Leanne Wood has had a decent first six months as Plaid Cymru leader. Her personal strengths have served her well: she speaks English as her first language and is a relatively young woman who gives a sense of being in touch. Most importantly she is undoubtedly a politician of integrity.
In a harsher political environment however, her mistakes would have cost her dear. She under-performs in the Assembly chamber and mishandled the temporary suspension of former leader Dafydd Elis Thomas in July. Luckily for her these sorts of things are second order issues in Welsh politics.
Honeymoons never last and soon Leanne is going to have to show there is some substance here. Picking on social media initiatives will not do that. Instead she could learn from the SNP by being a populist, centrist, thorn in Labour’s side – especially as some in Welsh Labour are still in thrall to vested interests and pressure groups.
So far, though, she has been frightened to do that, which might be good news for Labour. However, it is not so great for those of us who think Welsh politics needs to end its obsession with the powers and status of the Assembly and finally – 13 years late – have a serious debate about the country’s direction.
I do not doubt Leanne’s commitment to opening up politics to more people is sincere. But the ‘wiki manifesto’ she announced this week is not going to achieve that, nor, I think, will it translate into electoral success for her party.
Plaid Cymru have made this mistake before. Overconfidence in social media was a problem for them in 2011 when their communications team devoted a disproportionate amount of time and effort to complex and ultimately fruitless ventures like PlaidLive. This came at the expense of a proper media strategy and engagement with newspapers and broadcasters. There is a danger that the wiki manifesto could cause a similar problem if, in the run up to the 2016 election, the policy unit has to devote hours to administering this new process when they should be putting together a serious policy platform.
There is no silver bullet to electoral success for Plaid Cymru or any party. New, American-imported campaign initiatives serve as a short-term distraction from more fundamental and difficult challenges that need to be confronted. In Plaid Cymru’s case, this is why, regardless of personalities or policies, a high proportion of the population of Wales simply refuse to listen to them.
A wiki manifesto and the open selection process in Ceredigion will, despite best intentions, succeed only in drawing in the already politically engaged and pressure groups that already have too much influence on the way Plaid, and Wales, is run.
The party would be better spending money on polling and focus groups in eastern parts of Wales to hear what people really think of them there. That would not provide the same media hit but investment in qualitative research will pay dividends in the long term.
Plaid Cymru elected Leanne Wood because she convinced them she was serious about winning and was willing to take real risks to get there. Now she needs to show some mettle by taking on the more unappealing elements in her party and engaging the electorate directly with messages and policies which cut through on the doorstep. If it does not become a distraction, perhaps a wiki manifesto can be part of the answer, but it does not go anywhere near far enough.
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