Friday, 16 March 2012
Plaid's new leader
It’s the real deal. Leanne Wood is a lefty through and through. A republican that got thrown out of the Assembly for calling the Queen “Mrs Windsor.” She’s protested against Trident and been arrested, she’s been seen on many a picket line and has shared platforms outside her party with many a far left organisation. And of course she firmly believes in an independent Wales. Strong and genuine credentials to lead a left wing nationalist party.
In electing this left wing young republican Plaid Cymru has made a statement “forget the central ground of Welsh politics we’re firmly staking our claim as a party of the left.”
Her election isn’t an emotional spasm or the romanticism of the large young following that has being the bedrock of her leadership campaign. It is the settled view of the way Plaid Cymru sees itself.
The election of Leanne Wood is not one of an isolated left winger somehow bucking the trend within the party, but more an election of “one of us” to lead.
For in the last few years we have seen the election of the following from the left of the party, Jill Evans, MEP as President of the party and Helen Mary Jones the former Assembly Member as Chair of the party. The top positions in the party are firmly in the grip of the left.
And who can deny that is exactly what the rank and file of Plaid members want. In recent years the party conferences have consistently voted anti nuclear power generation, they have a pro green agenda and again and again have declare for independence, despite the best efforts of Dafydd Elis-Thomas.
All these are Leanne Wood’s agenda writ large. There is little doubt the party is positioning itself to challenge Labour from the left.
It’s a brave and massive gamble for the party to take. But one that it’s prepared to take seemingly with it’s eyes very much wide open.
For the strategy to work it has to persuade Labour voters to jump ship and to do so in droves. Indeed it has to win the valleys for Plaid, a mammoth task and one that has been beyond them to date. This strategy also carries with it the danger of alienating the more conservative Plaid voter in rural north and West Wales.
What will the other parties make of this extraordinary development?
Initially Labour will be pleased with the result. Leanne Wood’s election will rule out the prospect of a rainbow coalition. Indeed she was one of four refuseniks AMs when this was live following the 2007 election.
The only coalition game Plaid will now play, is with Labour. And if such a marriage is ever contemplated it is unlikely to be consummated this side of the next Assembly elections.
The chances of the opposition parties under a lefty Leanne Wood and a rightist Andrew RT Davies getting their ducks in a row to mount a creditable challenge to Carwyn Jones’s government is highly unlikely. So our First Minister will be quietly pleased with the outcome of Plaid’s leadership contest in the short term.
But what of the longer term.
The prospect of Plaid Cymru placing their tanks on Labour’s lawn may not cause Carwyn Jones much loss of sleep even over a longer time period.
The valleys are not the hot bed of radicalism that many a left wing romantic would like to hope, think and make out. No, the typical valley voter is quite conservative, with a small ‘c’ of course. And a Stanley Baldwin type figure like Carwyn Jones suits them just fine.
Ms Wood may attract some new idealistic young recruits to the ranks of her party, her enthusiasm and relative youth should do that. And as her campaign showed, she can energise her own party.
Getting the voter to desert Labour for a more radical party of the left... others have tried and failed. Looking into the entrails of history the omens are not very promising.
The Tories are full of glee at the result. They’ve most to gain from the lurch to the left. The party has, over the last few years, being quietly turning itself into the “Welsh” Conservative party.
Prominent members of the party like Glyn Davies, David Melding, Jonathan Morgan, Guto Bebb, Paul Davies and former leader Nick Bourne have being pushing for more devolution, more sympathy for the language.
Forget their initial opposition to devolution, they have the zeal of the newly converted. These right wing welshy Tories aim to hoover up the Plaid Cymru vote.
There are many voters with a sympathy for all things Welsh. These in the past have looked to Plaid to represent their interests. Could they now be seduced by this newly invented Conservative party with its strong “welsh” agenda?
The gradual but steady growth in the Conservative vote in Assembly elections is testimony indeed that their strategy is working. It is not mere chance that this most pragmatic of parties has overtaken Plaid to become the Official Opposition in the Assembly
All in all, Leanne Wood has a daunting task to lead a left wing crusade in a country that for some few years now has talked radicalism but has hardly embraced it. The backdrop to yesterday’s count was a dragon climbing a very steep hill, how very prescient of the party to display such a motif.
But yesterday's result has made Welsh politics suddenly very interesting.