Thursday, 1 October 2009

After Rhodri Morgan

Posted on Comment is Free on 1 October

He entered the national consciousness with a metaphor about an amputee duck, and bowed out with an equally incongruous line about mushy peas. Rhodri Morgan likes being contrary.

The 70-year-old first minister for Wales today formally announced his retirement and triggered the race to succeed him as Labour group leader in the Welsh assembly.

True to form he kept everyone guessing about exactly when he would go, tweaking the nose of the Welsh media as he went. But while Morgan has long exasperated those in the bubble, his great gift has been his ability to project himself as a man of the people.

Even as his party provokes angry reactions from their traditional supporters, there remains a residual affection towards "Rhodri". Universally known by his first name, he is one of the few politicians people will still cross the street to greet.

His record as first minister has been mixed, but his eccentric style has served as a balm and elevated his status to that of a national leader – as likely to opine on the Welsh Rugby squad or the detailed process of steelmaking as on economic policy.

A raft of psychological studies would not properly answer the question "who is Rhodri Morgan?", so perhaps a more fruitful exercise would be "who are those who seek to succeed him?"

There are three Labour assembly members who wish to take his place when he finally relinquishes office at the turn of the year. With the powers of the national assembly limited, the differences between the candidates are as much about style as substance.

The man often described as the frontrunner is Carwyn Jones. The 42-year-old AM for Bridgend earned his spurs as agriculture minister during the foot and mouth crisis in 2001. His assured performance in a brief Labour have struggled with marked him out as the man to beat, but since then has been likened to a man carrying a crystal vase across an icy floor – afraid to make any move which could bring it all crashing down. Consequently he's been criticised for being lazyand bland. It may still be his to lose but he's got a lot of ground to make up.

The standards bearer for the left, Huw Lewis, has done well filling the vacuum left by Jones. A former party official who sees himself in the mould of Jon Cruddas, Lewis has been gathering momentum. Cast out of junior office by Morgan he has been the leading critic of Labour's coalition with Plaid Cymru in the Welsh assembly, using his valleys power base with effect. A convincing performer, he is certain to command a strong vote and will strengthen his position in the party as a result.

The wildcard candidate is health minister Edwina Hart. Her late entry into the frame has thrown the proverbial cat amongst the Cardiff Bay seagulls. Most often described as a no-nonsense politician, the former union official avoids the media unless she has something to say – and when she does demonstrates a deft populist touch that is not to everyone's taste.

Abolishing the internal market in the Welsh NHS and ruling out PFI has reinforced her popularity with the unions – who control a third of the vote in the contest. Edwina Hart's weakness is her lack of support among Welsh MPs – who share a further third of the electoral collage with assembly members. They are not so keen on being told to shove it by a woman who is more concerned with how issues play in Wales than London. For a candidate often complimented for her shoes, perhaps her real achilles heel is the majority in her Gower constituency – with just 1,192 votes separating her from the Conservatives, her footing is a little shaky.

The contest seems remarkably open, with attention already falling on the intentions of MPs and individual unions as the key to the result. But the extent to which policy and strategic challenges will be confronted is a moot point.

Labour in Wales came within an inch of being decimated at the last assembly election, and two years on their position is masked by the security of their remarkably stable coalition with Plaid Cymru. But their partners in government came within 2% of eclipsing them in June's European elections, and a resurgent Tory party that has worked hard at adopting to post-devolution politics knocked Labour off the top spot for the first time.

The party that has taken Wales for granted cannot be complacent about its position in the nation's future. Over the next eight weeks those aspiring to replace Morgan will have to show if they have a recipe for blending the mushy peas of old Labour with the guacamole of New Labour. Duck is off the menu.

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