Ieuan Wyn Jones’s announcement this week, that he will step down as Plaid Cymru’s leader at next year’s Spring conference, provides an end in sight to the limbo land in which the party has been stuck since the May election. In itself, however, this offers no answer to the party’s crisis of leadership.
Arguably this has been ongoing since 2000 when, early in the Assembly’s first term, it so ill-advisedly dismissed its now elder statesman, Lord Dafydd Wigley. In today’s politics a leader who captures attention and admiration across the political spectrum, who is articulate and can communicate in terms that people readily understand, is worth at least ten percentage points electorally.
Alex Salmond has demonstrated this for the SNP in Scotland, as have Rhodri Morgan, followed by Carwyn Jones for Labour in Wales. Until Plaid Cymru finds such a leader who can also help it iron out ambiguities about who it appeals to as a party, about being a serious force in politics as a party of government, and about its constitutional objectives, it will struggle.
Plaid’s problems are compounded by a rule that its leader should come from within the Group in the National Assembly. As its membership there has shrunk so, too, has the political gene pool from which a choice can be made.
Currently, only one figure in the Group stands out as a high-profile charismatic personality who has the capability of reaching out beyond the party. He is the former Presiding Officer, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas. However, in his long political career, since he first entered the House of Commons in 1974, he has specialised in putting the noses of multiple political factions within the party severely out of joint. For those on the left he is too right wing. For those on the right his nationalism is in doubt. Some in the party hardly regard him as a member of Plaid Cymru at all. Others have taken his self-description as a “post-nationalist” (whatever that may mean) very much to heart. Still others find his monarchical leanings less than congenial.
So far, however, Dafydd Elis-Thomas is the only AM to state clearly an ambition to lead. If he seriously puts his mind to mending fences over the next six months, and articulates a meaningful position for the party on the challenges it faces, then he must be in with a shout. When they come to vote many party members may hold their nose and think not only of their electioral prospects but of the needs of Wales as well.
Meanwhile, all the other potential candidates have serious problems in their own right, too. Elin Jones has said she will be actively considering whether to throw her hat in the ring over the summer, and we must assume she will. She established herself as a highly competent and hard working Rural Affairs Minister in the last One Wales coalition administration with Labour. She is popular in the party and is strongly supported by her Ceredigion constituency party. However, she is little known beyond the reaches of rural Wales and has not established herself as a national figure. The same goes for all the other potential candidates that have been mooted, whether it be Jocelyn Davies, AM for South East Wales, Simon Thomas AM for Mid and West Wales, Leanne Wood AM for South Wales Central, or even Alun Ffred Jones AM for Arfon.
None of the candidates has yet to articulate Plaid Cymru’s many dilemmas, let alone how they might be addressed. The one leading figure to have done so is Adam Price, the former MP for Carmarthen East until the 2010 general election. However, he is out of contention, not just because he isn’t in the Assembly but because he is on the far side of the world studying the economy of small nations at Harvard University.
Despite this he has set an agenda that all the leadership hopefuls should bend their minds too. Writing in the Western Mail (15 June), he identified three major issues. The first, the biggest challenge he said the party had to overcome, was that it was perceived as being only for Welsh speakers:
“Internal polling by the party has shown that our level of support among English-speaking women, in particular, is worryingly low. We have to become a truly national party, and the most obvious place to start is the party’s name, reverting to our roots as it happens: Plaid Cymru must also be the ‘Welsh National Party’, a party for everyone who lives here.”
The second issue was a continuing confusion around Plaid Cymru’s constitutional objectives:
“We behave – to borrow an analogy from another context – like ‘closet nationalists’, frightened of people’s reactions to who we really are and what we believe. This convinces no-one and leaves us looking weak and even devious, which is worse. It’s time we came out and said it: our dream is Welsh independence.”
However, he continued, for that dream to become anywhere near a reality Plaid Cymru had to provide an answer to Wales’ major challenge, its economic under-performance:
“We should place our economic policy at the forefront of our programme … For most of its history Plaid Cymru has tended to prioritise cultural demands. From the 1980s the party widened its focus to include social and environmental objectives. Important as these are they fail to address the single biggest underlying reason why the national movement in Wales is weaker than Scotland: a concern for our economic viability as a nation. Closing Offa’s gap – the prosperity divide with England – has to become our psychological contract with the Welsh people. If we achieve that then they may take a second look at the prospects for independence.”
In three short, typically pithy paragraphs Adam Price laid out the exam questions facing Plaid Cymru’s leadership hopefuls as they look forward to the election in the New Year. The one who finds the most convincing answers and, as importantly, demonstrates an ability to convey them to an audience beyond the party, is not only the one most likely to win, but in the process most likely to carry Plaid Cymru forward to happier times.
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