Some politicians seem to embody and define a period. Writing of Dafydd Elis-Thomas in Planet in 1988, Ned Thomas noted that occasionally a politician can offer a
way of fixing a period and a style in the political culture of Wales, and also a set of contradictions. They are, of course, not just one person’s contradictions, but society’s contradictions, revealed as only a politician can reveal them, at a particular moment of the national life.1
At the time of writing Leanne Wood is clearly preparing for someone to stand against her in a forthcoming Plaid Cymru leadership election. This moment offers an opportunity to assess her leadership so far, and to consider what the reactions to that leadership tells us about our contemporary political culture. A drip feed of negativity has been emitted from certain, sometimes wholly opposite, sectors of Plaid Cymru ever since the ‘Leanne-slide’ of the 2012 leadership election. By now the nature of these critiques are well established. This article describes their substance, assesses their accuracy and attempts to interpret what they tell us about the state of the national movement.She’s Too Attritional
The first criticism, associated with Dafydd Elis-Thomas who now sits as an independent on the Labour benches, claims that Plaid Cymru has been too abrasive and insufficiently consensual under Leanne Wood’s leadership. The role of a national party is to be in government, goes the argument, and coalition with Labour should always be the intent.
It is true that during the first ten years of the National Assembly’s existence ‘consensus politics’ was seen as the marker of Welsh political maturity, and an embodiment of the ways in which things operated differently in the Welsh Assembly when compared to the attritional nature of politics at Westminster. Plaid Cymru made a strategic decision to ‘steady the boat’ after the wafer-thin ‘Yes’ vote of ’97, seeking to establish the legitimacy of devolution as opposed to attacking its limited nature and the failures of the Labour administration. If society seemed to have lost respect for its elected politicians, and voter apathy was seen to undermine the democratic process, then ‘consensus’ gestured towards a political culture where discussion replaced bickering, where policy ideas were considered on their merits no matter what their source, and where politicians would regain the respect of their constituents.
The roots of this drive for greater cross-party unity can be found in the pre-devolution period. Among those (across all parties) who believed in greater Welsh autonomy, this desire for consensus was an understandable response, and a successful tactic, following the debacle of the 1979 referendum in which the Labour party’s plans for an Assembly were defeated by a majority of 4:1 (956,330 against, 243,048 for). From then on the project of slowly building a consensus among pro-devolutionists of all parties in Wales was adopted by many, and the Iron Lady’s rule offered a congenial context for such a strategy to mature. In the years following the establishment of the National Assembly there was a desire to see the institution succeed. Rhodri Morgan proved adept at creating a rhetorical (if not material) sense that a river of ‘clear red water’ separated Welsh Labour from Blair’s New Labour, and 2011 saw the leaders of all the main parties combining in the successful campaign for a Yes vote for further powers (517,132 (63.49%) voted yes, 297,380 (36.51%) voted no).
The historian Merfyn Jones suggested in 1992 that in moving ‘beyond identity’ it was time for Wales to cease being ‘a cause with adherents’ and to transform itself into ‘a place with citizens’. The notion that the Welsh national movement was a ‘cause’ belonged to the age of Saunders Lewis. Merfyn Jones’s argument was also Dafydd Elis-Thomas’s position, a position that he used consistently to attack Leanne Wood and her leadership. The nadir was reached at the conference of 2014 where Thomas described as ‘banal’ a characteristically robust attack by Leanne Wood on UKIP and their racist politics. Enjoying the nudges and winks of the patrician old guard on the conference fringes, Elis-Thomas seemed to delight in sabotaging the leader and in doing so undermining the selfless work put in by the very small group of people running the Plaid Cymru conference machine. Elis-Thomas’s vision was one that in effect ruled out any constructive role for a party in opposition. The commentator Gareth Hughes noted that there was an anti-democratic element to such an approach to politics.
The age of consensus might have been necessary in establishing the Assembly, but that was surely now over. The 2010s had indeed seen the emergence of a different kind of politics. A civic culture characterised by consensus was increasingly seen as one where those in need had failed to make their voices heard, or had been silenced. Was the rise of a populist Right not a response to the impression that politics had become too consensual?
