Straw's seat is a hot-spot of postal vote fraud claims

Returning officers will be on alert for possible voter fraud tomorrow after applications for postal votes surged nationwide. It is estimated that six million people, 15 per cent of the electorate, will opt for the post box over the polling booth.

Returning officers will be on alert for possible voter fraud tomorrow after applications for postal votes surged nationwide. It is estimated that six million people, 15 per cent of the electorate, will opt for the post box over the polling booth.

In the Lancashire constituency of Blackburn, where the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, is defending his 9,249 majority, the vote-rigging allegations have intensified as polling day nears.

"I've come from Uzbekistan to Blackburnistan," says Craig Murray, Britain's former ambassador to the central Asian republic who is campaigning to unseat the Foreign Secretary. He left the Foreign Office after speaking out against the Government's use of intelligence obtained by torture.

"This is very much a Labour rotten borough," he said. "There is a nexus of the police, the authorities and business - if we were in the Soviet Union, you would say mafia."

The jailing of a Blackburn city councillor - an Asian Muslim representing Labour - for rigging postal votes in the May 2002 local elections has failed to silence the rumour mill. Voters in the Muslim community, which makes up almost a quarter of the electorate, say now they are being strong-armed by mosque leaders and councillors to vote Labour. The number of postal votes registered in Blackburn is 20,000, compared to 7,600 in 2001.

The postal vote scandal has also hit other cities with a sizeable Asian communities. Investigations are ongoing in Greater Manchester, Burnley, and Bradford, where a Tory councillor was arrested yesterday.

In Birmingham, where fraud marred last year's local elections, six Labour councillors have been sacked in a scandal that, the election commissioner, said "would disgrace a banana republic".

One voter of Pakistani origin, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, told The Independent that postal fraud in Blackburn was widespread. "It's worse than Birmingham." Like other voters in Blackburn, the 57-year old Pakistani said Labour kept its hold through the mosque committee. "It is 100 per cent Labour. They control the mosque. They frighten the people."

Tony Melia, Mr Straw's Liberal Democrat challenger, is in no doubt that "vote-rigging is the biggest worry in Blackburn". Mr Murray has received almost three dozen complaints.

It seems, however, that people are not going to the police. Locals say this is because voters fear reprisals from within the community, and the police are not trusted.

Mr Straw's rivals say Labour, which has promoted postal voting to ensure a high turnout, is nonetheless worried about the result. For the first time in years, Mr Straw is up against determined competition. Sensing a possible collapse of the Labour vote, the Conservatives are fielding an anti-war Asian Muslim, councillor Imtiaz Ameen.

The Foreign Secretary accepts Labour has taken a hit in his seat over Iraq. "Sure a lot of people are angry, but it's not that different from elsewhere," he said.

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