The Hair and the Tortoise wait on Wales

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WHEN RHODRI MORGAN and Alun Michael last competed against each other, in the London marathon, the maverick backbencher beat the current Secretary of State for Wales by more than an hour.

As the gruelling race to become Labour candidate for First Secretary of Wales reaches its climax today, they will be virtually neck and neck this time as they stumble over the line.

The only certainty is that Tony Blair will be sweating more than either of the contestants.

After three months of vitriol, back-biting and claim and counter-claim, the party's choice to lead it into May's Welsh Assembly elections will finally be announced in Cardiff today. Labour officials will unveil the result in a hotel overlooking Cardiff Bay, the shiny new development and site of the Assembly that aims to symbolise the dynamic New Wales.

However, the outcome itself will be decided by a typically Old Wales Labour device of an electoral college that stacks up votes with a Byzantine complexity.

In a system that Michael supporters quaintly depict as reflecting the Labour "family", and Morgan supporters describe as a "stitch-up", the college is split into three equal parts.

Trade unions and affiliated organisations make up the first section, MPs, MEPs and Assembly candidates make up the second, while the humble individual party members make up the third.

A combination of educated guesses and declared intentions suggests that Mr Michael has won most trade union votes, an outcome confirmed by the GMB's crucial backing for him yesterday. With the MPs and candidates section also likely to go, by a slim margin, for the Secretary of State, the deciding vote will be down to the 25,000 party members.

Mr Morgan is widely anticipated to come out on top among the grass roots, but he may need 70 per cent of the votes to win. The margin of overall victory could be 0.5 per cent. Or, as the candidate himself succinctly puts it, "as tight as a gnat's arse".

Since it was precipitated by Ron Davies's "moment of madness" on Clapham Common in south London last October, nothing about this contest has been straightforward.

Mr Morgan, MP for Cardiff West, began as favourite after coming second to Big Ron in the leadership fight last year. Quick-witted and always armed with a ready quote, polls showed that he was much more popular with the public than thedogged, taciturn Mr Michael.

The cheery, garrulous Morgan approach was exemplified by his response to whether he would stand again for the First Secretary's job: "Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?"

Renowned for his laid-back dress sense, Mr Morgan had even undergone something of a makeover to help his chances. His lumberjack shirts and tracksuits were swapped for neat jacket-and-tie combos. His trademark unruly hair, once a proud Afro to rival Don King's, was trimmed to respectability.

However, the great race of the Tortoise and the Hair soon descended into bitterness, with each side flinging mud enthusiastically about the other's tactics, character and ability.

Mr Michael, 55, was derided as a Taffy-come-lately, a man with little commitment or interest in Wales and devolution. For his part, 59-year- old Mr Morgan was accused of being a "crypto-nationalist" after some of his supporters were alleged to have called for a breakaway Wales Labour Party.

While the polls showed that most Labour members backed Mr Morgan, it became clear that the contest could be decided by the block votes of a handful of trade unionists. Those unions who did ballot members invariably came out for the backbencher by huge margins.

Local parties were also furious about the new list system for MEPs and the Assembly and were forced to accept candidates imposed by the party executive. Mr Michael became a candidate on the top-up list in Mid and West Wales despite the opposition of local members.

When Mr Blair decided to make three trips to Wales to bolster the chances of his Welsh Secretary, it became clear that for the Labour leadership this was much more than a little local difficulty in an obscure internal party contest. It was a trial of strength for New Labour.

"It has been the worst combination of Old Labour vote-rigging and New Labour control freakery," concluded Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West.

Both men have tried to stick to meaty issues such as jobs, education and health, but with so few powers available to any future Prime Minister of Wales, the contest has inevitably centred on personalities.

His opponents claim that Mr Morgan is too much of a "clown", he is "unserious", "a sayer not a doer" who has no experience of running government. None of the barbs appear to have unsettled him. "I think you have to have broad shoulders in any election campaign.

"If you've ever played rugby, there's always going to be a lot of barging in the line-out and elbowing in the teeth," he explained. "But after the game you have to just go into the bar and have a pint with the person who thumped you. You forget all about it over faggots and peas."

On the eve of the all-important vote, Mr Michael also claimed to have enjoyed the contest, though he admitted he was "relieved" it was nearly over. "I have enjoyed it far more than I expected.

"The idea that I'm some sort of Downing Street poodle is totally untrue. Tony Blair knows that I can be a terrier and I will fight my corner."

When Wales meet Ireland at Wembley in the Five Nations this afternoon, both men will be settling down to watch the game on television. A meeting for a pint over faggots and peas is, however, as likely as one-legged ducks swimming in a straight line.