Leadership stories from Obama to Wales

John Osmond puts the campaign messages of the three Plaid leadership hopefuls under the spotlight

As the contest over who is to lead Plaid Cymru gets into full swing, with voting in just over a week, the party’s prince over the water has been giving a good deal of thought to leadership qualities. Adam Price, former Carmarthen MP and currently a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, has been sitting at the feet of a 68-year-old professor there Marshall Ganz. It seems he was the inspiration behind Barack Obama’s grassroots campaign for the Whitehouse in 2008.

Writing in the Guardian earlier this week Price explained that the core of Ganz’s teaching is the idea that leaders must build a three-part narrative to communicate their ambition: why they feel called to act (story of self), how this act relates to their audience (story of us), and what urgent challenge this action seeks to address (story of now). As Price put it, referring to the ‘stories’ of Barack Obama and Ed Miliband:

“It sounds simple (which is part of its success), but if you doubt its power take a look at a then little-known Senatorial candidate’s speech in the Boston Democratic convention in 2004. You’ll hear how a son of a Kenyan goat-herder running for Senate (self) was a symbol of American meritocracy (us), threatened by the policies of the Bush Whitehouse (now).

“Flash forward to Ed Miliband and we see the source of his difficulty. Miliband has a plausibly good story of now (‘responsible capitalism’), a so-so story of us (‘squeezed middle’), but hardly any story of self – so we fill in the blanks with our own version: David’s brother, Gordon’s spad, or the son of England’s greatest Marxist theorist (my favourite).”

It is a little frustrating, though perhaps understandable given The Guardian’s readership, that Adam Price fails to extend this analysis to those currently in Plaid Cymru’s leadership race. How would he have judged their various narratives in relation to their personal stories, the ‘self’, how they relate to the ‘us’, that is to their electorate, and what urgent challenge they are confronting – the ‘now’?


Plaid’s leadership election

Next week we shall be publishing articles by three leading Paid Cymru members on why they are supporting their chosen candidates: Jonathan Edwards MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, on Leanne Wood; Dyfed Edwards, leader of Gwynedd County Council, on Dafydd-Elis Thomas; and Cynog Dafis, former MP and AM for Ceredigin, on Elin Jones

Bearing in mind that on this occasion the electorate is extremely small and specialised – the 7,900 or so members of Plaid – we should be able get an impression from their campaign websites. On the ‘self’, the personal stories, these will be pretty well known to most of the voters in the election, since many will be on first name terms with the candidates. Nonetheless, the websites are pretty threadbare, providing a career outline but little about what turned these personalities into people who have the mission and self-belief to lead their party and potentially become First Minister of Wales. Leanne Wood is perhaps the most revealing in telling us a little about what drives her:

“I was born and brought up in the Rhondda, where I still live. Family and personal experiences have combined to nurture my love of Wales, my socialism and my republicanism. Like many in these communities I have been keen to fully grasp my heritage. I am learning Welsh and I am proud that my six-year-old daughter attends the local Welsh medium school. I don’t come from a wealthy background: my dad spent much of the eighties out of work. But I benefitted from an education which inspired me to believe I could work with others in order to change things for benefit of my community and my country. Joining Plaid Cymru in 1991 was a practical way of beginning on this path. My education enabled me to work as a Probation Officer, a Women’s Aid support worker, and a tutor at Cardiff University before my election to the National Assembly.”

Elin Jones’s personal story is laid out even more as though it were a CV:

“Born in 1966, she was raised on a farm in Llanwnnen near Lampeter. She attended Llanwnnen Primary School and Lampeter Comprehensive School. After graduating from Cardiff University with a BSc in Economics, Elin went on to study for an MSc degree in Rural Economics at Aberystwyth University. Elin is now a resident of Aberystwyth and among her interests lists music – she was a member of the singing group Cwlwm, and sings with Côr ABC in the town – films and reading. Before starting on her political career, Elin worked as an Economic Development Officer for the Rural Wales Development Board. She was also a director at Radio Ceredigion and Wes Glei Ltd, a television production company.”

Similarly, Dafydd Elis-Thomas tells us that he is chair of the Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee, a member of the House of Lords and was previously a member of the House of Commons and chair of the Welsh Language Board:

“He was also a candidate for the European Parliament, director of Cynefin environmental consultancy, Keep Wales Tidy charity, Sgrin media partnership and a university tutor and lecturer. He still works closely with further and higher education as Chancellor of Bangor University and President of Coleg Llandrillo Menai. He has lived in Snowdonia throughout his life, jogging and hill-walking. He was a member of the international committee of the British and Irish council of churches and is a regular communicant of the Church in Wales where he supports equality in the election of bishops.”

