Roger Awan-Scully considers the scale of the challenge facing Plaid Cymru’s new leader
We’ve always known he was talented. Ever since he captured the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr parliamentary seat from Labour in 2001, on a near eight percent swing, Adam Price has stood out. He soon built a reputation as someone with a flair for capturing political attention: whether that was as a highly impressive, sometimes fiery speaker, or through the use of obscure parliamentary procedures to launch an attempted impeachment of Prime Minister Blair in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War.
So in some ways it is a surprise that it has taken Adam this long to become leader of Plaid Cymru – a party that hasn’t exactly spent the seventeen and a half years since he first became an MP going from triumph to triumph. Right from the start he was obviously a potential future leader. But he was also in the wrong place – the House of Commons rather than the National Assembly. Then when the vacancy in Plaid came up in 2011 Adam was not an elected politician at all – but rather spending time out of front-line politics, studying at Harvard University after standing down from parliament for the 2010 election.
Now that he has become leader, and with an impressive mandate from the party membership – with only eighteen more first preference votes, he would have won outright without any second preferences needing to be taken into account – Adam Price has assumed the role many have long believed was his destiny. What will he seek to do with it?
The new leader has already recognised the need for Plaid to seriously up its game as an organisation. The party machine has been obviously lacking in recent times, with key personnel like Rhuanedd Richards and Helen Bradley not having been adequately replaced. As if to exemplify these problems, Plaid managed to issue a comically inept video ‘celebrating’ Adam Price on the day of his election. His first lengthy TV interview acknowledged these problems: we can expect new personnel, and maybe new structures, at Ty Gwynfor.
Another obvious challenge will be to take advantage of the relatively few chances that a Plaid leader gets to speak to the mass of people in Wales. With the London-based media largely uninterested – and, in any case, currently obsessed with Brexit – and with no profile-raising UK general election due before the next Assembly election, imagination and determination will be needed to cut through to ordinary Welsh voters. Adam has shown the flair for this previously – although his first lengthy television interview as leader, with Arwyn Jones on the BBC’s Sunday Politics, saw him on inconsistent and occasionally hesitant form.
But there are bigger problems facing Plaid Cymru and its new leader. The long-term vision is clear and unambiguous: unlike some of his predecessors, Adam has no hesitation in talking about independence at the aim. Indeed, his Sunday Politics interview talked about the need for a ‘roadmap to independence’ to be central to all of Plaid’s campaigning. Yet making this a popular message outside the ranks of Plaid Cymru’s membership is a big challenge in a nation where support for independence remains very much a minority taste. And what sort of independent Wales, in what sort of world – with Brexit making Plaid’s previous vision of ‘independence in Europe’ look even more far-fetched? How will Plaid make their more immediate policies – of which, under Adam, we can expect plenty – appear like attractive interim steps towards their ultimate goal?
In the slightly shorter term, Plaid face the challenge of making political progress in time for the May 2021 National Assembly election. Their new leader has set out the ambition of winning that election: quite some task in a nation where Labour have lost only 1 out of the last 39 Wales-wide electoral contests, and where Plaid Cymru in their best years have never come within ten seats of Labour in the Assembly. To make a serious dent on Labour’s dominance of the National Assembly, Plaid will need to do far more than win obviously marginal seats like Aberconwy and Llanelli; under the current Assembly electoral system (which is likely to remain in place at least for 2021) it is simply impossible for Labour dominance of the National Assembly to be broken without other parties making serious inroads into its stranglehold over the south Wales constituency seats. Labour have, for instance, never lost a single constituency contest in South Wales West, over five Assembly elections. Plaid will need to do much more than simply hold Leanne Wood’s Rhondda seat; they will need to target other seats with both effective candidates and substantial resources, while simultaneously boosting their national vote share sufficiently to ensure than any constituency seat gains are not simply cancelled out by losses on the regional lists.
Having sat in a parliament where Plaid Cymru members were outnumbered by Labour by a margin of 413 to 4, the situation in the current Assembly will certainly hold no fear for Adam Price. He has never obviously lacked for self-confidence. His ideas are often on the big scale: such as trying to drive forwards economic regeneration through a re-structuring of the entire taxation system in Wales. Whatever else that might be, it is certainly not unambitious. In his Sunday Politics interview Adam spoke, with no apparent sense of irony, of the ‘first 100 days’ of his leadership. Plaid Cymru’s journey to their own Camelot will be not be easy. The scale of the challenge is huge, but it is one that Adam Price will likely relish.
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