Bevan's home town keeps old Labour's flag flying

Barrie Clement
Thursday 29 June 2006 00:00
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There is surprisingly little to commemorate Aneurin Bevan in his home town of Tredegar in south Wales.

The father of the NHS - and one of the finest orators to grace Parliament - is remembered in small plaques, a medical centre and further afield by a group of roughly hewn stones on a hill above the former steel town of Ebbw Vale.

Perhaps Bevan's most impressive monument in the constituency, though, has been the 19,000-vote majority regularly commanded by Labour in general elections. Blaenau Gwent was the party's safest seat in Wales - until last year.

For the last election, Labour's high command in London insisted on an all-woman shortlist of parliamentary candidates and Maggie Jones, an ultra-loyal Blairite, was duly selected. Ms Jones then suffered one of the biggest electoral reverses in the history of the party, ceding a 9,000 majority to an Independent Labour candidate. Ms Jones was given a peerage for her pains.

Today the voters of Blaenau Gwent will go to the polls once more. The election has been prompted by the death of Peter Law, a former Labour councillor who stood against Ms Jones and won spectacularly.

Mr Law died in April of a brain tumour.

Owen Smith is the fresh standard bearer for Labour, but one who has been selected locally. Mr Smith, a former BBC journalist, was a special adviser to the former Welsh secretary Paul Murphy. A dyed-in-the wool New Labourite, he works as a lobbyist for the American drug company Pfizer.

Mr Law's agent, Dai Davies, a shop steward at Ebbw Vale steelworks before it closed in 2002, is standing as an Independent Labour candidate, while Mr Law's widow, Trish, is standing for the Welsh Assembly on a similar platform against John Hopkins, the Labour council leader.

Mr Davies, an electrician, is convinced that if Nye Bevan were still alive he would have nothing to do with New Labour. "They have been walking around with clipboards asking people about their concerns. Well why don't they bloody well know about those concerns by now?" he asked. "About the unemployment, the drug problem, the affordable housing problem. They have been taking this place for granted for years and years and now the worm has turned."

There is a degree of confidence in the highly organised Labour campaign that the worm, having turned once, will probably turn back to Labour. Mr Smith argues that Mr Bevan would be four-square behind the NHS reforms being introduced by the Government, including the concept of giving patients "choice". He said: "Aneurin Bevan was a pragmatist and those who think otherwise don't know their history."

Referring to Bevan's "fight to set up the NHS" amid opposition from senior members of the medical profession, he said: "He stuffed consultants' mouths with gold to ensure the NHS was established. He knew about hard choices and he would understand that we are living in a very different age."

Mr Smith insists that the growing unpopularity of the Prime Minister has not been a factor on the doorstep. "The Prime Minister is not a big issue. This is very much a by-election. Local issues are head and shoulders above other concerns."

Labour apparatchiks from London have been conspicuous by their absence in this campaign. There have been few ministerial appearances apart from a visit from Gordon Brown. The Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, turned up and apologised for the party's insistence on an all-woman shortlist.

Maureen Edwards, a former shop manager and school meal supervisor, was one Labour loyalist who voted for the rebel but will be returning to the fold this time round. "I'm born and bred Labour and I'm hoping this time they will keep their promises, but to be honest, do any of them?"

Mandy Summers, a 31-year-old former single parent, voted Labour last time and will do so again. "Maggie Jones was a strong enough candidate," she said. "She didn't need an all-woman shortlist."

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