Challenge facing Plaid’s new leader

John Osmond weighs up the significance and opportunity of Plaid Cymru’s election yesterday of Leanne Wood

Plaid Cymru’s election of Leanne Wood, a Welsh learner and a left-wing feminist who is also a republican, is by any measure a radical departure for a radical party. She was always a possible wild card, but even after her late entry into the race towards the end of last year she was being discounted for all these reasons. An English-speaker from the Rhondda was felt to be too regionalist a figure to lead a party whose electoral strength and membership base still resides in the Welsh-speaking northwest.

However, her campaign rapidly gained traction with significant endorsements, first from the young elements within Cymdeithas yr Iaith, most notably Menna Machreth, followed in short order by former Carmarthen East MP Adam Price, now ensconced in Harvard, former President Dafydd Iwan, Carmarthen East MP Jonathan Edwards, and perhaps most significantly of all, harpist Elinor Bennett, wife of honorary party President Lord Dafydd Wigley. This breadth of support revealed the potential for an essentially regional figure within the party to emerge as a national leader.

There was also a streak of ruthlessness in her campaign, when key strategist Adam Price wrote an open letter to party members urging supporters of Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas to give their second vote to Leanne, and supporters of Leanne to give their second vote to Dafydd. The canniness of this move was revealed yesterday when Elis-Thomas dropped out in third place and 447 of his second preference votes pushed Leanne over the 50 per cent threshold.

This was first real democratic election for a leader in Plaid Cymru’s history. Ieuan Wyn Jones emerged out of what was essentially a palace coup amongst the party’s AMs in the Senedd. Previous leaders had emerged in completely different times, before the Assembly and before there was any real notion of power at stake.  Saunders Lewis led a debating society. Gwynfor Evans became a reigning monarch. Dafydd Wigley was then the natural leader, only letting go of the reins for a few years to Dafydd Elis-Thomas in the 1980s and early 1990s when he took time away to cope with tragic circumstances amongst his young family.

Leanne Wood brings a number of huge positives to her party. First of all, as an English-speaker and despite learning Welsh to a creditable standard she will demonstrate much more in her own biography that Plaid is potentially a party that can appeal to all the people of Wales that no amount of warm words could ever do.

Secondly she is young and charismatic enough to appeal to a new generation of supporters who might be more inclined to listen to her message than their parents, but generally are not inclined to vote.

Thirdly, she is from the Valleys, the key political battleground where, as has always been the case, the future of Welsh politics will be decided. It is telling that of all the candidates she is the one that most Labour AMs least wanted to win.

There are, of course, some downsides. For the first time Plaid Cymru will have a leader who is more comfortable on Radio Wales than Radio Cymru. She will have to work hard to sustain the attachment of Plaid workers in the heartlands of the west and north. She is relatively inexperienced and will need to rely on a carefully picked band of advisers. A first indication will be the key appointments she makes to her shadow team in the Senedd.

In the balance, however, the upside is stronger than the down. Plaid Cymru has been more or less directionless for a decade. It has had no clear story to tell about what it wants to do with devolution, rather than just wanting more of it. The party desperately needs a new start and a new image, one that can seize the imagination of the electorate, and especially its younger elements. On the evidence of the leadership campaign, if anyone can do that Leanne Wood stands a good chance.

Certainly she captured the attention of the London media in a way that no other candidate in the race did. Here, for example, is how John Harris of the Guardian captured her at the beginning of February:

“Leanne Wood is rather different from most of the UK’s politicians. Forty years old and a mother of one, she still lives in the same street in the Rhondda Valley where she was born and brought up. She thinks the crash of 2008 should have ‘resulted in the rejection of capitalism and many of its basic economic and political assumptions’, and that the UK’s coalition amounts to a ‘hyper-competitive, imperial/militaristic, climate-change-ignoring and privatising government’. She is also a proud republican, who refuses to attend the kind of official events at which the Queen turns up, and was once thrown out of the Welsh Assembly for referring to the reigning monarch as “Mrs Windsor”. If any of this chimes with your general view of what’s wrong with the world, it’s fair to say that you’d like her.”

An immediate problem Leanne Wood has is dealing with the main objection to the central plank in her leadership campaign – independence for Wales – which is simply that in the latest poll, only 7 per cent agreed with her. In thinking about that she could do worse than take a look at Dafydd Wigley’s column in the Daily Post last week (9 March) when he stressed the same poll’s findings that 77 per cent support the Welsh Government’s independent healthcare policy, with only 18  per cent backing the UK government policy of introducing private provision into England’s NHS. Moreover, a majority backed Wales having tax-varying powers, rather than being totally dependent on Westminster. As Wigley put it,

“People clearly value having NHS provision in Wales that is independent of England. We make our own healthcare laws and decide funding priorities. The overwhelming public endorsement of this – supported by all Assembly parties – confirms that, for healthcare, we value our independence!”

So why the glaring anomaly, he asked – that people like independence in every-day matters about which they care, but don’t yet want to give the Assembly authority to run all those matters currently determined at Westminster? Other opinion polls showed that 60 per cent of Welsh people trust the National Assembly to defend the well being of Wales, while only 20 per cent trust the UK parliament to do so. Yet people hesitate still from transferring basic powers from Westminster to Wales:

“Why is this? It may be partly semantics: the term ‘independence’ – centre-stage in Scotland – has never been the focus of Welsh politics. Until the past decade, the term was not formally espoused by Plaid Cymru.

“The Party’s founder, Saunders Lewis, asserted in 1926, that the party’s aspiration should be towards national freedom for Wales. He said ‘Let us not ask for independence… not because it is impractical but because it is not worth having.’ He emphasised the need to achieve that degree of self-government that would safeguard our language, culture, values and identity in Wales.

“Gwynfor Evans (Plaid leader 1945-81) steered clear from independence, emphasising the interdependence of countries. He envisaged a new relationship – a Britannic Confederation – in which the UK’s nations would be self-governing, while co-operating on matters of common concern. As party leader, I followed this approach, adding the need for Wales to have its own voice in Europe, where, increasingly, decisions affecting Wales were being taken.

“Why did Plaid Cymru change its policy? Some saw only a semantic difference between “independence” and “self-government”. Perhaps; but I felt this devalued the principled stance of Saunders Lewis and Gwynfor Evans. Plaid adopted independence as its objective, in 2003, because the EU insisted that only ‘independent’ countries could be EU member-states.

“We who aspired to a ‘self-governing Wales within an united Europe’, had to accept the prerequisite that Wales be designated an ‘independent’ country. Whether Plaid Cymru has communicated adequately its vision of an ‘independent’ Wales is questionable. The poll suggests otherwise. Plaid must clarify what it means by independence.”

This is the task that now falls to Leanne Wood.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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