A welcome difference in the Valleys

The "brilliance of Blairism", according to one minister, lies not in dramatic change but in small im

Peter Hain moved premises because he needed more space to meet his constituents. His old office is now a dog-grooming parlour. He was happy with his new place until a colourful little shop opened next door. It is called Little Amsterdam and sells a nifty line in sex aids and smoky things. You can try on a nurse's uniform, if that takes your fancy, or S&M gear, or walk out with a bong for the greater enjoyment of recreational substances. The MP for Neath, Leader of the House of Commons and one of the most important members of Tony Blair's cabinet, would love to see the shop closed down, but he's struggling. The police have looked, but cannot find a reason. How better to illustrate the limits of the modern politician?

In a recent NS interview with me, Hain had talked of the "brilliance of Blairism": it introduced radical change, he said, "without frightening the horses". In other words, it made a difference to people's lives by a succession of small steps: the politics of small things. Political journalists, as a breed, are even more cocooned than members of parliament. We have no constituency surgeries. When we do venture out, it is usually to accompany someone like Blair. Hain had suggested that I get out more and test his proposition that the Labour government has improved the lives of "ordinary" people. So I spent a couple of days in Neath, West Glamorgan - deliberately when he was not there.

Neath is classic Labour territory - among the safest seats in the land. It is one of the areas that suffered most from Margaret Thatcher's policies of the 1980s. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost in the coal mines, steel works and oil refinery. Entire communities were ravaged. Some of the worst deprivation in the UK is here.

Six and a half years on, what difference has this government made to the voters? When it comes to gripes, people seem perfectly capable of differentiating between what local and central administration can do, and between what Blair's lot and the Conservatives have done. In Wales, the assembly in Cardiff has provided an extra layer of administration (by my reckoning, opinion was evenly divided about its effectiveness), but the borough and town councils perform many of the most important functions - social services, education, employment schemes. A large number of grants come from Brussels.

My first stop is the Neath Port Talbot Hospital, a glass and concrete structure officially opened by the Prince of Wales in February. This is the first general hospital in Wales built under the private finance initiative and, by the sound of it, will probably be the last. The hospital was conceived by John Redwood when he was Welsh secretary and approved by his successor, William Hague. Labour rubber-stamped the idea of closing down the two hospitals in the neighbouring towns and replacing them with this. It is clean and bright, very different from the Victorian red-brick buildings that continue to blight the National Health Service. The atrium-style entrance, with a cafe at the centre, is a cross between a modern railway station and a chain hotel. But does it work? The evidence is mixed. The private contractors had the bright idea of putting the heating in the ceiling with the result that patients froze in the winter, forcing the trust to buy 30 electric radiators and pushing heating bills well beyond projections.

The hospital runs over budget and has trouble recruiting staff. It therefore pays over the odds for agency employees to fill the gaps. Most accident and emergency cases are taken directly to Swansea or Bridgend. Now the maternity unit has a shortage of doctors, and the management has to decide between closing it altogether or scaling it down to a midwife-led operation. Waiting times are getting no shorter here. One example among many: Vernon Morgan, a 53-year-old who runs an ironmonger's in central Neath and a well-known figure in the town, has waited three years for operations on two dodgy knees and for hip replacements. It took him 18 months just to see a specialist. He and several people I spoke to said they would have "gone private" if they had the money. Some have already. And this is a Labour heartland.

"The money is coming in, but because it's a slow trickle, people can't see it," says Sandra Miller, the Unison representative at the hospital. She says people do not necessarily blame the government. Their memories of the Thatcher and Major years have not deserted them. But according to Hain's agent, Howard Davies, mindsets have changed. Davies worked down the mines for 30 years. He was branch secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers during the bitter strikes of two decades ago. He would rather it were otherwise, but says there is no alternative to PFI because extra funds cannot be found from the public purse.

"People here talk about paying more taxes for better public services, but when it comes to the crunch they complain that they have to hand the money over," he says.

The local paper, the Neath Guardian, has led the campaign to save the maternity ward. It has also made much of discontent over two new construction projects - a secure young-offenders centre in nearby Glynneath and an electricity power station outside the village of Onllwyn. Several hundred jobs will be created, but local people are worried about the prospect of delinquent youths arriving en masse, and about the environmental consequences of a coal-burning station.

