The New Statesman Interview - Rhodri Morgan

Wales's very own La Pasionara, full of flash and fire, defies the Labour machine and takes on Tony B

A single strand of purple and silver Christmas decoration hangs from the door of Rhodri Morgan's campaign office near Cardiff Castle; the remainder spills from a carrier bag dumped just inside the door. It is difficult to avoid the sense that for Morgan the party is over, that this large, loud and hugely popular man who has twice in a year taken on the official Downing Street candidate to lead the Welsh Assembly is about to come second again.

Morgan himself says I'm wrong, that his all-volunteer campaign team is recording an 80-20 lead in telephone interviews with Labour Party members in Wales. But ordinary party members will not determine who leads them in the new Welsh Assembly. The decision will be made by a three-section electoral college whose intricacy would have delighted the architects of Tammany Hall.

In the constituency section, no one seriously disputes that Morgan is well ahead (though perhaps not by as much as 80-20), but the news is not so good in the trade union section. The engineering union, with the biggest single block vote, will support Alun Michael, the Secretary of State for Wales and Morgan's opponent. Though the majority at a delegate meeting was only six to four, the rules say that Michael must get all the votes. The Transport and General Workers Union has also declared for Michael. The picture is more confused at the GMB but, like the T&G, it will not hold a membership ballot. Only Unison, of the big four unions, will ballot its members and, if Morgan loses that, he's finished.

If he wins, however, the issue may be decided by the third section of the college: Labour MPs and MEPs and candidates for the Welsh Assembly. And, given that Morgan is well behind among the 39 MPs and MEPs but well ahead among the 40 candidates selected for first-past-the-post seats in the assembly, the whole election could hinge on the votes of 20 people. These are the candidates on the supplementary list who will gain seats by proportional voting rules on 6 May. They are all controlled by the Labour machine and, since it is impossible to imagine the party placing more than ten such list candidates in a 60-seat assembly, one wonders why there are as many as 20.

So it is difficult to contest Morgan's verdict that the rules for this marathon contest "are old Labour, not new Labour, pre-John Smith not post-John Smith". They are certainly less democratic than the rules that gave Tony Blair the leadership of the party.

Morgan rails against the "machine politics, massive majorities, gerontocracy, abuse of power and culture of arrogance" which, over decades, have impoverished Wales both economically and culturally. "There is a struggle for the soul of the Labour Party in Wales," he says, "between the machine politicians who cluster around the Secretary of State - the Labour local government leaders and the people who get the MBEs and the jobs on the quangos - and the grass roots or those who want to bring the grass roots in. The quango people are quaking in their boots and the same applies to Freemasons. People who are both on quangos and who are Freemasons are quaking in both boots."

His support comes from "people who have spent all their careers trying to break up dinosaur-style Welsh politics and often paid a heavy price for that". This is a battle not between two candidates, but between two views of how devolution should unfold: Wales has a choice between La Pasionara or the low-key but effective cabinet minister who shares many Welsh doubts about devolution.

What is said in public (or semi-public by the spin-doctors) concentrates mainly upon style since, bizarrely, neither candidate is allowed to issue a policy manifesto - policy is determined by yet another part of the Labour Party's re-oiled machinery. But the personal line of attack is clear enough: Rhodri Morgan is a loose cannon, a talker not a doer, when Wales needs a subtle administrator, able to mesh its new political institutions with the old ones back in Whitehall and Westminster. This is a view that hisses around the Cardiff cocktail-party circuit, where holders of mighty offices whisper that Morgan would run Wales like a branch of the National Union of Students. Alun Michael is all that stands between Wales and political infantilism. Occasionally, a well-dressed woman will draw you into a corner and suggest that, secretly, she hopes Rhodri will win.

As I display this charge-sheet to Morgan, who will be 60 next birthday, his carefully rehearsed posture of calm slips just a little. "Alun and I entered the House of Commons at the same time. I could point out that at the time I had been the highest-paid civil servant in Wales, running all the European Community programmes here. Alun was running a youth club in Cardiff. But if I'd said that I'd rightly have been regarded as an appalling snob." Nor can he see force in the argument that, compared with Michael, he lacks ministerial experience, since both men backed the experience-free Blair against Margaret Beckett for the party leadership.

