EIGHTEEN Labour hopefuls have thrown their hats in the ring for the selection to fight sitting Tory MP Andrew Stephenson for the Pendle seat at the next general election.

The unusually-large list of would-be candidates reflects the marginal nature of the seat – taken from Labour’s Gordon Prentice by just 3,585 votes in 2010.

It is headed by Pendle Labour Party president and Nelson South county councillor Azhar Ali.

Also on the list is his Lancashire county cabinet colleague Marcus Johnstone, who represents Padiham and Burnley West.

Former Pendle borough councillor and ex-chairman of the Nelson Area committee Asghar Ali, and Mark Townsend, deputy leader of Burnley Borough Council, are also among leading East Lancashire contenders.

The only woman on the list is Lesley Delves, from Southport.

Earby ex-soldier Christopher McKimm, and Nelson resident Dan Lodge, are among local candidates.

Salford city councillor Jim King, and Oldham teacher Ken Rustidge, have joined the list from the wider North West Labour party.

Sport fan Kiran Kerai, and director of Labour Friends of Small Business Amran Hussein have bid for the position from London, while Communications Union official Javed Iqbal has applied from Wakefield, in West Yorkshire.

The other hopefuls are Ashiq Hussain, Malcolm Birks, Masood Amer, Nadim Choudary, Russell Kennedy, and Tom Harding This week the 18 will be whittled down to a long list for interview, on September 1.

A final shortlist will then be prepared for a hustings and vote by Pendle Labour Party members, on September 15.

Liz Savage, the Lancashire party secretary organising the process, said: “This is a strong field of 18 candidates.

“I would urge all Labour party members in Pendle to attend the hustings and selection meeting on September 15.

“We want as many people as possible to take part in this democratic process.

“I would urge anyone who wants a Labour MP in Pendle, and a Labour government, to join the party and work for whoever is our candidate.”

Mr Stephenson said: “I am surprised it has taken Labour so long to appoint a prospective parliamentary candidate.

“I look forward to finding out who will be opposing me in 2015, on September 15.”