Laura McAllister reflects on Leanne Wood’s leadership
Image: Sebastian Cooke
Leanne Wood’s place in the political history of Wales is guaranteed. Not for being ejected from the Assembly Chamber by former Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas for referring to the Queen as “Mrs. Windsor” but, one hopes, for more important and less theatrical achievements.
First, for winning the Plaid Cymru leadership election in 2012 against two heavyweight opponents, making her the party’s first female leader. Unlike last week’s vote, that was a decision for ideological revolution not evolution, borne not out of frustration but a desire for real change. Then, Wood was the self-styled republican socialist, the maverick outsider offering a very different future direction for Plaid, standing against two tried and tested and respected opponents.
Remember this is a party hardly brimming with feminist credentials despite the best efforts of some key women in its overwhelmingly male history. Place defined Wood as much as her sex, and her place was the south Wales valleys – Plaid’s Shangri-La. Wood was an authentic “valleys girl”, positively oozing her upbringing in Penygraig, and the party lapped it up. She was also the first non Welsh speaker to lead the party in its 87 year history.
Despite last week’s bruising defeat, there should be no political obituaries. Wood is a fighter, and politics and campaigning runs in her blood. Her story will be framed differently depending on how her legacy is analysed. A brutal assessment is that her leadership was a failure. Plaid is no nearer to being in government and the likelihood of a Plaid First Minister no closer. During the leadership election, Adam Price described the party as being on the road to defeat (despite his sitting in the passenger seat).
And election results speak for themselves, with only very modest success across the piece. In the most recent contest, last year’s UK General Election, Plaid narrowly won Ceredigion and just about clung on to Arfon (yes Arfon), and came a poor third in its target seats of Llanelli and Ynys Môn. It was hard to escape the fact that 196 fewer votes would have made this a disastrous election for Plaid. In the plus column, Wood won a spectacular personal victory in Rhondda in the 2016 Assembly election with a 22% swing and walloping a high-profile government minister in the process. Rhondda demonstrated how Plaid could utilise Wood’s profile and authenticity, but the problem was this was home turf. There was to be little cascade effect from this or from her far greater media profile, greater than any other Plaid leader and most other Welsh politicians.
The televised General Election leaders debates were a gift to Plaid and Wood and she performed well, keeping it simple and playing to her natural strengths. She came across (unlike Nicola Sturgeon actually) as straightforwardly left, compassionate, warm and likeable: “The leader you’d most likely invite around for a cup of tea” as ‘The Independent’ put it. At home, she has consistently been better known and liked than her opponents; the problem was that, however much people liked Wood, they didn’t like her enough to translate that to votes for Plaid.
Over the past week, I’ve wondered if Leanne Wood really wanted to be First Minister. At the end of the day, being in charge of your party is very different to being boss of your country. That’s not to suggest that she didn’t fancy the challenge. I just suspect, deep down, she knew that her innate strengths as a campaigning politician might not suit the very different skills needed for First Minister. The silly, flawed electoral system we persist with in Wales satisfies few and, unless there is a seismic shift, cobbling together a deal will dominate the post election period in 2021. That requires compromise and concession and the setting aside of ideological hard lines, alongside very skilful management of the party group in the Bay and the wider party. The latter has been a task for which Leanne Wood showed little appetite.
Plenty has been said about gender and political leadership during this summer of party contests. Most of the debate has been unsubtle and poorly evidenced, at times misogynist and riddled with the usual hypocrisy. All I will say is that the fact that the next Assembly election is likely to be contested by an all male field is an indication of how fragile our progress is, and an important reminder not to get carried away with our own hyperbole. Like every politician, Leanne Wood had her flaws but I have absolutely no doubt that she was judged more harshly by some because she was female. I wonder if the small band of vicious social media trolls are charging their keyboards ready for similarly nasty, pathetic, personal attacks on Adam Price. I hope not. He’ll get the odd homophobic insult but it seems gender trumps sexuality for today’s nasty little keyboard warriors.
But importantly, Wood didn’t lose because she is female. Cleverness comes in different forms, but we have a very singular appreciation of it in politics. Leanne Wood is disarmingly honest and sadly, probably a bit too nice for the brutal world of politics. Unless we change the rules of the game and how it is reported, politicians will continue to need a bit of nastiness to be respected.
Once one has been team captain, it can be really hard stepping on to the pitch not wearing the arm band, however committed one remains to the team. I have no inside intelligence (and it will depend on the direction in which the political wind is blowing next time) but it wouldn’t surprise me if Wood decided to do something different outside elected politics maybe not in 2021 but afterwards.
Leanne Wood is a warm, dignified and empathetic person and this characterised her leadership style. There were two big problems for her leadership in my opinion; first, she failed to capitalise on her instinctive and inclusive appeal to people who had never thought of Plaid before by translating this into a proper strategy for organisational growth and a route to power. Secondly, her type of political intelligence – gentle, less thrusting and more populist – is less respected and therefore less compelling. There are plenty of valleys boys in politics, but Wales doesn’t appear ready for a valleys girl.
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