Despite his background, Morgan's style is anything but that of the civil servant. He has promised a freedom of information code ahead of the delayed legislation in the UK. Asked about the future of the monarchy, he replies briskly that it must "Scandinavianise or die". Asked about his country's feelings for the Prince of Wales, he can't be bothered to duck and replies: "It's not a particularly strong relationship." He declares that we have entered "the most important three-month period in the history of Wales". There is, he insists, "absolutely no desire for independence" in Wales, but all the difference in the world between what he offers and an assembly led by someone who primarily represents the link with London and the obsolete office of Secretary of State. His rival offers "followership not leadership" and the stream of cabinet colleagues who have come from London to support Michael's campaign is simply more evidence of it.

This is the Rhodri Morgan his supporters love. Jan Morris, the writer and historian of Wales, describes him as "full of flash and fire". "What we need," she says, "is a figurehead of the flamboyant Welsh kind, the Lloyd George kind perhaps, bold, outrageous, entertaining, unconventional, moving. Can you imagine Alun Michael in this theatrically demanding role?"

But those who calculate with greater circumspection, whether the portly power-brokers of Cardiff or the worn farmers of mid and west Wales, are not looking for theatre. They want money well spent and relief from prolonged economic distress. Many of them detest the idea of more politicians per square mile.

Morgan agrees that the economy is easily the most important question and presents himself as something of an expert: in his Welsh Office days, he helped bring to Wales the driver and vehicle licensing centre, the Royal Mint and a chunk of the Inland Revenue. He is also experienced in luring big foreign investors, where Wales enjoyed some notable successes in the 1980s.

But there are problems here with which Welsh politics has scarcely grappled. How come a country so good at attracting big investors has stayed so poor, and indeed become relatively poorer? The Conservative Party in Wales has not enjoyed a majority at any election since the introduction of the secret ballot in 1868 ("it's a relationship based on trust and understanding - we don't trust them and they don't understand us," says Morgan). So shouldn't Labour accept some responsibility for this most critical of failures? And why should anyone believe that the latest bag of Euro-loot, which will come with the agreement that its first objective is to help those on the poverty line in mid and west Wales, will be any better spent?

Morgan lacks a wholly convincing answer. He attacks the Tory characterisation of Wales as a place for low-wage, deregulated jobs, but insists that he is pro-business. His current line is that Wales should learn from the Celtic tiger, Ireland, to attract "clusters" of related businesses, rather than place its faith in mega-deals, like the half-complete LG silicon chip plant, now undermined by troubles in faraway Korea. He speaks of directing more resources towards "community enterprise, local enterprise or indigenous firms", but it's not entirely clear how.

There's also haziness at the heart of Morgan's fiery position on quangos - it is irresistible as an assault upon a decayed political oligopoly, but perhaps naive in its confidence that the democratic structures that preceded quangocracy could easily reassume the burden again today. When Morgan proposes to cut the number of quangos in Wales from over a hundred to "fewer than half a dozen", you have to question the detail. His ideas on the health service, for example, which hosts a quarter of all quangos, appear to involve relocating power to general practitioners and local government committees, neither of them triumphant exemplars of open, democratic politics. Tellingly, he has no plans to demolish the superquango that will allocate economic grants.

Morgan is being forced to think beyond the rhetorical simplicities of the democratic populism his supporters adore. Those who know him best say that he is indeed ready to make the adaptation of style necessary to hold high office, but that Wales still needs the decisive emotional and intellectual break he offers. Wales, they point out, is a country that has never been able to make up its mind about England: Scotland has its own farmers' union, Wales has two - one a subdivision of the UK National Farmers' Union, the other a Wales-only breakaway body.

"The other side represents the view that, after 6 May, we're still very much part of the same system," says Morgan. "My view is that we have to take our own decisions and be as creative as we can with the resources available." It is a pitiable paradox that a judgement on this historic question will be so heavily stained by voices from smoke-filled rooms.