Plaid Cymru’s leadership crisis

John Osmond says the Party of Wales is looking for someone to resolve its dilemmas and communicate with the country as a whole

Ieuan Wyn Jones’s announcement this week, that he will step down as Plaid Cymru’s leader at next year’s Spring conference, provides an end in sight to the limbo land in which the party has been stuck since the May election. In itself, however, this offers no answer to the party’s crisis of leadership.

Arguably this has been ongoing since 2000 when, early in the Assembly’s first term, it so ill-advisedly dismissed its now elder statesman, Lord Dafydd Wigley. In today’s politics a leader who captures attention and admiration across the political spectrum, who is articulate and can communicate in terms that people readily understand, is worth at least ten percentage points electorally.

Alex Salmond has demonstrated this for the SNP in Scotland, as have Rhodri Morgan, followed by Carwyn Jones for Labour in Wales. Until Plaid Cymru finds such a leader who can also help it iron out ambiguities about who it appeals to as a party, about being a serious force in politics as a party of government, and about its constitutional objectives, it will struggle.

Plaid’s problems are compounded by a rule that its leader should come from within the Group in the National Assembly. As its membership there has shrunk so, too, has the political gene pool from which a choice can be made.

Currently, only one figure in the Group stands out as a high-profile charismatic personality who has the capability of reaching out beyond the party. He is the former Presiding Officer, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas. However, in his long political career, since he first entered the House of Commons in 1974, he has specialised in putting the noses of multiple political factions within the party severely out of joint. For those on the left he is too right wing. For those on the right his nationalism is in doubt. Some in the party hardly regard him as a member of Plaid Cymru at all. Others have taken his self-description as a “post-nationalist” (whatever that may mean) very much to heart. Still others find his monarchical leanings less than congenial.

So far, however, Dafydd Elis-Thomas is the only AM to state clearly an ambition to lead. If he seriously puts his mind to mending fences over the next six months, and articulates a meaningful position for the party on the challenges it faces, then he must be in with a shout. When they come to vote many party members may hold their nose and think not only of their electioral prospects but of the needs of Wales as well.

Meanwhile, all the other potential candidates have serious problems in their own right, too. Elin Jones has said she will be actively considering whether to throw her hat in the ring over the summer, and we must assume she will. She established herself as a highly competent and hard working Rural Affairs Minister in the last One Wales coalition administration with Labour. She is popular in the party and is strongly supported by her Ceredigion constituency party. However, she is little known beyond the reaches of rural Wales and has not established herself as a national figure. The same goes for all the other potential candidates that have been mooted, whether it be Jocelyn Davies, AM for South East Wales, Simon Thomas AM for Mid and West Wales, Leanne Wood AM for South Wales Central, or even Alun Ffred Jones AM for Arfon.

None of the candidates has yet to articulate Plaid Cymru’s many dilemmas, let alone how they might be addressed. The one leading figure to have done so is Adam Price, the former MP for Carmarthen East until the 2010 general election. However, he is out of contention, not just because he isn’t in the Assembly but because he is on the far side of the world studying the economy of small nations at Harvard University.

Despite this he has set an agenda that all the leadership hopefuls should bend their minds too. Writing in the Western Mail (15 June), he identified three major issues. The first, the biggest challenge he said the party had to overcome, was that it was perceived as being only for Welsh speakers:

“Internal polling by the party has shown that our level of support among English-speaking women, in particular, is worryingly low. We have to become a truly national party, and the most obvious place to start is the party’s name, reverting to our roots as it happens: Plaid Cymru must also be the ‘Welsh National Party’, a party for everyone who lives here.”

The second issue was a continuing confusion around Plaid Cymru’s constitutional objectives:

“We behave – to borrow an analogy from another context – like ‘closet nationalists’, frightened of people’s reactions to who we really are and what we believe. This convinces no-one and leaves us looking weak and even devious, which is worse. It’s time we came out and said it: our dream is Welsh independence.”

