Battle for second place in Kinnock stronghold

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There has never been a shred of doubt that Labour's Don Touhig, former journalist, miner's son and Blairite, will tonight inherit Neil Kinnock's old seat of Islwyn, in south-east Wales. Even so, this non-contest for the Labour stronghold could produce some modest upsets and triumphs.

Jocelyn Davies, the Plaid Cymru candidate, was convinced from canvass returns in the campaign's final week that she could snatch second place from the Liberal Democrats or the Tories, transforming the nationalists' fortunes, compared to their lost deposit in the 1992 election.

This time around, dire predictions about wasted deposits have gravitated towards the Conservatives who came second with 14 per cent of the vote. While such claims may prove exaggerated, no one, least of all the Tory campaign, believed yesterday the party would do anything other than poorly. Asked why the Tories hadn't put up more posters for its candidate, Robert Buckland, 26, a lawyer and Dyfed county councillor, one official said: "Well, would you?"

This was at Newbridge, in the constituency's more green and rural centre, where the Conservative could expect to pick up a vote or two. But only disappointment for the bouncy barrister and embarrassment for John Major seemed in prospect. "Bugger off," one resident said as the Tories' silver battle-bus entered town. Another stopped in the road to give a thumbs- down greeting.

The only consolation, and it is not guaranteed, will be if Mr Buckland beats the Liberal Democrat, John Bushell, whose locally-based campaign appeared to collapse after the party came third in a council by-election.

The forthright Mrs Davies could secure a small place in history by changing the pecking order, however. The only candidate to be born and bred in the constituency and the only woman, a schools inspector and a known figure (though now without a seat) in Islwyn council politics, her lack of Welsh is irrelevant here, as 98 per cent do not speak the language. She has exploited her gender and local connections.

A Newbridge butcher, an erstwhile Tory, appeared to be edging towards voting for her yesterday. But, in a sign of how little this by-election has engaged the electorate, he emphasised opposition to a Welsh assembly and "all this breaking up of the United Kingdom".

Despite a location ripe for the argument, devolution and the minutiae of the powers that a Welsh legislature would have, did not figure on many people's agendas, and there was a lack of interest, to put it mildly, in the Islwyn Constituency Labour Party, even though Mr Touhig, an unswerving Tony Blair supporter, is in favour.

This is not the most deprived valley constituency by a long way. But, going south, towards the less prosperous town of Risca, the concrete-fronted council houses dotting the hillside are a reminder that this is traditional Labour country. None the less, the party's Walworth Road by-election team has had to workto limit a drop from the 24,728 majority bequeathed by Mr Kinnock before, as some locals put it, he "went off" to Brussels.

The eagle-eyed Welsh are difficult to please. Mr Touhig, 46, a print manager and former editor of the local Free Press group of newspapers, has taken stick for coming from Pontypool in the next valley, for, even worse, working in Gloucester and for narrowly beating the constituency chairman to the nomination.

This is also a by-election with a lower turn-out, not a contest to choose a future prime minister and it is one that has co-incided with some of the heaviest rainfall in memory. The result will be a solid majority but one perhaps 10 per cent or more down on Mr Kinnock's 70 per cent share of the vote.