Election '97: Good candidates make Clwyd West a close call

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The Independent Online
The Clwyd West constituency is a mainly rural area, the seat of Rod Richards, a former Welsh Office minister, which should have remained strongly Conservative even on its new boundaries. But, although it is 97th on Labour's target list of Tory seats and Labour requires a 9 per cent swing to take it, the opinion polls suggest it could be vulnerable.

Mel Williams, the area representative for the Farmers' Union of Wales, says: "It is very difficult to gauge what is going to happen. Opinion polls say there will be a landslide victory for Labour, but I am not convinced. It will depend on how much damage Rod Richards did to himself - he did the honourable thing and resigned, though."

Mr Richards quit last summer after tabloid revelations of an affair with a 28-year-old divorcee, but survived an attempt to deselect him. Before that he was mostly famous for apologising after describing Labour local councillors in Wales as "short, fat, slimy and corrupt".

According to Mr Williams, "Rod Richards has started to talk a lot of sense since his troubles. When he was in the corridors of power, he seemed to be distant and have a certain 'do as I say' attitude. He seems to have mellowed since.

But farmers play things close to their chests and Rod Richards is up against some damn good candidates," says Mr Williams.

The Tory vote is concentrated around Rhos-on-Sea, where retired businessmen are scared of new Labour taxes. The seat includes the holiday resort of Colwyn Bay.

But up towards the tops of the valleys the farmers are strongly nationalist.

Plaid Cymru, which only won 5 per cent of the vote here in the last election, is engaged in a furious argument with Labour over tactical voting.

Phylip Hughes, the Welsh actor, stirred the hornet's nest of the Free Press's letters page when he wrote to attack the "middle-class clientele" of Plaid Cymru, whose support for independence would put at risk "their present standard of living, their good, steady, often well-paid jobs or pensions." And he warned that a vote for Plaid would let in Mr Richards.

A Nationalist "fellow Thespian" responded furiously, accusing Labour of "abandoning its principles daily."

Gareth Thomas, the Labour candidate, is a barrister who, although brought up in Birkenhead, is a fluent Welsh speaker, a strong supporter of devolution, proportional representation and the Welsh language. He is a Flintshire councillor and lives in Mold, just outside the constituency.

The next door constituency of Vale of Clwyd, which includes Denbigh, is a new Tory seat, one of Labour's top target seats - only 31st on its list. Here Christopher Ruane, a deputy headteacher in Rhyl, in the constituency, needs only a 2.5 per cent swing to win it for Labour. He has been inundating our office with faxes for months now and is a well-known voice locally.

The Tory candidate, David Edwards, got in touch with this office yesterday for the first time, which is probably leaving it a bit late. As the election bandwagon gains pace, the Tories are going to have to step up their fight for the hearts and minds of Clwyd West voters.