AFTRE SMITH / 2: From celebrations to grief: a week is a cruelly long time in politics: Mary Braid meets mourning Labour supporters in two marginal seats, Wolverhampton South-west and Basildon in Essex, which John Smith was due to visit on the day he died

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DAVID HAWKINS remembered the sheer joy of driving up Linden Lea, one of Wolverhampton's most affluent and traditionally Tory streets, thanking residents by loud speaker for turning out to support Labour.

It had been just a week since the voters of the Park ward in Tory-held Wolverhampton South- west swung left - or stayed home - to help Labour take the ward for the first time and, against the predictions of Walworth Road, win back majority control of Wolverhampton Council.

Wednesday night's South-west constituency Labour meeting was similarly joyous. With Park under their belts, and large swings to Labour in other South-west wards increasing confidence that the marginal Tory seat will fall to Labour at the next general election, there had never been such a huge turnout of members.

'I've never seen people so excited,' said Mr Hawkins, Park's new elected representative. 'But what a change 24 hours can bring. You should have seen the faces of people coming into the district meeting the following night. Everyone knew about John's death by then. We had to abandon proceedings.'

In Wolverhampton Civic Centre the victorious Labour group was moving into offices just vacated by the Tories. The winners were subdued; councillors' distress over the death of John Smith, the Labour leader, was palpable. The quality of heirs-in-waiting was spoken of but few regarded the loss of Smith as anything short of a political disaster.

'John was up here at the end of January to set our local election campaign off,' said Norman Davies, the Labour group leader, spreading a dozen photographs of Smith, round-faced and smiling, across his desk. 'I remember thinking then that his schedule was punishing. He had his picture taken with all the candidates and they used them in election material. I saw him again on Tuesday at a meeting in the House of Commons to celebrate council seat gains. You just can't believe it.'

Mr Davies is clearly still struggling to believe the 'purposeful', ever-reliable Smith has gone. 'You get on with your work but somehow your mind is all over the place.'

With a condolence book just opened in the council's foyer, Mr Davies will not talk about replacements 'for fear of starting hares racing'. But he insists Smith and Neil Kinnock, his predecessor, have nurtured a new generation of men and women well able to take over. He has his favourites but he is more concerned that the leadership contest should be conducted with dignity than with who wins it.

Mr Davies believes Smith's two 'quiet years' in office brought unprecedented stability to the Labour movement and moulded it into a credible government-in-waiting. 'I think it will be an intelligent, dignified contest. I hope to God I am not misjudging. We don't want fighting and jostling for position. This is a crucial time for Labour. John Smith was the outright winner last time round. This time it is not so clear-cut.'

In the Newhampton pub in Park ward, watering hole for liberal, middle-class professionals, Peter Hepworth, 50, believes Labour is in a terrible position.

'I am far to the left of John Smith,' said the industrial disputes claims consultant. 'But he was undoubtedly the ideal man for the times. There is no natural successor. Ideally I would like John Prescott but pragmatically speaking he would not be the right choice now.

'I think the party should look to what appeals to the country, not its members.' But his brother, Mike, insists that Mr Prescott is a true socialist. 'Blair is just wishy-washy.'

Judith Wilcox, 40, a teacher, agrees there can be 'no easy transition'. They will find it hard to elect someone 'with the same wide appeal, charisma, humour and intelligence'. She is unimpressed by both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. 'They are just too slick and I would not have the same sense of trust as I had with Mr Smith. I would like to see Neil Kinnock back but that won't happen.'

Fear that a leadership battle, particularly a messy one, will distract attention from the Government's difficulties is expressed by everyone. Mike Chillingworth, 42, a numerical analyst, suggests that with Gordon Brown - like Smith a Scottish Presbyterian - the voters might not notice a change has taken place. But he adds: 'Mr Smith just isn't easy to replace. Blair is too smooth and Prescott, though capable, would not appeal to all voters.' Most forecast that the photogenic Tony Blair will win because he is likely to appeal most to England's South-east, where Labour must win over Tory voters if it is to take power.

One South-east voter who made that switch in the local elections is Jackie Fontaine, 27, a mother of two. Last week she was in Basildon civic centre, Essex, 150 miles from Wolverhampton, filling in forms requesting a council house in another town. Basildon, she says is now 'run-down and full of junk shops'.

Once Conservative-led, the local council is now hung. 'My mum and dad were mad at me for voting Labour for the first time,' Mrs Fontaine said.

Upstairs in the civic centre, the Labour group is mourning Smith, who had been due to visit the town on Thursday morning at the time he was fighting for his life. Like the Wolverhampton councillors, the chair of Basildon Council Labour group, John Potter, had met Smith on Tuesday to celebrate Labour's council gains. He is 'gutted', but still quite confident that there are a number of worthy high-profile successors who will lead the party to victory by winning marginals such as Basildon at the next election.

Downstairs, Mrs Fontaine and a couple of neighbours are staring at pictures of possible heirs in the London Evening Standard. Mrs Fontaine's friends don't know any of the candidates. She only recognises Tony Blair. Mrs Fontaine does not have any opinion on John Smith but is sad he died 'because he was so young'.

'I didn't vote for a particular politician last week. I didn't even know who the candidate was. I just put my cross against Labour. Mrs Thatcher is the only politican I have ever voted for.'

It was Tory 'lies' about taxes, VAT on fuel and the 'des truction' of the national health service which pushed her in Labour's direction. Basildon under Tory control has also been a disappointment.

'This town has nothing in it. There are no jobs. My house is leaking. I have a plant which is growing from outside up my living-room wall. The town was just built to take the overspill from London and the buildings were put up too quick and too shoddily. It has nothing to offer my family.'

In the marketplace that Smith was to visit on Thursday, a 73-year-old card-carrying Labour member says John Smith's death is a 'terrible loss'. He does not believe the coming contest will degenerate into the old left-right battle. He can no longer place the candidates left or right because 'John Smith presented such a united front'.

The pensioner considers Gordon Brown a 'decent, serious' candidate but dismisses John Prescott as 'far too union'. 'Angela Rumbold', he insists, is not a strong enough deputy leader to oppose John Major. He means Margaret Beckett.

Adam Georgio, 48, a market trader, considered Smith 'a gentleman'. But that did not encourage him - a traditional Labour voter before the rise of the working-class Tory in Essex - to vote Labour. 'I won't be voting Tory again. They have let us down. But I won't vote Labour either. I am disillusioned with the lot of them.'

(Photographs and table omitted)

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