Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The best leader ever?

It’s unlikely to come up as a question in a Christmas quiz, but nevertheless a point of discussion amongst political anoraks on the eve of Plaid Cymru’s leadership election, who has been their most successful leader to date?
Now most would mention the saintly Gwynfor Evans who turned, what was essentially a protest movement to safeguard the Welsh language, into a recognisable political party. Indeed his election to parliament as Plaid Cymru’s first MP was a breakthrough and a coming of age  for the party as a force in Welsh elected politics.
But if the measure of leadership is winning votes  and seats Gwynfor Evans period as leader was not great. Why? Well, he was careless with his own seat and lost it twice. To loose a seat once may be sheer bad luck, but to loose a seat twice can be seen as careless. 

It was Dafydd Elis-Thomas  and Dafydd Wigley that gave the party a boost by winning Merionydd and Caernarfon for the party in February 1974. 
Gwynfor subsequently joined them in October of that year and had another term until losing his seat in 1979. 
Plaid Cymru’s vote had gone up to 175,016(11.5%) votes in Parliamentary elections in 1970 when they fought every constituency in Wales for the first time but down again to 132,544(8.1%) in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher won the UK election 
In 1981 Dafydd Wigley took over from Evans as President/Leader of the party. He took over a party that was demoralised having seen its vote go down in the election and perhaps even more of a blow seeing Wales reject even a modest  amount of  devolution in the 1979 referendum. 
But before Wigley could make his mark the internal politics of the party saw him resign, the lefty MP for Meirionydd, Dafydd Elis-Thomas who took over as President in 1985.  Under him they gained a  third seat in the 1987 election. Ieuan Wyn Jones was elected as MP for Ynys Mon. 
Wigley again elbowed his way back to the presidency of the party and  saw the party gain it’s fourth Member in  Westminster in the 1992 general election. They remained at four until Simon Thomas lost Ceridigion to the Liberal Democrats in 2005
Meanwhile, of course, Plaid’s focus moved from Westminster to Cardiff Bay with the setting up of the National Assembly for Wales.
Under the leadership of Dafydd Wigley in the 1999 Plaid Cymru gained 17 seats in the Assembly and over 28 per cent of the vote. Their most successful results ever. But to who goes the credit? Wigley as leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones the campaign coordinator.
Certainly Plaid Cymru were helped by the perceived disunity within Labour ranks.  Labour had had two bruising elections for the leadership of the Welsh party.The first was between Ron Davies and Rhodri Morgan, which the former won but had to subsequently resign after a sex scandal. Then Rhodri Morgan took on Alun Michael who was parachuted in by Tony Blair. Morgan took on the party machine and lost although took over without a contest when Michael resigned.
In that first Assembly election Plaid won seats in the South Wales valleys for the first time, ever. But the best of times were followed by the worst of times. Wigley retired on health grounds. Ieuan Wyn Jones took over as leader. But the party’s vote took a tumble in 2003 Assembly elections. A drop in their seats from 17 to 14 and the party's share of the votes dropping by over 7%. 

Jones resigned the Presidency and the  leadership of the Plaid group in the Assembly. The party decided to separate the presidency from that of   leader  and  the come back kid of Welsh politics won back his old job. The party members decided that they liked the cut of his jib when compared to Helen Mary Jones and Rhodri Glyn Thomas the other candidates. So Ieuan Wyn Jones became leader of the party with Dafydd Iwan becoming President. 
The next Assembly election saw Plaid Cymru gain  back three seats. Labour  found themselves with only 26 seats. This put Ieuan Wyn Jones in a pivotal position in Welsh politics. He could head a coalition of non-Labour parties and become Plaid Cymru’s first First Minister. Or could form a coalition with Labour. Jones decided to throw his lot with Labour. History will decide whether he was right or wrong. 

The gains of government did not last and the party lost seats. They became the third party in the Assembly and their leader decides to step down. But that's politics. One minute you're running the roost next minute you're on your backside.
Nevertheless for a party that only had 609 votes in 1929 to become a party of government in a little under eighty years is no mean achievement. And all this under a man that many describe as lacking charisma.  The party might well reflect on this when choosing his successor, it's not always the obvious one in politics that get the results.
But back  to the original question, who would dare say that Ieuan Wyn Jones isn’t Plaid Cymru’s most successful leader.


  1. Gareth,

    Enjoy your blog, but don't share your conclusion on this occasion. Depends on the criteria for success - you've selected 'being in government'; others might choose seats or votes, whilst others again might choose achievement of aims. Criteria chosen affect conclusion significantly.

    But one major correction is necessary to your post, in all fairness. The sentence "But before Wigley could make his mark the internal politics of the party saw him kicked out the job to be replaced by the lefty MP for Meirionydd, Dafydd Elis-Thomas who took over as President in 1985." is just plain wrong. Dafydd resigned, he wasn't kicked out; he stood down for family reasons when two of his sons were coming towards the end of their lives.

  2. You're right and I'dd completely forgotten, so have made an adjustment. The rest still stands though!!

  3. Is it Leaders , is it circumstances, is it good followers
    It would be interesting to ask Plaid members whom they would cite
    Friends I have in Plaid -may be the young ones would flag up the leaders who has never led in the sense that you suggest,Adam Price.he was the negotiator of the one Wales Agreement for Plaid. What about Jill Evans she has had leadership positions and a lot of influence.
    Front faces are not always the leaders.

  4. John Dixon is right, and as far as I can see the new version, "before Wigley could make his mark the internal politics of the party saw him resign" is no more accurate than the previous one.
    Read his autobiography.
    To continue to insinuate that Wigley's resignation in 84 was for any other reason than to care for his dying children is pretty damn poor.

  5. By far the best leader of Plaid is undoubtedly the next one, Leanne Wood. After that I would put Wigley, who apart from family tragedy, would have led us to independence by now.

  6. I don't rate IWJ. I've maintained all along that his decision to enter a coalition with Labour as a minority partner was a serious strategic error, and that the party is reaping the consequences of it now, and will continue to do so for the next four years at least.

    I don't want to repeat my reasoning as to why it was such a bad mistake as I've done so in a number of places, but it seems self-evident anyway.

    I see IWJ as a pale shadow as compared to Wigley - having few of the latter's positive qualities, and certainly not voter appeal or gravitas. It was Jones' thrust to enter the coalition, that much was clear when he spoke at one of the 'consultation' meetings at the time. He'd already made up his mind as far as I could see, regardless of what the party's grassroots thought about it.

    Being a minority in a coalition isn't truly 'being' in government - its more like having some direct influence on government. Salmond realised the difference and was wise to avoid coalition even as the major partner - though of course the unionists would not have joined him in any case.

    To me, that's the difference between a leader and a manager - willing to take risks whilst having a clear vision of the direction to take. As I party member I had no real idea of the direction that Plaid was heading under IWJ, only a feeling that it wasn't going anywhere far - as has turned out to be the case.

    Now the party has to elect a leader, after an extraordinarily long period of navel gazing, due no doubt to IWJ's decision not to stand down sooner. Hopefully it will elect a leader with that clear vision and direction of which the party is in dire need.

    Of the four candidates, Leanne is the most promising, and I will be supporting her bid. One of the four would be an absolute disaster, and I would not remain in the party or even vote for it were that person elected. As for the other two, one doesn't seem to have clear vision or direction, a IWJ Mark II - definitely not an election winner I think, and the fourth lacks charisma, though has had some questionable experience as a government minister.

    I agree with much of what John Dixon has to say on his blog.