building Society said: "Since we raised the minimum opening limit from pounds 100 to pounds 1,000 recently, the volume of applications has fallen to 60 per cent of where it was."

A spokeswoman for Birmingham Midshires said new openings were still taking place at a rate of almost 1,000 a day, despite raising its limit to pounds 2,500.

But fresh evidence emerged yesterday of the extent to which Nationwide is prepared to go to win its battle. Ronald Olden, a Nationwide member, yesterday claimed that staff at his branch in Birmingham, not only pressed him to vote against the campaigners but handed him a ballot form with the names of the official candidates already pencilled in. When he complained, Mr Olden claimed he was told this was the branch's "practice" as 99 per cent of people were voting this way.

He was watched as he filled in his replacement ballot and staff then wrote his account number on the front before the form was placed in a ballot box.

A Nationwide spokesman said official policy was for the ballot form to have the account number placed on it before the vote and an envelope to be given to members to place it in.

If any mistakes were made they were by far the exception. The "handful" of complaints over the election process proved it was being held in an extremely fair manner overall.