Alun Thomas, a local councillor and retired mineworker who is taking me around the villages of the Neath valley, shows me the planned sites. The "nimby" syndrome is new, he says. "Whatever happened to social solidarity in this of all places?" he asks. Quality of life, it seems, is no longer subjugated to the need for more jobs. Hain is in favour of both projects, and gets flak for both.

These are more atomised communities than they once were. The men made redundant in their forties and fifties have grown old. The big employers - the National Coal Board, British Steel - were self-contained worlds. Thomas takes me to Resolven, where Hain has his constituency home. The house has fine views of the Vale of Neath. It is up the hill and removed from a village that has little to recommend itself - a squalid local shop and two benches whose backs have been wrenched off by vandals. Half a dozen teenage boys are perched on a metal bar, the only place to sit. Thomas and I approach them and ask them how they spend their time. Hanging around, they say. What, I ask, do they expect of their government? After some sniggers they say a skateboard park, a BMX track, that sort of thing. Thomas tells them there is such a track up the road. They point out they have no transport. He suggests they should "empower" themselves and take the issue to the community council. They shrug. He pleads with them to assert their rights. They shrug again. It would not take much, we both agree as we get back into the car, to stop these boys - "good boys, they are", he insists - from getting into trouble. Someone is not doing it. A couple of miles away, at the gleaming leisure centre, the gym is empty. Not a soul using it. And people complain of antisocial behaviour: "We used to have policemen and no crime. Now we have crime and no policemen."

Jobs are being created, but not in the old ways. Business Connect is the brainchild of Graham Morris, a former BP manager. His outfit is funded by the European Commission and the borough. Last year, they helped raise about £8m for start-ups or expansions, creating up to 300 new jobs. They help people write business plans, they give advice, they help secure soft loans from risk-averse banks. "There is no heritage here for self-employment," Morris says. "It's been very slow. The last thing people thought of doing was starting their own business." His colleague Greg Kaminaris adds: "It's almost like missionary work. We try to stop people from asking what the government has ever done for them."

They are currently assessing applications from a pub singer, a driving instructor, someone who wants to start a tanning shop, a window manufacturer, a graphic designer, a portrait artist, a health therapist for asthmatics and a party organiser.

The deep pits that were scattered around the valleys have long been filled in, but perhaps the biggest change - on which the government has only marginal influence - is in people's minds. The generation now growing up in the villages has little of the social solidarity of its parents and grandparents. Among the young, particularly, a new consumerism rules, fuelled by credit. On weekend nights, even Sunday, when the bars, nightclubs and pubs in the city centre are buzzing, the place is awash with dressed-up 16- to 25-year-olds, spending hard on booze, more booze and taxis home. They are not affluent but they know how to spend.

In Neath's covered market I come across Bethan Phillips, who runs a fruit and veg stall, as did her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Business is better than it was a few years ago, because young people especially are making an active choice to buy from local traders rather than supermarkets. We talk politics. She is a Labour member. She is neither pleased with the government nor disillusioned, although she maintains Blair lied over Iraq - something several others in town said, unsolicited by me. She is angry about the war, but angrier that her mother had to wait eight hours to see a doctor at the new hospital. Our conversation is interrupted when her phone rings. It is her son, Owen. Last summer he graduated in media studies from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He failed to get a job, so earned money on a building site and travelled around eastern Europe. He's back home but about to move to Sheffield to join his girlfriend, who works at a call-centre. When he's saved enough, he's going to Vietnam to teach English.

What has the government done for him? Well, it gave him educational prospects of sorts - not that he has been able to capitalise on them. He does not expect much from Blair or anyone in national politics. In that, he seems to epitomise the different outlook of the generation growing up in the new Labour world.

What has the government done for the people of Neath? Well, tax credits, giving a few extra quid a week to the poorest. It has provided more money and more joined-up thinking for local schemes and partnerships. It has tried to get more people into education. It has still to make their health service much better. It has helped to create new jobs, not well paid, not particularly secure, but jobs nevertheless.

What Labour has not done is change the political weather. The old industries died before it came to power and the old certainties went with them. Few high-tech, high-skill jobs have come in their place. When a mining town has a surfeit of applicants for start-ups as self-employed hairdressers, there's a long way to go. That is the politics, not the brilliance, of Blairism: not radical change but helping people manage change. The politics of small things.