|You are in: Special Report: 1999: 02/99: Welsh Labour leadership contest|
Wednesday, 17 February, 1999, 14:58 GMT
Alun Michael: Fighting to be first
By BBC News Online's Sarah Teasdale
If devolution had come to Wales 20 years ago, Alun Michael's career would have followed a very different route.
In 1979, Michael was in favour of a separate assembly for Wales. But the Welsh rejected devolution in a referendum by four to one and the young politician turned his attention to Westminster instead.
"I was involved in the campaign in the 1970s, which failed to win an assembly for Wales, and developing these ideas when Neil Kinnock decided we should re-open the whole devolution campaign.
"If we'd had an assembly in 1979 I would never have stood for Parliament I would have stood for the assembly but we didn't have one. If we'd had an assembly in 1979, if that referendum would have been won by a Yes vote, my political career would have been very different."
Hours after Davies resigned after a "serious lapse of judgement" on Clapham Common with a stranger, the ambitious Home Office minister was declared the new Secretary of State for Wales. Days later Davies' also quit as the party's leader in the new National Assembly of Wales, and its potential first secretary.
The resulting vacuum has seen a public struggle between Tony Blair's New Labour and "old Labour" as Michael contests the position with left-winger Rhodri Morgan, who lost to Davies in the original contest for the position.
Michael has faced criticism for being "parachuted in" to the competition by Downing Street amid fears that a Morgan-led assembly would be a backwards step for the new Labour project.
Some of the criticism has been hurtful as well as untrue, he says. Michael insists it was his decision to stand.
He says: "I went to see Tony Blair two days after he appointed me secretary of state for Wales when it became clear that Ron Davies would not be continuing as the choice of the Labour Party in Wales to lead the assembly.
"I said to him that I felt having taken immediate stock of the work of the Welsh Office and the job of establishing the assembly that it would be right for me to stand for the assembly and offer the leadership and continuity I felt was necessary.
"It is, if you like, the very same conclusions that Ron Davies reached upon becoming secretary of state for Wales, although he had a little more time to think about it, and the conclusion Donald Dewar reached in deciding to stand for the leadership of the Scottish Parliament."
"I was born and brought up in North Wales and I worked in South Wales for more than 30 years. The idea that I'm something more than inherently Welsh is most odd."
Many people have been surprised by Michael's dedication to the regional assembly, particularly when he was making such progress in the Home Office and the Cabinet.
He only confirmed last month, in an interview with BBC News Online, that he would not stand down as an assembly candidate if he did not become the party's leader.
Disagreeing with Tony
Although Michael is perceived to be a politician from the same mould as the prime minister, he is insistent he will stand up to Tony Blair as first secretary.
"If I disagree with Tony Blair I will say that I disagree with him. I worked as his deputy in home affairs in which we had many discussions in which we had to tease out the policies which later became the Labour Party's policies.
"There wasn't the question of him saying what he thought and me sitting there nodding, we engaged with some very difficult issues in order to come out with policies on which he projected and I developed with great enthusiasm both under his leadership and in working with Jack Straw."
But it is that very closeness to the prime minister and new Labour which has resulted in suspicion about his motivation.
"It should be remembered there was a lot of anger around in Wales. People were frustrated by some of the outcomes of the electoral system which was chosen.
"There's no doubt there was a backlash against the centre of the party, or the National Executive Committee, or the leadership of the party and because I've been identified as a close supporter and ally of Tony Blair's that backlash centred on me."
The twinning system which attempted to create gender balance in the assembly combined with a decision to put an English MEP on the European list higher than some Welsh candidates, were bound to cause some resentment in Wales.
He explains: "The issue was, it was not the choice of people in the Wales Labour Party and they felt they were being taken for granted."
Michael feels he was an obvious target for their resentment: "The way people's feeling came in something of a wave in November was hurtful to me, based on a lot of untruths dependent on a curious idea I had been parachuted in whereas I've been absolutely rooted in Welsh politics all my political life for 30 years."
But he says he is relishing the fight: "We now have a leadership contest and I'm quite happy with that."
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