Election '97: Tories close gap on Labour as voters confound the polls

Message from The Independent's survey of six important constituencies is that a landslide for Tony Blair is unlikely as the Conservative vote refuses to collapse: CLWYD WEST: A win would give Labour a majority of around 6 0
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The Independent Online
Could Labour win Clywd West? The old man thought for a moment. "Well you see," he replied at last, "the Liberal vote has traditionally been very strong here. Half the local population can say Lloyd George slept with their grandmother."

He was exaggerating, of course. The Liberal Democrats only took 15 per cent of the vote in 1992.

But who knows? Perhaps the area's history does help to explain why recent revelations about the marital infidelity of its Conservative MP, Rod Richards, do not seem to have damaged his electoral standing much. Mr Richards had to resign as a Welsh Office minister last year after it was revealed he had been having an affair.

This is not to say the Clywd West Tories are not angry with their party. They most certainly are. They are angry about Europe, angry about what they see as weak leadership, angry about negative equity, angry about business failures.

But though many say they will not vote Conservative this time, a fair proportion admit, when pushed, they they cannot really imagine themselves voting anything else. Some will go over to one of the other parties, but some will stay at home and more will come, reluctantly, back to the fold.

The Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru are fighting this seat hard, and the Referendum Party is also standing, without much discernible effect so far. There is also a wild card in the electoral pack, in the form of a man calling himself Rod Richard of the Conservatory Party, but Labour is the main challenger.

Clywd West is what is known in Labour parlance as a "stand-alone" seat, with the local party receiving little outside help. John Prescott's battle bus apparently whizzed along the Colwyn Bay by-pass without stopping, en route, to the more marginal Vale of Clywd.

The Labour candidate, Gareth Thomas, a barrister, is constantly slipping between Welsh and English as he hammers home Tony Blair's message on the streets. But while he says he is meeting many "switchers" out on the doorsteps, he acknowledges that the result will be tight.

Changes in the area's population and prosperity may help Mr Thomas, as the blue-rinse "Costa Geriatrica" of old slides towards a new "Dole-on- Sea" culture of benefit-funded bedsits, heavy drinking and drugs. But the redrawn constituency - formerly Clywd North West - also has a large rural hinterland where old-style Tories and farming Plaid Cymru supporters co-exist.

But one of the strongest sentiments that emerges is apathy, if not downright hostility, towards politicians and the political process. Women with strong views are hard to find; young people nigh-on impossible.

But the old Tories are still there - a third of the population is of pensionable age - and however unhappy they may be, they still do not quite trust Labour.

"That Tony Blair seems a decent man but I don't like the rest of his party and the trade unions. I remember the strikes of the 1970s," is a typical comment.

Geraint Jones, 32

Shop assistant

"I'm a Labour voter. I believe Labour will offer the individual more than the Conservatives do. The other parties don't seem to have much idea what to do.

"I think Tony Blair's doing a good job changing the Labour Party into a party which can govern. It's for the better. They went too extreme before.

"I think they've got a chance of getting in here. There were a lot of Tory supporters here that you would expect to be Labour - working-class Tories."

John Crowther, 61 Retired lecturer

"I think I am going to vote for Paddy Ashdown. I voted Liberal Democrat once before, at the last election, but before that I voted Conservative ...never voted anything else.

"I thought Margaret Thatcher would be a really splendid, dynamic Prime Minister. But she became such a dogmatic one. A lot of Conservatives are the same - they don't really know how the average man in the street lives any more. The Labour Party will probably get in but I'm not very happy about that. Blair's a reasonable chap but he's a bit like a college boy who's got all these heavies who might come and push him out."

Marion Childs

Retired nurse and smallholder

"I've more or less decided to vote Labour, but I'm going to see what's happening.

"I used to be a Conservative a long time ago but I don't agree with what they've done.

"I would dearly love to vote Liberal but I don't think they've got any chance of getting in. I would vote Labour if I thought they would get in, but I would also vote for Plaid Cmyru.

"I certainly won't vote Conservative and my husband feels the same way as I do.

"We have talked to people who have been Tory families for generations, but they are not going to vote for them."

Diane Phasey

Caravan park manageress

"I'll do the same as always. I'm voting Conservative. I'm happy with my lifestyle. I just don't want Labour to get in.

"Without being critical, the lower class people tend to vote Labour because they don't see things on a long-term basis.

"This country is getting on its feet. The pound is excellent on the continent at the moment.

"I think Labour might get in. People are frightened they will. Everything was going up but now it is going down. Interest rates are coming down, property is moving".

George Rodgers

Assistant head keeper of the Welsh Mountain Zoo

"For the first time ever, I haven't decided which way to vote. I was a Conservative before, but quite frankly I'm disillusioned. I have no faith in the Government and less faith in the Opposition.

"I was suspicious of Tony Blair at first, but I'm not any more. I think he could be a good prime minister, but unfortunately I don't think he would be allowed to be.

"Strong prime ministers are few and far between. Whether you liked her politics or not, I think Margaret Thatcher was a strong prime minister. I didn't always agree with her policies, but at least she got things done."