Plaid leadership 1: Always leading from the front

Cynog Dafis hails Elin Jones’ clarion call for her party to embrace cultural and political inclusiveness as never before

Elin Jones was elected to the first National Assembly in 1999 in a resounding victory and has held the Ceredigion seat ever since. No-one should underestimate the scale of that achievement. The big challenge came in 2005 after Plaid had lost the Westminster parliamentary seat, and the impressive young MP Simon Thomas into the bargain. This followed a period of internal division, public wrangling about planning policy, and an ill-conceived campaign for an elected mayor, all of which had alienated significant swathes of the electorate.

Plaid Cymru’s leadership election

Tomorrow Dyfed Edwards, leader of Gwynedd County Council, makes the case for Dafydd Elis-Thomas. On Friday Jonathan Edwards, MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, speaks for Leanne Wood. Ballot papers will be sent to all party members next week. The result of the postal vote will be announced at Plaid’s Spring conference in Cardiff on 15 March.

It was left to Elin Jones to pick up the pieces and reconstruct the kind of diverse alliance that had enabled Plaid to take Ceredigion (and in those days Pembroke North) in the first place. With the Lib-Dems cock-a-hoop and with a personable, ubiquitous MP in place, Elin swung into action, leading fearlessly. One example was her campaign against the plans to downgrade the status of Bronglais General Hospital and the threat of closure at Tregaron and Cardigan. In the process she won both the respect and affection of her constituents and kept her seat in 2007 with a majority of nearly 4,000. If a committed and well-organised campaign team also contributed to the victory, that was in no small measure down to the high regard in which Ceredigion members held their outstanding candidate, always leading from the front.

Any notion that Ceredigion is culturally and linguistically ‘natural’ Plaid Cymru territory would be way off the mark. Few Welsh constituencies are more diverse: Welsh-speaking small businessmen, craftsmen and farmers live alongside long-established English-speaking working-class communities not unlike those of the Valleys, large numbers of English in-migrants, two cosmopolitan university campuses and medics from the Indian sub-continent and Africa as well as all parts of the UK and continental Europe.

It is from this exceptionally diverse Ceredigion background that Elin now issues her clarion call for Plaid to embrace social, cultural and political inclusiveness as never before.  Her website, including a video of her sparkling 2011 Conference speech, sets out her themes in no uncertain terms.

“I would open our doors to more people and challenge our comfort zones … If people are ambitious for Wales and ambitious for themselves and their community, then Plaid Cymru is for them. Plaid Cymru favours no language, no race, no place of birth. There is a place in Plaid Cymru for the Welsh language student activist, the Swansea plumber, the Pembrokeshire fisherman, the doctor from Dresden living in Aberystwyth, the soldier and the pacifist, the environmentalist, the entrepreneur and the unemployed.”

Yes, it’s been said, and meant, before, but rarely with such conviction and rhetorical flourish. In the same speech she deals with the independence question with confidence, clarity and pragmatism. No ambiguity about the aim:

“… a nation state in our own right – of equal status with England and Scotland, with open borders and free movement of people and trade. A partnership of nations, working alongside each other and with others in the European Union and the world”.

Then comes the challenge to her own party:

“But it is not easy; it will not be achieved by a few Plaid members saying it often enough.  The need now is to continue to build the nation, stone by stone”.

And fundamental to it all is the economy which Elin emphasises is the necessary underpinning for the kind of public services and egalitarian society she sees as key to Welsh political values. An economist by training, she worked in business development before entering politics. The link between a thriving economy and a sustainable environment is for her essential:

“Now is the time for our nation’s second industrial revolution – based on our natural resources, but this time exploited for our own benefit, not for the benefit of others.”

And she places it in a global and historical context:

“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”.

This is truly an agenda-setting campaign. The suggestion emanating from some quarters that Elin represents a traditionalist, anti-change position, in contrast say to Leanne, would be comical if it were not such an outrageous misrepresentation.

Elin Jones then knows how to win elections and can certainly talk the talk. But in the end politics is about neither of these. It is about taking responsibility and using power to accomplish progressive change. As a key member of the One Wales Government, she walked the walk with skill, authority, quiet self-assurance and a clear strategic sense, gaining the trust of farmers, the wider rural community and policy-makers, and taking the pressure of virulent opposition calmly, firmly but unaggressively. She won the Assembly Member of the Year and Farmers Weekly UK Farmers’ Champion awards. One Conservative AM described her Assembly ministerial performance to me as “stellar”.

Elin is uniquely qualified among the four candidates to assume the leadership of Plaid. She has brains, steadiness of character, application, dependability and sheer grit, along with four years’ invaluable experience of the hard reality of government. She has the personal charm and oratorical skills to present the case for Plaid at this time when it is so desperately needed. An added bonus is a complete absence of ego, which will make her an outstanding team-leader. Linked to this is a playful sense of humour and an unusual ability to criticize her opponents without being boring – visit the website and observe her delicious take-off of Carwyn Jones.

As important as anything else is the dedicated professionalism which I’ve seen at first hand and observed from a distance. I foresee her growing in self-confidence and authority as she rises to the formidable challenge of leadership – of Plaid, and of Wales too. And at 45, she’s just the right age.

Cynog Dafis is former Plaid AM and MP for Ceredigion

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