Lib Dems hit back in racism row

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LIBERAL Democrat leaders, under heavy political pressure after admitting that their councillors in east London 'pandered to racism', sought to turn the tables on Labour last night by referring the party's allegedly racist election material to Scotland Yard.

A Liberal-Democrat leaflet has been referred to the police by the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, for their consideration on whether it constituted incitement to racial hatred.

Charles Kennedy, president of the Lib-Dems, said: 'We shall ensure that the relevant Labour Party literature is also submitted to the police for their consideration.'

His intervention came at the end of a day of furious charge and counter-charge between the two parties, culminating in threats of legal action by the Liberal Democrats against the shadow environment secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Straw countered: 'I am not surprised they are running around like headless chickens because the Liberal Democrat HQ approved this leaflet which is now the subject of investigation by the police.'

The controversial leaflet on crime, published by the Lib Dems, showed a black boxer in a menacing pose. An internal inquiry chaired by Lord Lester, QC, which last week recommended the expulsion of three Liberal Democrats for 'pandering to racism', found the leaflet 'offensive'.

Mr Kennedy said: 'I have already made clear I am not against a police inquiry into Liberal Democrat literature. But in 1993 Labour Party literature circulated locally was of an even more questionable nature. Mr Straw's efforts have only opened up for full public disclosure this Labour can of worms.'

Liberal Democrat leaders are 'incandescent' about the referral of the leaflet to the police by Sir Nicholas. The Attorney-General's office took the unusual step of contacting journalists yesterday to clarify that Sir Nicholas had merely passed on the complaint to Scotland Yard 'as a courtesy'.

The Lester Report showed senior figures at the party's HQ were involved in the controversy, said the shadow environment secretary. Graham Elson, the party's general secretary, had approved the 'Black Boxer' leaflet, and had 'failed to discharge his duty by approving the leaflet without having a full copy of it'.

Mr Straw added: 'It seems that Mr Elson is sailing very close to the wind, indeed the entire Liberal Democrat establishment is open to criticism for incompetence or worse.' Asked if he intended to resign, Mr Elson said: 'Good God No. We all learn by our mistakes. I have had a rap over the knuckles. I accept the comments.'

The Lester Report attacks Labour's record in Tower Hamlets. 'Several leaflets published by the local Labour Party during the September 1993 campaign pandered to racist sentiment and false canvass returns were deliberately leaked by Labour in a manner which boosted support for the British National Party,' it says. 'They were encouraging and promoting a racist housing policy in Tower Hamlets.'

The political crisis in Tower Hamlets is worsening. Five Lib Dem councillors have resigned, and a sixth, Mrs Betty Wright, identified in the Lester report, has been removed from the candidates list for the elections next May. More may quit today when the ruling Liberal Democrat group meets to consider calls for a breakaway party in the borough.

The Labour Party, vehemently denying that its leaflets were racist, will today consider the interim report of an internal inquiry chaired by Mr Alan Haworth, secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party, into the leak of canvass returns.