The nearly man of Welsh politics

John Osmond reflects on the departure, sometime maybe not so soon, of Plaid’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones

“If not now Ieuan, then when exactly?” is a question many Plaid activists will be asking today in response to his announcement that he will be standing down as leader of the party – “sometime within the first half of this Assembly term” (the full statement is here).

This semi-departure is typical of the man and his style of politics. Never go for the jugular, but always the middle way, keeping your options open. I remember at one point during the tense negotiations following the 2007 election, when a Rainbow coalition (Plaid/Conservative/Liberal Democrat) seemed on the cards with himself as First Minister, he had heard the BBC’s Vaughan Roderick declaring that the coming week was destined to be the most critical in Welsh politics for getting on half a century. “No pressure, then …” he commented with that elliptical wry smile of his.

Ieuan Wyn Jones is the nearly man of Welsh politics. After all the London Times reported him as actually being First Minister, but was a little late with the news that the Liberal Democrats, led by Kirsty Williams, had voted the option down at their fateful Llandrindod meeting.

Instead, Ieuan Wyn Jones led his party into the coalition with Labour that delivered what will be his legacy, the successful referendum of last 3 March, which saw the National Assembly’s powers cemented and enhanced. We’re not there altogether, yet, but we can claim to have a Welsh Parliament in all but name. Without Ieuan’s coalition that would not have happened.

Tantalising questions are would it have happened with a Plaid-led Rainbow coalition, and if so would Plaid have been the beneficiary in last week’s election? I think the message from Scotland is that the answer to both those questions would have been a resounding Yes. But it was not the safe option, and in the end, because of the Liberal Democrats, not an option at all. Ieuan Wyn Jones secured the referendum deal with Labour and then ensured it was put into effect. History will not take that away from him.

As always, however, there is a downside. Ieuan Wyn Jones was never a front rank leader. He was the ideal lieutenant, a backroom strategist, clearing the path for a more charismatic front man. In the mid-1990s, for example, before most others he clocked the importance of telephone canvassing and the gathering of computerised data to identify and mobilise support. This was put to good, and maybe crucial effect in the 1997 referendum. He was also one of the key strategists behind Plaid Cymru’s successful 1999 election to the Assembly when, in the famous quiet revolution and with Dafydd Wigley at the helm, Plaid won 17 seats.

Ieuan Wyn Jones’ worst moment came after the May 2003 election setback, when under his leadership the party fell back to 12 seats and Helen Mary Jones’ infamous curry house plot resulted in his premature resignation.

But he bounced back, demonstrating an inner toughness and resolution, stood for the party leadership the following September, and narrowly won. In opposition he then slowly re-built the party. A critical moment came in the summer of 2006 when he walked across Wales, meeting party members and a wide range of other people on the ground, and seemed to discover a new confidence in himself. He put in place a campaign team led by the then Carmarthen East MP Adam Price and the party went into the 2007 campaign with a clear message, a fresh image, and a sense of momentum. It was this energy that led to the One Wales agreement with Labour.

Plaid has to discover that energy again. And it can’t wait two-and-a-half years to start looking for it. In fact, it has to start now. And it can’t be with Ieuan Wyn Jones. And it can’t wait two-and-a-half years for him to ponder the right moment to leave the stage.

But where should Plaid look for the new leadership it needs? The most obvious answer is Adam Price. But he is unavailable, still on his sabbatical leave as a Fulbright scholar at Harvard in the States, and crucially not in the Assembly where, under the party’s constitution, Plaid has to find its leader.

What are the options? There are a number of front line figures who could make a fist of the leadership – in particular the former Ministers Elin Jones and Alun Ffred Jones. But what would be their vision for the party, other than more of much the same? The Rhondda’s Leanne Wood represents a younger generation who has articulated a vision in terms of the party embracing a radical green agenda as a clear alternative to steady as you go Cardiff Bay centrist politics. She could also offer to lead Plaid through more than one Assembly. However, coming from the relatively far left of the party she is not calculated to unify it, and would be unlikely to succeed in a contest.

What the party needs is someone who can be a bridge, between its tormented present and the potential for some more sunlit uplands in the medium-term future. In Plaid Cymru’s ranks there is such a figure who happens to be the most talented, mercurial and charismatic politician available, one whose reach extends beyond the party. He is controversial to be sure, and one who in the past has gone out of his way to offend his own kind. Step forward Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas who, relieved of the position of Presiding Officer, seems to be discovering an appetite for some red-blooded political engagement. And he has never been short of vision, albeit one that constantly shifts to accommodate the spirit of the age. But as with the giant king Bendigeidfran in the Mabinogi, he who would lead should be a bridge …

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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