The danger at the time of the 2012 leadership election was not that Plaid Cymru would be seen to be advocating a narrowly defined Welsh ‘cause’. The danger was that party members and representatives perceived themselves as, and were perceived to be, shareholders in a regional company, rather than civic contributors to a national, political, project. Leanne Wood was elected in 2012 to break the consensus that belonged to the previous decade. In keeping her distance from Labour, Wood set the basis for her 2016 victory in the Rhondda, when she defeated Leighton Andrews, widely seen to be the most effective of Labour’s politicians and a seasoned campaigner. Leanne has remained in opposition, eschewing a coalition with Labour and ruling out a coalition with the Tories. The strategy is clear: rather than calling for coalitions Leanne Wood aims to build towards forming a Plaid Cymru-led government after the elections in 2021, and has agreed to stand down as leader if that project fails.She’s Too Consensual
Yet, despite her victory in the Rhondda and unwillingness to enter into coalitions, the second influential critique of Wood and her leadership – associated primarily with Neil McEvoy and his followers – is that she’s too consensual. This is the inverse of the Elis-Thomas critique. Leanne Wood is, according to this line of thought, a paid-up member of the ‘Bay Bubble’, in the hands of powerful lobbyists, and in the pocket of a thoroughly corrupt Labour establishment. Leanne Wood’s problem from this perspective is that she couples her nationalism with a range of other concerns and commitments relating to gender equality, anti-racism and social justice. One of the great successes of the British right-wing press has been to establish a wholly skewed ideology by which those embracing a principled opposition to the Far Right, a commitment to anti-racism and a feminist politics, belong to a ‘virtue-signalling’ ‘elite’. A sector of the national movement seems to have internalised this world-view and regard Wood an elitist product of the consensual ‘Bay Bubble’.
But Leanne Wood doesn’t fit this model very well. A grass-roots activist and campaigner, born in Penygraig, where she still lives, she is the daughter of a bus driver and school kitchen assistant who spent much of the 1980s moving precariously between employment and unemployment, before working as a probation officer . Wood regards the route to independence as being marked by work and struggle. Her form of Leftism is one that aims to build bridges, that aims to persuade people that Plaid Cymru is defending values that are more widely held than the party’s current membership numbers would suggest. The implicit argument of her ‘Greenprint for the Valleys’ (2009) revisited and updated this year in the form of ‘The Change We Need’, is that in fighting for the local school, the local arts centre, the immigrant family down the road, for linguistic rights or for clean air, alliances are forged. And some of these allies, in the course of the campaign, will come to identify themselves with the cause of Wales and with, what Wood describes as, the empowering decentralist politics of Plaid Cymru. There’s some irony in the fact that, viewed from this perspective, Leanne Wood is precisely the working-class community activist that many of Neil McEvoy’s supporters would wish to see.She Should Have Done Better
The charge of elitism has partly gained traction due to Leanne Wood’s failure to make a decisive breakthrough in the Valleys. The hope in 2012 was that she would make significant advances in areas where Plaid Cymru had achieved limited support in the past. That this has not yet happened is a source of frustration directed at Plaid Cymru’s leader. Some claim further that she should have achieved more given the coverage that she has received on the British media and mainstream press. These criticisms seem to ignore the fact that gaining that kind of coverage, unprecedented in the history of Plaid Cymru, is itself one of Leanne Wood’s major achievements. Much was made of Dafydd Wigley’s close relationship with Alex Salmond, but Salmond never spoke at the Plaid conference during his period as leader. Nicola Sturgeon has not only publicly and frequently expressed her admiration for Leanne, but also spoke at the conference in Aberystwyth immediately after the independence referendum of 2014.
This connection between Wood and Sturgeon was reinforced by the General Election debates of 2015. Labour supporters saw many of their views – anti-austerity, redistributive, anti-racist, Green – being articulated on mainstream TV for the first time in a generation. Those views were not coming from Ed Miliband, but from Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and Natalie Bennett. Wood in particular, unencumbered by the pressure imposed by the English right-wing press, directly attacked Nigel Farage for stigmatising the ill, vulnerable and homeless. It may be argued with some legitimacy that the willingness of large numbers of the Labour membership to elect a left-wing leader in the Autumn of 2015 was a result of seeing the success of progressive politicians leading the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and in giving voice to leftist values on mainstream television.
