Election '97: Howarth basks in community values

Newport East: Scargill presence threatens to reopen old wounds
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The Independent Online
Memories in Wales are long. The giant Llanwern steel works, one of Europe's most efficient, is at the heart of the Newport East constituency. Alan Howarth was sitting on the Tory benches at the time of the 1984 miners' dispute and Arthur Scargill was running the strike.

How times change. Mr Howarth who crossed the floor to join Labour in 1995 is bearing Tony Blair's standard in this safe Labour seat. And Mr Scargill, founder of the Socialist Labour Party and scourge of New Labour, has entered the fray.

Mr Howarth was selected with some ease - he triumphed on the first ballot - by party members barely a month ago after the veteran Roy Hughes stood down after 31 years as MP.

Labour in Newport is neither old Labour nor new Labour, just consistent Labour firmly attached to community values.

Out canvassing with a posse of supporters in the Beechwood area Mr Howarth was at ease. "I hope you'll support me on polling day," he said to Beverley Price, who was waiting to collect her six-year-old twin daughters from St Julian's infant school. At another school, Alway primary, parents have clubbed together to pay the salary of Paula Hoddinott a teacher threatened with redundancy. "The Government cuts, teachers face the sack, but the community rallies round," Mr Howarth commented.

A good listener, he exhibits a steely determination to win the electors' trust. He knows that there is some scepticism over his conversion. At the time he switched sides there were cries of turncoat, but remarkably few came from Labour in Newport. In fact, Paul Flynn, who is seeking re- election in Newport West, quickly went public with a press release praising Mr Howarth's courage.

Denis Coughlin, now retired, recalls the steelmen's involvement in the miners' strike of 1984. The plant was kept in operation by fleets of lorries ferrying in coal. "We did as much as we could to help. Money and so on. We even gave pickets our 'pinkies', meal chits printed on pink paper, so that they could get extra food," he remembers. "Now Scargill is just out to make trouble."

For the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, already seething over the ditching of Clause Four, Mr Howarth's conversion was the last straw. "In Newport there's a choice between two Tories - the official Tory and the Labour Tory - and a genuine socialist," Mr Scargill maintains.

Other memories surfaced at Usk View old people's home where 40 senior citizens were at tea. Mr Howarth listened carefully to Nellie Dale, a sprightly 90-year-old. Her childhood was a time of hope, with collieries hard at work a few miles outside the town and the docks bustling with trade. A tract on the wall reads: "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red hat."

Later, as he prepared for yet another television interview, Mr Howarth remarked: "The Tories have lost touch with the decent instincts of people. Places like Usk View, where people needing help are really helped, tell another story. The community here is still attached to traditional values but it is also forward thinking."

When Labour chose its new man the Tory candidate, David Evans, claimed the seat would become marginal. The cliche has it that a week is a long time in politics, but evidence on the ground suggests the prediction is flawed. With the Liberal Democrat, Alistair Cameron; Plaid Cymru's Christopher Holland, Garth Davies of the Referendum Party and Mr Scargill all on the ballot the final figures will be revealing. But with the inheritance of a 9,899 majority Mr Howarth looks safe.

No chances are being taken but at the Ringland Labour Club conversation inevitably turns to the size of the majority.