1982 - Figures in a blasted landscape

Between thumb and forefinger, Hubert Morgan hopefully massages the tarry corpse of an extinct cigar, ferociously smoked to the dimensions of a cold and toxic Toffo. "Politics in South Wales," he says, "has always been Labour and anti-Labour. The antis go by different names but it is always the same people." Morgan is running the Labour campaign of Gareth Wardell in the Gower by-election. A 10,000 majority in 1979 but, as Morgan says, they are all marginal in by-elections.

Wardell is late, campaigning, and the conversation drifts. "How well do you know the area?" asks Morgan.

"I haven't lived here for 12 years."

"I remember 12 years ago this area was alive. Industry being reborn. And now whole communities being destroyed."

The statements come in threes, climbing escalators of emphasis to italicised outrage. I remember, 12 years ago, tower blocks sprouting in bombsites and in the parks of the old squirearchy. Builders in sharkskin suits and Rolls-Royces on the never-never; new casinos opening every month; wife-swapping scandals down the Mumbles; Labour council leaders going to jail for fraud; and a new word for a strange new aristocracy - the Taffia. But Swansea, and the industrial hinterland of north Gower, have changed: 6,000 jobs gone at BSC Port Talbot; 600 at Velindre tinplate; two collieries left from 17; 16.3 per cent on the dole; and the fastest growth of long-term unemployment in Wales. It goes on and on.

Still no Wardell, and silence hangs heavy with the smoke in the Labour offices. "Shall I put you down as constituency agent?" I ask. Morgan is mildly miffed. "I am secretary of the Labour Party in Wales," he says. Of course he is. Knew it all along. Just testing. Phone numbers are exchanged and then it is back among the rain-soaked terraces of Gorseinon. Labour heartland. Since the Liberal decline there has been little serious opposition to Labour in the valleys. The middle class have had little influence because there is hardly such a thing as a middle class - in South Wales you are either poor, or you become a teacher, or you move to England.

Labour's Gareth Wardell is a teacher at Carmarthen training college. SDP man Gwynoro Jones is an educational administrator. The Tory, Trefor Llewellyn, neither poor nor a teacher, works as an accountant in Hampshire. But they are all out on doorsteps this windy Saturday.

The poor men in the election are easier to track down. The Civil Rights candidate, computer programmer David Burns, resides in Cardiff jail, remanded on explosives charges. Almost as poor is Chris Farnsworth of the Computer Democrats, who lives on the dole and the income from a "failed health-food shop" in Pontardulais. He believes Parliament should be replaced by referendums on home computers. "I know nothing about computers," he says. "The idea came from the Bible." His only policy is to tell the people the truth, which is, he believes, 90 per cent unemployment by the year 2000. "Where did the money for the deposit come from?" I ask. No hesitation: "From the Chinese embassy."

When the three main candidates finally turn up on Sunday they are less interesting. Tory Trefor Llewellyn is the only non-Welsh speaker of the three, in a constituency where 47 per cent use the language. "Can't pronounce his own name," says Wardell contemptuously, producing a Jan Leeming impersonation that rhymes his rival with Clever Lou-Ellen. Nothing annoys the Welsh like news readers who pronounce Zimbabwe better than Llanelly.

A fairly moist Conservative, Llewellyn has issued a document on unemployment that uses the word "compassion" no fewer than three times and promises to "build on our successes" with more cash for expansion all round. With good looks, stunning wife and charming baby daughter he should go far, but not in Gower. Not this election. Not this government.

The most professional and least likeable of the three is Jones SDP, or Gwynoro, as he likes to call himself. The former Labour MP for Carmarthen, he can rattle off precise lists of local issues and is the best-known name among the electors. His particular cross is an untimely defection to the SDP, only three weeks after losing the Labour nomination for Gower.

Leading in the polls is Wardell, who has a Neil Kinnock accent and a way with the words. "Militant Tendency is a product of Thatcherism," he says. "Dogmatism of the right creates dogmatism of the left and I have no time for either." He is pro- unilateral disarmament, anti-Common Market, anti-Militant and pro-pay policy. When he gets to the Commons, as he surely must, he will not know which gang to join.

As the Paddington train pulls up the Swansea Valley on Sunday night, loaded with the non-poor and non-teachers, there still seems to be a hole in the middle of the election. These three all agree. Not on national issues, but on local ones like restoration of development area status, increased public investment, new industries. They are all the same.

In the past, the desperation of industrial Wales found comfort in millennialist preachers and primitive socialism. Can it now find comfort in these three nice men, carefully manoeuvring over the barren middle ground of social meliorism? In the blasted landscape of the Lower Swansea Valley, the demand of eccentric Chris Farnsworth takes a small step towards plausibility. "They should tell people the truth," he says, and perhaps they should.

Like question marks over the truth, the giant disused dock cranes glide past the carriage window with the gutted warehouses, the filled canals and stagnant craters of a commercial Passchendaele. The worst industrial desert in Europe. Heartland.