Leadership dilemmas in the National Assembly

John Osmond unpicks a hard choice between pragmatism and principle facing the Commission looking at Plaid Cymru’s future

The question of where party leadership comes from in devolved Wales is a headache for all parties, but especially Plaid Cymru. For the other three parties it is not such an issue since, with the partial exception of the federal Liberal Democrats, they all pay obeisance to another hierarchy in London.

In particular the Welsh Conservatives are emphatic that newly elected Andrew R.T. Davies is not the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, but merely of the Group in the National Assembly. Carwyn Jones is declared leader of the Welsh Labour Party but, in part at least, shares the role with the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales Peter Hain. For the Welsh Liberal Democrats Kirsty Williams is their undisputed leader, though at their annual conference they invariably give prime speaking slots to bigwigs from Westminster.

For Plaid Cymru it is different. Of course they have MPs at Westminster, but for them there is no democratic chamber that competes with the National Assembly for relative importance. This is why, as it presently stands at any rate, the party’s constitution states in terms that their leader should be a member of the Assembly Group.

Why is all this of immediate interest? Because there is a good deal of speculation within Plaid’s ranks that the Commission under Eurfyl ap Gwilym, Plaids economics advisor, established to examine the party’s future direction and strategy, may be tempted to recommend that the constitution be changed to allow someone outside the Assembly to become leader.

There are a number of arguments being put forward for this change. One is that, with only 60 members, of which for the foreseeable future Plaid can only hope to elect a minority, the Assembly is simply not big enough to provide a sufficient range of choice. This was underlined at the last election when the number of Plaid AMs fell from 15 to 11.

The second argument is that the present system disenfranchises talented party members outside the Assembly. Those thinking in these terms usually point to the former Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MP Adam Price who, although presently undertaking a research fellowship at Harvard University, is widely regarded as an heir apparent for the leadership.

If the Commission, which is due to report before Christmas, does recommend to widen the constituency from which plaid’s leadership can be chosen, could this be ignored in the election for a new leader to replace Ieuan Wyn Jones that will take place early next year ahead of the party’s Spring conference? Some are arguing that, in the event of such a recommendation, political realism if not logic should dictate the calling of a special conference to change the party’s constitution to allow the election to take place on the basis of the recommended change.

All this presents a dilemma for Eurfyl ap Gwilym and his five recently announced co-commissioners – President Jill Evan MEP, Elfyn Llwyd MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Jocelyn Davies AM for South East Wales, Llŷr Huws Gruffydd AM for North Wales, and former Chief Executive Dafydd Trystan. They will be sympathetic to the argument, if not that  that 11 AMs is too shallow gene pool from which to draw a new leader, then certainly that too much of the party’s attention has been contained within the Cardiff Bay bubble over the past decade. The result, some argue, has been that generating activity and engagement across Wales more generally has been allowed to wither on the vine. These add that a dynamic new leader outside the Group would have the time, energy and motivation to put this right.

On the other hand, others argue that if Plaid Cymru were to elect a leader from outside the Assembly that would send a highly negative message about its importance as the key democratic forum for the Welsh nation. Moreover, the party would still need someone to lead the Group in the Assembly, and take on the mantle of becoming the leading Plaid Minister in any future coalition government involving the party. In such circumstances what would be the relationship between the leader of the Party outside the Assembly and the leader of the Group within it? How would the Group leader be elected, as now by the all party members or just by Plaid AMs? If it was the former would not this be a recipe for tension at the top of Paid Cymru, especially in the circumstances of the party being involved in a coalition government?

What is beyond dispute, or ought to be, is that any change to the party’s constitution should be argued on the basis of principle, and not as a pragmatic way of addressing a political predicament of getting the right personality into the right position. E that as it may, it still presents Plaid Cymru with a dilemma.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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