Leanne Wood, the newly elected leader of Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, brings with her a truly radical agenda. What was behind her unexpected victory, and will she bring her unruly party in line behind her key goals of socialism and independence for Wales?
“The election is over, now the real work begins. I may not be the leader of the official opposition, but I intend to lead the Official Proposition. The proposition that another Wales is possible. Our positive, ambitious alternative vision can only come from the party of Wales.”
So said the new leader of Plaid Cymru in making a victory speech last Thursday which was both firm and direct. Those who know Leanne Wood know that’s how she likes her politics. And clearly that’s what attracted thousands of people in her party to back her to succeed Ieuan Wyn Jones as leader of the party of Welsh nationalists.
Until Leanne Wood actually declared herself a candidate, few people had thought of her as a potential leader of Plaid. As a Welsh learner from a former coal mining valley in South Wales, she was an unexpected choice for Plaid, whose traditional heartlands lie in the Welsh-speaking West and North. When I chided the BBC for consistently failing to mention her as a potential leader last summer, some people thought I was being a bit of a crank. But not only was it an unexpected victory, it was very nearly won on the first ballot, with Wood taking 48% of the vote – a quite incredible achievement.
Plaid has been in the doldrums for a few years and has too often been seen as a “Labour light” option without any clear identity. This was reflected in the result of last year’s Assembly election when the party fell not just out of government with Labour but also into third place in the Assembly pecking order for the first time.
So why did party members place their hope in Wood to turn this around? Wood has credibility and strength far beyond her radical convictions. She is not someone who believes in political compromise but she is someone who believes in politics – and a politics of change which she has articulated clearly throughout the campaign. She has been avowedly clear on issues such as independence and socialism – she is perhaps the party’s most left wing elected politician and it was that clarity of expression which made her stand out during the campaign. Her strong republican stance coupled with a fierce defence of public services created a no-nonsense platform on which she won through.
She is now the second female leader of a Welsh political party in the Senedd along with Kirsty Williams, the Liberal Democrat leader. Two strong, feisty women leading their parties in the Assembly will have an impact. We have always looked different, now the Assembly will sound different too.
Having known Wood since we were both in student politics together twenty years ago, nothing makes me angrier than when people brand her politics as “student politics.” That is a charge leveled against her by detractors within and without her own party who see her as too pure, too ideological, too abstract, too left and too aspirational to make a difference. They do not know Leanne. Last year when I was Campaign Director of 'Yes for Wales', I had the pleasure again of working closely with her, then Plaid’s nominee to the main committee of the campaign. She always picked the right battles and was consistently strategic and level headed.
But the next stages will be especially challenging. Wood now needs to take her party on a disciplined, focused journey that is firmly based on the socialist vision that so clearly appeals to her members. But Plaid is a party that has not always been known as self disciplined or easy to lead.
She won’t thank me for saying this, but in some ways Wood is like Tony Blair. Both came from the political extremes of their own parties (albeit different parties and different wings) but like Blair, Wood needs now to bring the vast bulk of her party with her. In doing so she needs to position Plaid more effectively - not just as an opposition to Labour in the Assembly, but also as an opposition to the UK Government. It was telling that she chose to pressure Carwyn Jones this week to do exactly that, seizing the issue of the regionalization of public sector pay and seeking to make it her own.
Yet she is also enough of a realist to know that the future of Plaid in the short to medium term won’t be decided in London or even Cardiff. It is intrinsically bound up in the decisions to be made in Edinburgh. As ever, Welsh nationalism remains the poor relation of its Scottish counterpart, and the effectiveness of Alex Salmond is as critical as any strengths Leanne Wood can bring to her party.