Leading Article: A chance to bring change to the Welsh Assembly

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The Independent Culture
WHAT REALLY matters about Ron Davies being deprived of his car, mobile phone and political career at knife-point in Brixton is not the questions it leaves unanswered about his walk on the Common, but the chance it offers for a fresh start in Welsh politics. Although Mr Davies and his family deserve our sympathy, the tone of some of his premature obituaries has been one of insincere hagiography.

What is striking about Mr Davies's legacy is not that he won the referendum on home rule for Wales, but that he very nearly lost it. He has real achievements to his name, but we should be clear about what they are. He was engaged in the tough business of dragging Welsh Labour politics out of the culture of machine politics, a culture in-bred by decades of rule by one-party local government statelets. To have brought the Wales Labour Party round to the idea of a system of proportional top-up for elections to the Welsh assembly, Cardiff's own mini-Jenkins, was a great blow for pluralism. And this was accompanied by a welcome use of the language of inclusion and consensus.

But Mr Davies was more part of the problem of Welsh politics than he was part of the solution. He was essentially a fixer whose democratic and pluralistic flourishes were there for decoration. He was never a Blairite - and it is to be expected that a Welsh national leader would be more left wing than his United Kingdom counterpart - but he often reinforced the worst aspects of the Prime Minister's governing style. The desire to exert control over the Labour Party from the centre, and thus to stifle genuine pluralism, was transmitted with no loss of vigour from London to Cardiff and beyond.

It is this very centralising instinct that has placed Tony Blair in such an awkward position, now that Mr Davies has gone. Although other candidates will no doubt enter the lists, the early choice for leader of the Labour Party in Wales, and therefore the country's likely first "prime minister", seems to be one between a front-man and a rebel. The new Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Michael, is an excellent minister and a fluent Welsh speaker, but he lacks the halo of charisma that is required for the task of national leadership, and is very much in Mr Blair's pocket.

In the red corner, meanwhile, is Rhodri Morgan, the former front-bench spokesman who failed to get a job in government and then proceeded to get up the noses of the control-freak tendency by summoning the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, and the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, to give evidence to the admirably independent Public Administration select committee, which he chairs.

If the Prime Minister is opposed to Mr Morgan's becoming first minister of Wales, however, he is being foolish. Mr Morgan is an intelligent and engaging politician who is different in one striking respect from the buttoned-up clones and yes-men who clutter up the lists of candidates approved by Labour's National Executive: he has a sense of humour. When Jeremy Paxman asked whether he would stand, he replied: "Do one-legged ducks swim in a circle?" For this we suspect the people of Wales would forgive him a great deal.

The Prime Minister has a dictum about turning problems into opportunities, and Mr Davies's departure offers the chance to go back and correct at least two mistakes. One was Labour's response to last year's referendum, won by a narrow 0.3 per cent margin, which was triumphalist when it should have been humble. Labour should have acknowledged the assembly's fragile mandate and modified its proposals in an attempt to widen support for it. The second was the manner of Mr Davies's selection as first minister candidate, which was decided by an old-style electoral college made up of block votes. Mr Morgan argued for one member, one vote, but the centralisers would not allow it.

Whoever is chosen to succeed Mr Davies - and there is no reason why the candidate should be restricted to the already-approved pool of candidates for the assembly elections - Mr Blair must return to the modernising gospel he once preached, and ensure that the choice is made by the broadest possible one person, one vote ballot, like the one that elected him.

This would both help to open up the closed culture of the Welsh Labour movement, and imbue Labour's candidate with a broad-based legitimacy which Mr Davies frankly lacked. Until this week, if Mr Davies had been asked to attend an identity parade the average Welsh voter would have had some difficulty picking him out.