Alun Michael narrowly wins Welsh vote

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The Independent Online
IN THE end, the Prime Minister had his way and Alun Michael was crowned Labour leader in Wales.

But it was a close-run thing, and for many in Labour's symbolic heartland, there was little pleasure in the election of the man Tony Blair wants to preside over the principality's first National Assembly.

It may yet turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory; the Welsh Secretary is by no means assured of a seat in the assembly, after the 60-strong body is elected on 6 May.

But his defeat of the backbench MP Rhodri Morgan by little more than 5 per cent will bring some comfort to New Labour's Millbank machine, which orchestrated a highly disciplined campaign to deliver the result the leadership wanted.

The result of the bruising contest was announced yesterday morning at the St David's Hotel, a five-star establishment on Cardiff's waterfront owned by Sir Rocco Forte, a staunch Tory and friend of William Hague.

Mr Michael clearly savoured the occasion, as well he might, given the traumas of the three-month battle.

The occasion was pure theatre, played out before an audience of more than 200 Labour faithfuls - MPs, Assembly candidates and party workers - packing the hotel's conference room.

Mr Morgan won a standing ovation for a speech in which he declared: "I don't feel like a loser - a runner-up yes, a loser, no. I would like to thank Alun for the way in which he contested the battle. "

Mr Michael also stressed the need for unity, declaring: "I promise to be a bridge to unite Wales."

But waiting outside the hotel, pensioner James Mullett, a party member for 38 years, said disconsolately: "The election was stitched up with the trade unions holding the aces. I think Labour has been damaged."

Ms Gretta Albinus, 37, said: "Rhodri Morgan is an inspiration to everyone who meets him."

The MP for Gower, Martin Caton, said: "We all accept the result and will unite behind Alun Michael. But after the Assembly elections the party must review its procedures."

Mr Michael's slender margin - 52.68 per cent of an electoral college vote to Morgan's 47.32 per cent - was achieved thanks to some Old Labour fixes promoted by New Labour's paragons. Anxious to ensure that Mr Michael was shoehorned into the job, Millbank relied on the union block vote to win the day.

The electoral college gave one third of the vote to Labour MPs, MEPs and Assembly candidates, a third to the unions and a third to party members, who in a postal ballot gave Mr Morgan 8,850 votes and Mr Michael 4,903 votes. The MEPs went for Mr Michael by 58.43 per cent to 41.57 per cent.

The clincher was delivered by trade union heavies. Had they balloted their members, Mr Morgan believes he would have triumphed - as he did when Unison consulted its 50,000 members, who split three to one in his favour.

But the big hitters - the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, the Transport and General Workers, and the GMB, which between them controlled nearly 20 per cent of the total electoral college vote - eschewed the ballot and gave their block votes to Michael.

That handed the Welsh Secretary a 63.96 per cent to 36.02 per cent advantage in the unions' share of the ballot.

During the campaign, Tony Blair visited Wales three times in less than three months, declaring: "I make no apology for supporting Alun Michael. I think he's a great guy. I put my seal of approval on him the day I appointed him Secretary of State for Wales."

Attempts to discredit Mr Morgan as the temperature rose descended into farce. After a Western Mail telephone poll recorded 5,518 Morgan supporters and 559 for Michael, Peter Hain, junior minister at the Welsh Office and Mr Michael's campaign manager, alleged that nationalists and Tories were to blame because they feared a Michael victory.

Mr Blair persuaded his favourite to stand for the leadership shortly after Ron Davies resigned as Welsh Secretary and party leader in Wales following his nocturnal walk on Clapham Common.

Before the move, Mr Michael had won praise as an able number two to Jack Straw at the Home Office.

But his campaign was marred by tetchy TV performances - Jeremy Paxman mauled him on Newsnight - and whingeing over alleged biased press coverage.

Attention now switches to the Assembly elections on 6 May. Labour activists resent what they perceive as Millbank's interference.

When earlier this month NOP took the Welsh electorate's temperature, it found Mr Morgan to be the favourite by three to one. It also found that under his leadership Labour would win 64 per cent of the Assembly poll, compared with 55 per cent should Mr Michael be at the helm.

In the wake of yesterday's thin victory, which saw Tony Blair's chosen son home and dry, that statistic is likely to temper the relief swilling round SW1.9