Gerard Coyne, who is standing against Len McCluskey to be general secretary of the Unite union, has been suspended from his job as a union official before the votes have even been counted.
The West Midlands official has received a letter warning that he had brought the union into disrepute during the campaign to lead Unite.
The suspension came just hours after the ballot was closed on Wednesday afternoon, amid reports that the result is extremely close. A result is expected on Friday, but will not be officially announced until 28 April.
A spokesman for Coyne said: “We can confirm that Gerard has been suspended from his position as West Midlands regional secretary of Unite the Union. We will not be commenting further at this stage.”
Unite, which has 1.4 million members, making it Britain’s biggest union, gives Labour £1.5m a year and many of the party’s MPs see the election for general secretary as a proxy battle for control of the Labour movement. McCluskey is seen by critics of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as his main ally and funder.
One Labour source with knowledge of the count at the Electoral Reform Services said it was incredibly close with both men on 43-44% each, although Coyne was 0.5% ahead at one point during the day.
Amid a febrile atmosphere, another source insisted that McCluskey, who was the favourite, had won by a landslide.
An email sent by union official Des Quinn to members in the West Midlands confirmed Coyne’s suspension. It said: “This is to advise that Gerard Coyne has been suspended from his duties as regional secretary pending an investigation into certain issues which have arisen.
“The investigation is, of course, being conducted under procedure, and it should not be assumed that any offence has necessarily been committed. You will appreciate that it is not possible to comment further on this matter.”
Coyne’s spokesman declined to outline the charges against him. But the West Bromwich official has been criticised by McCluskey for being too close to a “cabal” of West Midlands MPs including Tom Watson. He has been suspended from his role as regional secretary, but remains a union member and so could, in theory, take up the role as general secretary if he wins.
The bitter campaign has seen a series of allegations between Coyne and McCluskey’s supporters. Coyne’s campaign was recently warned by the union’s acting general secretary that some of his campaign literature contained potentially defamatory statements about McCluskey.
The information commissioner’s office (ICO) has been asked to investigate the alleged use of robocalls by McCluskey’s campaign team in the increasingly fractious contest. Union members say they have received calls in which a recording of McCluskey claims Unite is being subjected to a takeover by a rightwing faction and asks for their support.
The ICO is also investigating claims that a call centre used by Labour’s West Midlands mayoral candidate Siôn Simon has been used to contact party members to see if they will support Coyne and is looking into whether Coyne’s campaign has accessed Labour party data.
This is not the first time that Coyne has been disciplined by the union after letting it be known that he was considering standing for the leadership.
Last year, he was given a final written warning for speaking at an event held by Labour for the Common Good, a group founded by Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt, two MPs who declined to join Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
On 7 March, two months after the event and following a disciplinary hearing, McCluskey wrote a letter marked “strictly confidential” saying he had found that Coyne was guilty of a breach of trust and was giving him a final written warning that would sit on his record for 12 months.
In the letter, headed “A serious breach of trust”, McCluskey said Labour for the Common Good was a legitimate organisation, but added: “Given that it is the brainchild of Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt who chose not to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet, it is clear that there are obvious differences with Unite’s political vision.”
Unite declined to comment upon Coyne’s suspension.