Election '97: Essex woman travels from Kowloon to the Valleys in search of votes

Candidate chases elusive support in Blaenau Gwent against a Labour majority of more than 30,000
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A cold wind knifing down the South Wales valley seemed to spur Margrit Williams, the Tory candidate with the highest mountain in Britain to climb, to greater efforts.

She was out seeking elusive supporters in Tredegar, the heart of the Blaenau Gwent constituency, which in 1992 returned Labour's Llewellyn Smith with a majority of more than 30,000. "I hope you can support me on 1 May," shoppers were told hopefully as they headed down Commercial Street.

Commercial Street was, in name at least, an appropriate locale for Ms Williams to canvass. She was for some time an investment consultant based in Hong Kong. Born in 1964 at Southend-on-Sea in Essex, she lived in Germany for a while, and then served as a councillor in the Tory flagship borough of Wandsworth, south-west London, before embarking on a journey that seems fated to end up as an"Essex Woman Routed by Valleys Man" story in the local paper, the Gwent Gazette to which she used to contribute a column.

The area is saturated with reminders of radicalism. The Tredegar Workmen's Medical Aid Society, a service built with the pennies of miners and steelworkers, was the inspiration for the National Health Service, set up by Aneurin Bevan, the local MP from 1929 to 1960. Four huge stone pillars on a hillside commemorate the man and his works - three represent the towns of Tredegar, Ebbw Vale and Rhymney and the fourth and largest, Bevan himself.

Ms Williams passes it frequently but is unlikely to pay it much heed. Her undoubted energy and commitment qualifies her as one of Baroness Thatcher's doughty fighters.

Not every passer-by accepted the blue-bordered leaflets promising to expose allegations of waste in the local authority where there is a solitary Tory councillor among the 42.

Iona Pettic turned aside, commenting: "The Tories have done precious little for the Valleys since Thatcher got in. They've got no chance here."

A retired education welfare officer, Arthur Morgan, spoke with the authority of his 79 years. "The Tory candidate will get between 2,000 and 3,000 votes," he forecast.

Brian Reardon, cousin of Tredegar snooker star Ray Reardon, lost his job in 1989 when Markham colliery, a few miles outside the town, was closed. His file of job applications is a couple of inches thick, but in seven years he's only worked for six months. "One post in a residential home paid pounds 2.60 an hour. You've got to have a degree to become a caretaker round here," he joked.

"I used to vote Tory, but they've got such a weak leader in John Major that I expect I'll switch to Labour," Sharon Jenkins, a lively 33-year- old trailing her son, Greg, 7, and daughter, Lawri, 5, towards Tesco's, said briskly.

She offers other local figures from another political culture as role- models, naming Sir Geoffrey Inkin, who made the kamikaze run in the 1979 election against Michael Foot now chairs two quangos, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation and the Land Authority for Wales, netting nearly pounds 70,000 a year.

Then she paused, and added: "And there's Jonathan Evans." Jonathan Evans? He was born in Tredegar, became Tory MP for next door Brecon and Radnor in 1992 and is defending a majority of 130.

Mr Smith, a Labour left-winger who took over as MP five years ago, when Michael Foot stood down, is understandably confident. He said: "What makes me sad is the way problems created by Tory policies are destroying proud communities."

He collected 79 per cent of the vote in 1992 and interest today centres on how many votes Ms Williams can collect alongside the shares of the Double Democrats Geraldine Layton and Plaid Cwmru's Jim Criddle.

Ted Hickey has been a stalwart of the local Tory Party for more than 25 years. A Dunkirk veteran, Justice of the Peace and proud holder of the MBE, he summed up the prospects: "We are flying the flag. That's what we're doing."

Tory standard-bearers come and go in the Valleys like migrant birds. Ms Williams is studiously non-commital about her future. Commercial Street again or Kowloon? "Let's wait until the election's over. You see, I'm fighting to win," she said.