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

5 thoughts on “Challenge facing Plaid’s new leader

  1. Independence in Europe – legally, an EU member state – is Plaid Cymru’s aim. Why on Earth is that difficult to understand? Could it be that ‘not understanding’ – a common theme amongst the chatterati – is the line of mere British devolutionists or UK federalists who simply do not support it?

    I’m afraid this article regurgitates the myth about where the party led by Saunders Lewis and Gwynfor Evans stood historically on the issue. What Saunders published in 1926 may be true, but in his UK general election address of 27th October 1931 to the voters in the University of Wales seat, he wrote, “A Welsh Nationalist group in the House of Commons would . . proclaim . . the right of Wales to be a self-governing Dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations . . [and] . . entry into the League of Nations”. This remained party policy well into Gwynfor Evans’ presidency.

    Those positions have to be understood within contemporaneous politics. Our next door neighbour, the Irish Free State (1922-1937) was a Dominion. It had lost its previous Republican status and been forcibly divided in a bloody War of Independence. The creators of the Welsh Nationalist Party were profoundly influenced by that fact – as were the British imperialists, of course. The party was in close and regular contact with Irish politicians during this period. Further, the British Imperial Conference of 1926 gave the ‘white’ Dominions control of their international and defence policies. This was legally confirmed by the UK Statute of Westminster in 1931. So Dominion status, and membership of the League, was then the highest expression of independence – without resorting to war with a British Empire at its territorial zenith.

    This remained Plaid Cymru policy until the formation of European supra-national institutions. That too has developed via the phase of European ‘regionalism’ – advanced and realistic for its time – to the current aim of a member-state. This policy was developed via the vehicle of the European Free Alliance and within the flotilla of sub-state nations aspiring to the same realistic status. As we say in Europe, “Simples!”

  2. “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.”

    I don’t forsee this to be a problem. The other parties have for many years taken pro-language stances but this has not significantly effected Plaid’s support in the Welsh-speaking heartlands. Westminster and Assembly candidates for the UK parties in constituencies like Arfon, Ynys Môn and Dwyfor Meirionydd are frequently (though not always) Welsh speakers but this doesn’t seem to have much effect on their results. To suggest that voters in Y Fro Gymraeg are likely to abandon Plaid Cymru just because their leader is not a 100% fluent Welsh speaker is an insult to them and to Leanne Wood.

    If Plaid were to win every rural seat (including ones they are very unlikely ever to win like Monmouthshire or the Vale of Glamorgan) in Wales that would make about 13 seats, still well short of a majority. It makes sense to target the left-leaning urban areas of the Valleys and the cities, not to lean ever-increasingly to the right in order to capture a few extra rural seats from the Tories only to ensure that Plaid never win anything in the urban areas and to further cement Labour’s domination of the country – as this article points out the Valleys have always been the real political battleground of Wales.

  3. I wouldn’t say the Valleys have ‘always’ been the real political battleground of Wales – they’ve been Labour for almost a century, with a periodic scalp here or there for Plaid Cymru. The real political battlegrounds have been in the swing seats along the South and North Wales Coasts, where in most areas bar the far west Plaid are mostly irrelevant. This will be Leanne’s biggest challenge by far.

  4. I see you point; what I meant rather was that no party can ever hope to gain a majority of Welsh seats without winning at least some of the seats in the valleys. If Plaid Cymru wish to become the largest party in Wales, or even win a majority, then simply doing well in the affluent holiday coastal and rural areas will not be enough.

  5. There is no mystery about why most Welsh people don’t support independence. They don’t want to be a lot poorer. The net subsidy to Wales in 2007-8 was about £12 billion a year, or £4000 per head, the biggest for any area of the UK. Wales needed this because its income was less than 75 per cent of the UK average and its tax base is feeble. Goodness knows what the figures are now after four years of recession. An independent Wales would make Greece look as if it was still governed by Croesus. Unless and until Wales can build up its economy nearer to self-supporting you can forget independence – however you care to define it. Getting down to business and parking constitutional dreams might be a start.

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