Rank-and-file ALP branch members in Simon Crean’s Victorian seat of Hotham have demanded the party’s national executive get out of the way and let them decide their own candidate as a decision on whether to hold a preselection ballot goes down to the wire.

A meeting of the national executive committee was scheduled yesterday to discuss “calling in” outstanding preselections in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, but was postponed as national secretary George Wright consulted state secretaries to discuss timetables. It is scheduled to meet again imminently, sparking fears a candidate fingered by decree, a move that chafes with Kevin Rudd’s recent reforms to bolster internal party democracy.

The battle in Hotham has boiled down to a contest between Labor Unity-backed long-term member Rosemary Barker and 33-year-old National Union of Workers member and Monash councillor Geoff Lake. It is likely that if the executive intervenes, it could end up selecting Lake, regarded as ministerial material in some circles, over his more experienced rival. Powerbrokers Stephen Conroy and Bill Shorten are supporting Barker, while former premier Steve Bracks is backing Lake.

Still, local Lake-aligned forces remain on the front foot among the electorate’s around 550 members. An email sent by Cheltenham branch vice president and one-time candidate for the state seat of Brighton, Les Heimann, to Wright and other executive members this afternoon, obtained by Crikey, slams the 25-strong body for considering overruling local sentiment in the multicultural south-eastern suburbs fiefdom:

“As a member for nearly 40 years, and having held a number of positions within the ALP as well as being a candidate I am absolutely appalled at the position you are taking on Federal Executive deciding my local candidate.

“The fact that there is no reason for this to be done other than seemingly to pitchfork someone the Fed. Ex. wants into the position.

“Now that there is a glimmer of hope that we may win the upcoming the election you wish to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Under the terms of the party’s 2009 stability pact signed with the Socialist Left, the seat is reserved for LU despite widespread support for retiring notionally NUW-aligned Crean, a former Labor leader. The non-NUW right has the numbers on national executive.

Nominations for Hotham and the other vacant Victorian seat of Lalor close today. A grassroots vote is scheduled to be held on July 28 and July 29, followed by a meeting of the state public office selection committee on July 30, to decide the other half of the ballot (ALP preselections are usually decided by a 50% vote of grassroots members and a 50% vote of the panel).

The last time Hotham went to a contested preselection in 2006, branch members loyal to Crean were able to intervene to crack open Cambodian and Vietnamese stacks in the area to deliver their charge 70% of the grassroots vote, 196 to 88. Rival Martin Pakula then swiftly withdrew.

The federal electorate area includes the South Clayton branch, run by party stalwart Amy Duncan, containing about 140 mostly pro-Lake members, a Cambodian branch loyal to impressive Narre Warren North MP Luke Donnellan and Clayton MP Hong Lim with about 150 members, a Vietnamese branch also with 150 members, an independent-minded Moorabbin branch of 60 members that leans Labor Unity and Heimann’s Cheltenham branch of about 30 members.

The numbers suggest that if the branches went to a vote the ability to “get to” the stacks would prove crucial. Lake loyalists told Crikey this afternoon that Lim was currently overseas, making it more likely they could intervene. However, Crikey understands that if Lim fails to deliver for Barker in the event of a ballot, he will soon be seeking new employment when state preselections for the 2014 Victorian election roll around.

Other seats still to hold preselections are Charlton and Kingsford Smith in NSW, Rankin in Queensland and Lalor in Victoria. Casual Senate vacancies also need to be discussed in Victoria and possibly NSW. In a previous meeting on Wednesday, the national executive acknowledged the significant sentiment for local ballots and said it would abide by the Prime Minister’s desire to hold them unless there was a “genuine crisis of time”.