Image: Adam Price, standing for Plaid Cymru leader. Credit: Wikimedia.
Plaid Cymru’s leadership election marks the most significant moment in Welsh politics since the 2011 referendum that turned the National Assembly into a Welsh Parliament. The most important moment before that was the referendum in 1997 which created the Assembly. And before that it was the miners’ strike in 1984-85 which pointed Wales in the direction of self-government.
Compare Plaid’s election with those that are underway or have taken place within the other parties in recent months. The Welsh Liberal Democrat election went unnoticed. Can you name their new leader? UKIP’s election was just a further stage in the disintegration of that party. The Welsh Conservatives’ election came about as a result of an internal party quarrel. Welsh Labour’s election has been mainly about bringing the party within the mainstream democratic norm of allowing one member one vote.
Plaid Cymru’s election is about whether we have a national future. Wales woke up as a political nation in 1997 with the referendum that created the Assembly. But since then, with Labour at the helm, we’ve been in a state of torpor and drowsiness.
If truth be told, Labour was reluctant to establish the Assembly in the first place. It only did so when forced over decades by pressure from Plaid Cymru. Labour came into office without an effective programme. Such as it had was provided by coalition partners - the Liberal Democrats in 1999, and Plaid in 2007. At the end of the first term the Permanent Secretary Jon Shortridge declared that the Assembly’s main achievement had been not to mess up in terms of any major scandal or policy blunder.
This has been the lamentable story ever since, and none more so than with the need for investment and enterprise to kick start the Welsh economy. Take one of the most innovative schemes the Welsh Government has been presented with, the Metro for Cardiff and the Valleys. If the full project were to be delivered it would involve an extensive network of light rail with complementary bus services and through ticketing. Housing development would be aligned with the network and new stations would be associated with community hubs. A project on this scale would require investment of around £3billion.
Ask anyone in business what the administrative overhead of such a complex project on such a scale would be and they would tell you at least ten per cent. Halve that to five per cent and you still get an overhead of £150 million. That would be enough to establish a time-limited body charged with implementation, and hiring executives and engineers with proven experience elsewhere.
What did the Welsh Government do? It seconded a handful of civil servants and hired a few consultants, some of whom were conflicted because they were working for companies looking for contracts. Years slipped by and belatedly the Welsh government decided to hire another 70 people. If this goes on we’ll likely end up paying more and the Metro that emerges will be consist of some new livery on a few buses, and the electrification of a few Valley lines.
We’re now reaching a point where the Welsh Government’s lack of ambition and achievement is throwing a large question mark over the whole devolution project. Instead of being in a state of torpor the political nation is in danger of going back to sleep.
In the forthcoming 2021 Assembly election we need to elect a government with fresh ideas and a sense of urgency to implement effective policies for our economy, environment, health and education. This is why Plaid’s present leadership contest is such a landmark event. It holds out the prospect of a re-energised party whose ambitions extend beyond nudging Labour in the right direction.
All three candidates display admirable qualities. But only one has the drive, determination, and the plan necessary for the immense task in front of us.
For Adam Price his whole life has been a preparation for this moment. His winning record speaks for itself. In 2001 he took Carmarthen East, among only a handful of seats across the UK that Labour lost. One critic has described his standing down from the seat in 2010 and then spending time as a Fulbright scholar at Harvard as ‘difficult to fathom’.
To the contrary, it was part of Adam’s long-term leadership goal. He wanted to get into the Assembly and meanwhile he wanted to broaden his horizons and thinking. While at Harvard he was much influenced by Marshall Ganz whose work inspired Barack Obama's grassroots campaign in 2008. Ganz argued that leaders must build a three-part narrative explaining their calling: why they feel inspired to act (story of self), how this act relates to their audience (story of us), and what urgent challenge this action seeks to address (story of now).
How does this apply to Adam Price today? His story of self goes back to the miners’ strike, when his Amman Valley family shifted from Labour to Plaid. This was the pivotal moment in recent Welsh history and Adam’s experience at the time has been fundamental for his politics.
His ‘story of us’ relates directly to Plaid Cymru. It is his detailed strategy for the party to put itself on a war footing for the 2021 election.
And his ‘story of now’ is for the nation as a whole. It is contained in his ten-point plan for the Welsh economy, practical policies that make you ask: why hasn’t something like this been done already during the past twenty years? As Adam says, they demonstrate what Welsh self-government could achieve even within the constraints of the Assembly’s current powers and finance.