However, he continued, for that dream to become anywhere near a reality Plaid Cymru had to provide an answer to Wales’ major challenge, its economic under-performance:

“We should place our economic policy at the forefront of our programme … For most of its history Plaid Cymru has tended to prioritise cultural demands. From the 1980s the party widened its focus to include social and environmental objectives. Important as these are they fail to address the single biggest underlying reason why the national movement in Wales is weaker than Scotland: a concern for our economic viability as a nation. Closing Offa’s gap – the prosperity divide with England – has to become our psychological contract with the Welsh people. If we achieve that then they may take a second look at the prospects for independence.”

In three short, typically pithy paragraphs Adam Price laid out the exam questions facing Plaid Cymru’s leadership hopefuls as they look forward to the election in the New Year. The one who finds the most convincing answers and, as importantly, demonstrates an ability to convey them to an audience beyond the party, is not only the one most likely to win, but in the process most likely to carry Plaid Cymru forward to happier times.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

6 thoughts on “Plaid Cymru’s leadership crisis

  1. Some suggestions to Plaid:
    1. Change rules – there’s no reason why the political leader should be in the Assembly, better if it is the case but not vital – in fact during a rebuilding phase might have more time and energy to promote ideas and the organisation if not. That would also leave a route for a sub in the Senedd, Dafydd Elis-Thomas could do the wheeler dealing short-term very well
    2. Adopt the three planks of policy as proposed by Adam Price and be clear, bold and have a distinct USP – get rid of the ‘what’s Plaid for?’ question once and for all
    3. Get former chair John Dixon back in the fold
    4. When they’ve done all that some of us might consider joining – but until then, what to join?

  2. You say “early in the Assembly’s first term, it [Plaid Cymru] so ill-advisedly dismissed its now elder statesman, Lord Dafydd Wigley”. That is not correct. A few AMs – we all know their names – criticised him and he resigned. The party was overwhelmingly in favour of him staying and said so. Perhaps there is some confusion between Cardiff Bay and Plaid Cymru? They are quite different places.

  3. This all strikes me as rather badly informed. Haven’t Plaid AMs been the ones banging on about the economic challenges, not just since the election, but over the course of the last assembly term?
    The issues surrounding language are well known to all in Welsh politics, and played upon by some.
    The question of whether Plaid Cymru should have a leader who is not an AM is an interesting one. I can only assume that anyone suggesting that they could be headed by a non-AM does not have the party interests in mind. The Welsh nationalists being led by someone from outside of the main parliamentary institution in Wales would be a bizarre and laughable situation. It would lead to belittlement and ridicule for Plaid – which may well be entertaining, but would not get us any nearer to being governed by a party that really cares.