There’s not much passion in these descriptions and nothing about why these people are devoting their lives, often at some sacrifice,  to the cause of Welsh freedom. Again, when it comes to their stories about how they relate to ‘us’, getting a sense of their focus is not much easier. Since the main message of all three candidates is about connecting sustainable development with the economy and jobs, we can only assume this is what they judge their electorate is most interested in. Dafydd Elis-Thomas’s website, headed ‘sustainable leadership’, contains the following exhortation:

“We need to take advantage of the opportunities of a green economy here in Wales, investing in green jobs and therefore helping a sustainable economic recovery. Green jobs are of greater value in the long term than conventional jobs, because they are jobs that change the way in which the economy operates. It is important that we realise that economic stimulus is not of permanent value in the current situation unless it is a green stimulus.”

Leanne Wood’s prescription echoes the same belief:

“Models from across the world show that together we can create a thriving decentralised economy that is inherently Welsh, serving our people rather than the market: an economy in which co-operative and green ventures can thrive creating jobs for local people: an economy in which we can foster the enterprise of small businesses, community organisations and our workforce. Most importantly, an economy that will distribute wealth fairly and combat crippling inequality.”

Elin Jones, too, has a broadly similar pitch:

“Our abundant natural resources should be exploited fully for the benefit of the Welsh people and our economy. Increasing our renewable energy and food production would contribute to national self-sufficiency in a volatile world needing to reduce dramatically its dependence on carbon. Now is the time for our nation’s second industrial revolution – based again on our natural resources, but this time exploited for our own benefit, not for the benefit of others. Decisions on our energy, water, land and sea should be made in our Welsh Parliament.”

What about the ‘now’, the urgent challenge with which the candidates are aiming to inspire their followers to engage? We can only assume that this must revolve around Plaid Cymru’s core purpose, achieving self-determination for Wales, what only relatively recently has been accepted as ‘independence’ within the party’s constitution. For guidance on the candidates’ approach on this aspect, the most useful indicator is the BBC Wales website which recently put a list of questions to each of the candidates. One asked, “Do you expect to see an independent Wales in your lifetime?” Leanne Wood simply answered “Yes”. Elin Jones provided a more detailed response:

“How long I live is unknown to me, but gets shorter by the day! I am clear that two consecutive election victories for Plaid Cymru could trigger a Welsh independence referendum and could happen as early as 2020. However, it will be the people of Wales that decide on the future direction of Wales.”

Dafydd Elis Thomas invoked what he described as a new political context in his reply:

“Yes. The question posed by Alex Salmond whether voters in Scotland agree it should be ‘an independent country’ has changed UK politics. 40% in Scottish opinion polls answer Yes. In Wales it is less than 10%. This is because we haven’t had a proper discussion about the issue because too many people in Plaid talk about ‘a long-term aim’ which has never been properly and practically defined. This is a debate I would relish leading.”

Of course, as I say all these narratives are directed at a tiny electorate, Plaid’s membership. It is not at all clear, from the campaign so far, how each of the candidates would address the wider Welsh voting public in the next Assembly election in 2016. I would contend this should be the crucial consideration in the choice that is about to be made. However, a clue can be found in another question posed by BBC Wales in its online survey of the candidates: “How can Plaid strike a balance between calling for independence and avoid appearing to be interested in constitutional matters only’?”

To this question Dafydd Elis Thomas answered:

“The question of governance whether for a company or a country is really about whether and how policies are effectively delivered. The form and powers of a government are there to sustain and develop public services by planning investment, and working with businesses and other social partners. Sustainable development has to be at the heart of 21st Century politics to ensure we tackle climate change and ensure effective use of natural resources. Wales is the ideal size and in the best location to be a sustainable energy producer as we move into a low to zero carbon economy.”

Elin Jones said:

“My passion is for Wales to become a successful, independent country. My obsession, however, is not with the constitution. It is with the people. Creating a fairer society and a stronger economy for our people can only be realised if Wales gains the powers to plan our future.”

Leanne Wood answered:

“By focusing on the economy and jobs in particular, we have to offer hope that Wales can be different – continuing on the downward economic spiral is not an option. We must do something different, radically different. Of course, we seek constitutional independence for our nation, but we seek more than that, what Raymond Williams called ‘real independence’ – genuinely working to end war, inequality and discrimination.”

It would be useful if Adam Price could persuade his new-found guru Marshall Ganz to survey this evidence of the narratives being projected by the Plaid leadership candidates and give us his assessment of their likely effectiveness.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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