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Labour grass roots give voice to disillusion: Support in its traditional heartlands is slipping away as the party seeks support from middle-class voters through 'red rose socialism'

'IT HAS come. Poor little child of danger, nurseling of the storm. May it be blessed.' Thus, on a blustery, wet day in February 1900 did Keir Hardie, the pacifist son of an unmarried Scottish farm servant, christen the Labour Party and become its first parliamentary leader.

His vision of a broad-based coalition of intellectuals and working men's unions has travelled uneasily down the century, not least of all to the Cynon Valley in South Wales where he became MP. Here, as in Wallasey on Merseyside, there is disenchantment among grass-roots working-class voters about the growing influence of the Savile Row Tendency, the elegantly-suited section of the party leadership with its passionate pursuit of middle-class approval.

Both areas suffer from high unemployment (the Welsh constituency is known as Sign-on Valley) and the inevitable social consequences - crime, drugs and poverty. It is becoming difficult for Labour's lower ranks to identify with leaders who seem to lead different lives. John Smith is regarded as a man whose manifest virtues - decency, intelligence - are being neutralised by the blandness of his performance in Parliament.

At the last general election, Labour gained Wallasey when its candidate, Angela Eagle, unseated the Conservative minister Lynda Chalker. Today the victory has turned sour on Merseyside. The local hierarchy had wanted to field its own candidate, Lol Duffy, a left-wing activist on the Wirral. Party headquarters at Walworth Road in south-east London 'imposed' Ms Eagle, 32, an Oxford- educated parliamentary liaison officer for Cohse, the health workers' union.

In the political skirmishes that followed, the Wallasey party was (and remains) suspended. Labour's divided identity, between suburban socialism and the realities that underline day-to-day survival in the party's working-class strongholds, is becoming even more marked in the Cynon Valley.

The closure of its pits (only one, Tower, remains) has all but destroyed the social and political structure of its colliery lodges. It has been replaced by apathy - only one out of three voters turned out in the recent council elections - and resentment against the sitting MP, Ann Clwyd.

She is accused of being remote, not attending enough functions in the valley, and preoccupied with a career in the Shadow Cabinet. Labour activists have begun a campaign to force her to stand aside when she comes up for routine reselection in 18 months.

At Westminster some leading voices in the party are beginning to question the strategy of gentrification and distancing from trade union power brokers. Clare Short MP, in the left-wing weekly Tribune, warned Mr Smith of 'the poisonous voices' of ambitious 'crown princes' - the Savile Row Tendency of Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary; Gordon Brown, shadow Chancellor; and Peter Mandelson, who helped shape the red rose image - who 'want to be leader after we lose the next election'.

Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader, said in the New Statesman and Society that turning the party into a 'more compassionate sort of Conservatism' would doom it to electoral defeat. Neither Mr Blair nor Mr Mandelson would discuss the evidence of working-class unhappiness about the party's direction. But Margaret Beckett, deputy leader, said: 'It's natural for people who were desperately anxious for a change of government to feel a great sense of sadness and despair when that did not happen.'

She defended Mr Smith's leadership, complaining that the media, particularly the BBC, was failing to report his tireless campaign to restore grass-roots morale by attending almost every regional party conference.

Beatrix Campbell, page 24