Q & A with Alun Michael

Peter Le Riche

Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 2

How do you think students can become involved in the Assembly ?

I think students can have a very positive role if it’s thought through properly.  I think there are many students who are involved in political activity in the Students’ Union or within the Universities political clubs and Labour clubs and certainly I learnt a lot through being involved in student politics during my time at university and I think that it can be carried into the work of political parties with a degree of liveliness and also taken into a debate about things which affect students with the assembly as a whole.

I think if that’s going to happen, though it should happen with a different type of involvement from Students than having Students Union debates of the sort that reflect the activities of the Oxford Union and therefore the worst aspects of parliamentary debate in the House of Commons.

I think it’s possible to have debates that are more creative than that and the involvement of students in a more positive way, perhaps looking at students trying to contribute evidence to Assembly committees when they deal with particular issues, in other words, accentuating the positive.

How much involvement is the Assembly going to have in education?

It will have the full responsibility for education in Wales and there will be an increased budget for Higher Education during the course of the next three years.  How it carries out that responsibility, the Assembly will have to decide.

I believe it’s likely that there will be a committee which will take responsibility for education generally and therefore will look at the work of universities as well as schools and colleges.  I think that the way the Assembly develops with an Assembly secretary taking that responsibility and a committee both of which will have more time than a single minister in the current situation will lead to more opportunities for debate.

The national press have recently described you as a poodle for Tony Blair, how would you react to that ?

I think I’m getting a bit fed up of hearing that really, because I don’t think there’s any truth in it and it makes most people who me laugh just to hear it.

I think if people have to be characterized as dogs and I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate, then people would be more likely to characterize me as a Terrier because I tend to argue my corner and  hang on in with things and certainly that would be Tony Blair’s experience because I worked as his deputy for a period of time and some of the policies that we came out on with Law and Order and crime reduction and nipping things in the bud with young offenders and doing constructive things with young people bear very much the hall mark of my own experience working with young offenders in the Cardiff area.

I don’t think there’s any fairness in the characterization, it’s one of those things that has been an irritation in the campaign because when something gets settled in the heads of national journalists they tend to repeat it time and again.

Do you think you could offer something more than Rhodri Morgan, having already been Welsh Secretary for some time ?

I think what I bring to the table is firstly experience, not just as a cabinet minister and as a minister responsible for taking legislation through and bringing about change but the fact that I’ve got experience in local government as a community worker, as a youth worker, as a magistrate and as a councillor and for working in the areas between statutory and voluntary organisations.

I’ve managed to pack quite a lot of experience into my life to date and most of that experience has been relevant to the work of the Assembly and it has been successful in terms of managing and bringing about change, so I think that’s what I bring to the table, the ability to work with other people and bringing an atmosphere of cooperation but also bringing an atmosphere of can do and get on and let’s do and I think that’s crucial, it musn’t just be a debating chamber.

How much effect or difference do you think the assembly will make to people in north Wales who will be living so far away from the Assembly?

I think it will make a big difference to people in every part of Wales I think the challenge is to persuade people in every part of Wales that it is not going to be to the advantage of someone different.  One of the great characteristics all of us in Wales is that we have splits and divisions.  There are arguments between north and south, the valleys and the sea, the rural and urban areas east and west and everybody feels that they are in the minority.

If we can get to the situation where we can celebrate the diversity of different regions of  Wales which I think the regional committees will make possible, if we create that sense of partnership and identity in every part of Wales so that Wales as a whole is seen as untied in diversity if you like, rather than having to be the same as other parts of Wales then I think the Assembly will make a significant step forward for people every where but I think the people in the North and Mid Wales will have to most to gain from that.

Aber’s International Politics department has done some research which suggests that if Labour do well in the first round of the elections, you may loose your place.  How do you feel about that ?

I think lots of people have done lots of sums about what might be the possible outcomes and if you’re a candidate in an election this can be deeply disturbing  and worrying whereas it’s quite good entertainment for those who are not directly participating.  All I can says is that I’ve done my sums with my friends and supporters and am confident of the result in May.  You can never guarantee the result of any election until the last vote is counted.

Do you think there’s a danger that because the power of the Assembly will not be as powerful as the Scottish Parliament, people will just see it as another useless level of local government between them and Westminister ?

I don’t think that is the case myself.  They are taking over a budget of between seven and eight billion pounds and all the responsibilities of the Welsh Office and I can tell you with certainty, having dealt with some of those issues in opposition and in government, there is more than enough to keep the Assembly secretaries and members of the Assembly busy doing constructive things without worrying that they may run out of things to do.

Finally, why did you come to Aberystwyth ?

I came to Aberystwyth for two reasons: one is that I gave an undertaking to go to every part of Wales, to every local authority area, to take part in debate and discussion and listen to people’s questions as a way of engaging with people and opening up the role of Secretary of State and of preparing for the Assembly

The second is that I came to Ceredigion before Christmas when I came to discuss the future of the Health Service in Wales and I promised at that time that I would make an announcement about the future of the Health Service in Ceredigion and carry that sort of discussion and debate forward.

At the end of the day what I have set out to do is obey the injunction of the saying he who wishes to be a leader must be a bridge and I am seeking to be a bridge between all parts of Wales, not just the north and the south but also mid and West Wales so that we can seek to create unity and diversity across Wales which I think is the way to release energy for the Assembly to become a powerhouse for Wales rather than just a debating chamber.