Labour party members in Rotherham protested against the decision to field an "outside" candidate in the forthcoming byelection by staging a mass walkout from the final selection meeting.
At least 60 card-carrying members stormed out of the meeting on Tuesday night, furious that Labour central command had shunned local hopefuls, including the favourite, popular town councillor Mahroof Hussain.
The dissenters said they would now not canvas for the eventual nominee, Sarah Champion, chief executive of Rotherham's Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice. Having defeated the only other person on the shortlist, ex-RAF Wing Commander Sophy Gardner, Champion will fight what is sure to be a tightly fought byelection on 29 November, which was triggered by the resignation of Denis MacShane over his expenses.
Fewer than 50 Rotherham Labour members were left to vote on her selection at the Rotherham FC's New York football ground following the walk-out.
"If the NEC [Labour's National Executive Committee] wants to parachute in an outsider, the NEC can come up to campaign for them," said one member who walked out. "We in the community should have had a say in the candidate. This is not democracy. If they had wanted a woman, they should have told us they wanted a woman, and we would have found someone locally."
Champion has worked in Rotherham since 2008, but before that she spent 12 years as chief executive of the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester.
Putting a brave face on after the bruising meeting, she insisted had not nearly "broken" the Labour party. "I think it's absolutely right that people want to have their voice heard," she told BBC Look North, "but no, the labour party has not been broken. Mahroof would have been a good candidate, he has got a good, long track record of working in Rotherham, but the party has made its decision."
One Labour insider said Hussain had been the "red hot favourite" locally but as a Muslim man was deemed too much of a risk to the party in the wake of the child sex grooming scandal involving Pakistani males in the constituency which has prompted far right protests in the constituency. A string of local agencies have been criticised for "turning a blind eye" to years of abuse.
Labour was also keen to choose a woman, said the insider, because: "The Rotherham political class is male, male, male." The South Yorkshire town has never had a female MP, and the Labour council has long been overwhelmingly male dominated.
The disarray within the Labour party is likely to be exploited by other candidates, including the BNP candidate Marlene Guest, and the journalist Yvonne Ridley, who famously converted to Islam after being kidnapped by the Taliban. She is standing for George Galloway's Respect party which is hoping to repeat its surprise victory in Bradford earlier this year.
A Labour source who was at Tuesday's disastrous meeting confirmed the walkout. "People are entitled to their views," he said, "but we need a clean break with the past in Rotherham."
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