Those who accuse Leanne Wood’s Plaid Cymru of wanting to ‘out-Corbyn Corbyn’ are thus reversing the lines of influence. One of the great failures of devolution is that it has not lead to a realignment of Welsh politics. Indeed, those arguing that Plaid Cymru should shift to the centre in response to Corbyn’s Labour may be seen to be exemplifying the Anglocentric terms in which they view politics. It is to be regretted that we continue to find ourselves reacting to changes in London, and Leanne Wood has been unfortunate in being leader throughout a period of Tory government in Westminster. Every breakthrough in the history of Plaid Cymru has happened with a Labour government in London. The party’s politics, like Welsh politics more broadly, continues to be reactive. The unionist parties recognise this, and use it to their advantage: calling a General Election during the Welsh council elections resulted in every single British newspaper featuring a picture of Theresa May on its cover on the day of the council vote in 2017; calling the EU Referendum during the Welsh Assembly elections created the context for a right-wing wave that propelled seven UKIP members into our Senedd. Within this context, the charges of failure against Leanne are somewhat misplaced.
No, there has not been a major breakthrough, but Plaid has more councillors than ever before and managed in 2017 to match the best-ever performance of 2008 (which took place in far more favourable conditions). In Westminster elections, when Tories come into power Plaid’s percentage vote tends to fall; descending to 7.8% in 1983, 7.3% in 1987, and only creeping up to 9.9% in Blair’s landslide election of 1997. The Plaid Cymru leader to have achieved the highest vote during a period of Tory Westminster government is Leanne Wood, achieving 12.1% in 2015. Even given the squeeze of 2017, Plaid returned 4 MPs on 10.4% of the vote, which is the best they’ve ever managed.
Assembly results are disappointing after the heady days of 1999, but it’s worth remembering that Plaid voters were mobilised while turnout was disappointingly low in the ’99 election. With Labour in power in London one would have expected the party to have done better under Ieuan Wyn Jones’s leadership in 2003 and 2007. Prior to Leanne becoming leader of Plaid Cymru, the only Assembly campaign fought with a Tory government in Westminster was 2011 where the party slumped to its worst ever result of 17.9% in the regional vote. Leanne returned the party to 20.8% of the vote in 2016, only 0.2% behind the percentage achieved in 2007. (The same pattern can be seen, less dramatically in the constituency vote, with the equivalent figures being 22.4% for 2007, 19.3% for 2011 and 20.5% for 2016). The wave of right-wing reaction made possible by the EU Referendum is waning. Leanne has stood by her principles and convictions and may yet prove to have weathered the storm. Granted, there has been no great leap forwards, but these are not the disastrous results described by some. The next few years are likely to be difficult for a party that has argued for some form of a ‘Wales in Europe’ throughout its history. Brexit continues to pose an existential threat to the party, and Plaid Cymru’s position continues to be somewhat ambiguous. But the popularity and recognition that Leanne Wood has built for herself makes her the likeliest candidate to achieve a breakthrough in the Assembly elections of 2021.She’s a woman
There is of course a gendered dimension to Leanne Wood’s leadership and the response to it. Indeed, when a public figure is attacked from mutually contradictory positions it is usually worth seeking alternative, underlying, sources for the criticisms. Leanne Wood’s very presence is a challenge to patriarchal, messianic models of leadership woven deeply into the history of Plaid Cymru, as of political radicalism more broadly. Her more communal and collaborative form of leadership is that of an emergent generation of female politicans and is the starting point for any serious talk about organising and mobilising social change in the 21st century. It is already clear that the resistance to the current rise of the Far Right has been led by women. January 2017 saw a million-strong march of women against the Trump administration. In Poland, mass women’s protests forced the government back from tightening the already restrictive abortion law, and 2018 saw Ireland voting overwhelmingly to repeal the abortion ban. Italy, Spain and Portugal have seen huge marches against domestic violence and economic precarity, and 8 March 2017 saw International Women’s Day placed firmly back on the calendar with demonstrations on three continents. The #MeToo movement is only the latest of a string of events reshaping our world. Leanne Wood has placed the Welsh national movement within this wider progressive vanguard. This might prove to be her greatest achievement. The age of #Occupy and the anti-austerity movement , the age of #MeToo, is – in Wales – the age of Leanne Wood. Whether this transfers to a breakthrough in 2021 remains to be seen, but she surely deserves to find out.
Correction: this article was corrected on 02/07/18. It originally read 'Prior to Leanne becoming leader of Plaid Cymru, the only Assembly campaign fought with a Tory government in Westminster was 2011 where the party slumped to its worst ever result of 17.9% . Leanne returned the party to 20.5% of the vote in 2016, only 0.5% behind the percentage achieved in 2007.'
Daniel G. Williams is Professor of English and Director of the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales at Swansea University. He was Plaid Cymru’s candidate in the Neath Constituency for the 2017 General Election. His most recent book is Wales Unchained: Literature, Politics and Identity in the American Century (University of Wales Press, 2015).
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