Civil servant's name on Labour poll-rig fax

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The Independent Online
A fax requesting Labour Party workers to nominate Tony Blair for the BBC Today Personality of the Year bore the name of a civil servant.

The involvement of Jules Hurry, who works at the Ministry of Agriculture, will compound discomfiture in the party over the affair, which managed to wipe the fact that the Tories now have a minority government off many of yesterday's front pages. She is on a career break from the ministry and works for Labour as a volunteer. There is no breach of civil service rules.

As an embarrassed party hierarchy launched an internal investigation into the attempt to rig the nominations for the award, it became clear that the plan was part of what party strategists refer to as a "fish farming" exercise to influence phone-in programmes, local newspapers and other media by getting Labour supporters to write or phone.

There is even a section at the party's headquarters, called the "audience participation unit" and staffed by two volunteers, which is charged with carrying out the work. The official version was that the unit is "reactive rather proactive" and merely "helps Labour supporters who want to write to newspapers or get their views across in other ways".

But a former party worker said that there was a concerted attempt to influence media. He said: "It was called fish farming. That was the code name for doing things that were a bit under-hand, like putting people into other parties' campaign headquarters in by-elections."

He said that the party ran an operation during the 1987 election campaign to organise people to take part in phone-ins. The scheme was dropped after a woman who had harangued a Tory minister became the subject of tabloid investigations.

Another Labour insider said: "The key to these operations was to never write anything down. It should always be done by word of mouth." He said there was no doubt that the Tories did that sort of thing all the time, but "they are a bit cleverer than us in the way they go about it".

Tory Central Office refused to deny that it had also run similar exercises. Asked about allegations by a former Welsh Tory, Elwyn Jones, that the Tories had done the same thing two years ago when John Major, at the nadir of his popularity, came second to the late Roy Castle, a spokesman said: "These are allegations by a disaffected Tory."

The Today award appears now to be so flawed that the BBC will consider scrapping it. John Major, who has been short-listed again this year, has finished second in the past two years, despite the fact that his party has trailed well behind Labour in the polls throughout that period. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher won the award for woman of the year eight times out of nine. While the Princess Royal was the only other winner, it may well have been quiet efforts from Central Office that ensured she saw off what must have been strong competition from the Queen and the Princess of Wales in those more royalist days.

Tony Blair, who did not make the short-list anyway, said that the person involved had tried to drum up support through an "excess of zeal". He told Today: "As soon as we learned about it, it was stopped."

Labour also attempted to sow confusion about how exactly the exercise was carried out. Its election supremo Peter Mandelson denied Ms Hurry was responsible for the vote-rigging attempt.

He said it was not her but "another more junior member of staff" who was behind it. However, he refused to elaborate on the identity of the person responsible.

In a damage limitation exercise, Tom Sawyer, the party's general secretary, announced an inquiry but there are no plans to publish the result.