  4. I think John, you are right in that the decline of Plaid has been a slow process and that Wigley was a key to the rot. However, I would argue that Wigley himself contributed greatly to the process. Minority opinion, say psychologists, becomes attractive when it is consistent, and passionately held by those who are willing to suffer hardship for their cause.
    Wigley was the first to deny independence as a goal for his party. Few believed him but the loss of trust in the party was critical. Plaid were willing to ditch their earlier nationhood ambitions for the more attractive soft devolutionist stance, more votes and the comfort of returning to an essentially culturalist agenda.
    Welsh speaking people have always been the bed rock of Plaid’s support. However, they are nationally a minority and Plaid could only be the largest party in Wales if it became attractive to the non-welsh speakers. To do this it needed to keep the faith as when the party turned from independence, it could be seen as primarily preserving a welsh speaking culture rather than building a better country for all.
    Plaid, dominated by Welsh speakers, could not become a Welsh popularist party without recruiting and promoting English speakers into the leadership. Ideally, allowing them to become the majority of its leaders as the party reflected the linguistic make up of Wales itself. It was never going to happen. Even now non-Welsh speakers are apparently ruled out of the new leadership contest.
    How can the party of Wales still ignore the majority of the Welsh people? The answer is that Plaid Cymru is not The party of Wales. As in the direct translation it is only a party of Wales. A party strangely obsessed with changing Wales to fit its ideal of what our country should be rather than being more attractive to those who live here.
    Add to this the appalling misjudgement of the coalition with Labour. Most Plaid members were all for the “Rainbow coaltion”, very ready to sacrifice their pride and work with the Conservatives in exchange for destroying the Welsh Labour Party. For once the centre-left of the Valleys membership hand in hand with centre-right culturalists and Ieuan Wyn Jones looking like he might make a historic leader and take us to a new political era. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the political biographies to know exactly who cocked up what and why but I think history will judge the decision to join Labour against the wishes of the majority of Party activists as a disaster. The AM’s didn’t have the courage to give their members the choice – just a circus selling the decision.
    I’ve lived in Scotland and I’m still an SNP member. No member (never mind a leader) of the SNP would ever have been allowed to publically claim it was not a party of indepence. If a leading MSP did as Dafydd Ellis Thomas recently did after the Queen opened the last session – muttering how much he desired for us to remain in the United Kingdom – he would be chucked out of the party or sent off for psychiatric treatment. The SNP has remained a consistent national and nationalist party. It has convinced the Scottish people that it is the best party for Scotland, It is representaive of the nation and able to take full political advantage when its rivals falter.
    Plaid Cymru is a very different animal. Less of a lion, more of a hyena. Little desire to hunt for fresh meat and fighting for rather unattractive scraps.
    I am an optomist. The SNP always used to say that there are 2 synergistic pathways to win independence. One is to win electorally. The other is make all the other parties more nationalist as the popularity of your stance forces them to follow your lead or lose their own votes. As your rivals mimic you, you march on ahead, politically pushing the boundaries.
    It didn’t quite work for Wales. Plaid held back, moving away from independence while other parties “went native” to take votes from nationalist leaning voters Plaid should have won. Finally, this year a Labour First Minister rebrands the Assembly as the “Government of Wales”.
    Plaid is still seen as the party of north and west, the party of Welsh speakers and the party who doesn’t quite know where it is going and definitely doesn’t know how to get there. A gross generalisation but a lot of truth in it.
    The limited field for the leadership and the bias of composition of the paid up membership who will vote for him or her is unlikely to produce the heroic uncompromising leader who should stand up for the people of Wales in the face of this economic disaster and weak UK government. For the first time in my lifetime we would arguably be better off financially without being attached to England. Less people, more resources, less personal debt and geographical control of goods and services strongly desired by our needy neighbour. Do we all lack the confidence and courage to build a proper country?

    Centuries ago, in Scotland, in the prescence of Robert the Bruce, the nobles of Scotland signed a letter to the Pope now known as the “Declaration of Arbroath”. It contains, amongst other things stiring nationalistic sentiment. As well as impressive fantasy on the genetic origins of the Scots nation.
    I have always been most impressed by the passage that simply states that if our King, Robert, betrays us, we will choose another. A letter to the Pope denouncing the divine right of kings.
    As a nationalist I have observed Plaid Cymru over many years waste its promise. Since 2007 I have had doubts that Plaid in its present form could ever deliver nationhood. I’m not alone. I am confident, though, that Wales herself can deliver and if Plaid remains focussed on being a Welsh cultural and prominently Welsh speaking devolutionist party it will continue to decline. Achieving statehood will then be a task for others better suited to it.

  5. It’s nonsensical for this Plaid leader being ‘not from the assembly group’ to be taken seriously. It’s being pushed by the same anti-Ieuan brigade who want to follow the same minority interests that have got us nowhere.

    And even if you entertain the idea of having a leader that sits outside of the law making parliament we built our how political future on…consider what candidates are there? Adam Price will be a busted flush if he becomes leader while not holding any elected office for at least 4.5 years and frankly he wants to continue to study.

    It might be true there is no obvious leader in the Assembly group, but the idea that we can have a leader trying to put the case for voting for Plaid in the Assembly without even being it themselves is a joke. It will be the ‘where is your leader Jocelyn?’ debacle for 4 years on repeat.

    The quicker we end this idea the better.

  6. It seems to me that Plaid needs above all to reconnect with Welsh communities and not be obsessed with symbols which are only of burning interest to a small minority. Living in an area where decisions are made about my health care over the Border, I am deeply concerned about the centralisation of services in Telford, dangerously far from Central Wales. If I had to do without a fully translated record of the proceedings of the Assembly, I would manage but no maternity unit in Shrewsbury is far more serious. As a Welsh speaker myself, I worry about the narrow issues which seem to preoccupy many Plaid supporters. I have yet to meet anyone worried about the possible derailing of the S4C gravy train, but many anxious about the future of 6th Forms in local schools. Plaid, it seems, has become a party with little to say to its own hinterland.

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