Leanne Wood: A politician whose time has come?
In the taxi on the way to the Ty Hywel building in Cardiff Bay the driver tries to convince me that HMP Cardiff is a four star hotel. He’s not making a political point. He just knows I’m not local. Having failed to hoodwink me (largely because the building is big, grey, and looks so much like a prison) he happily recounts stories of befuddled tourists and London ‘types’ who fell for his ruse. The lesson is a simple one – you can easily become a tourist if you stay away from Wales for too long.
Leanne Wood has rarely strayed from the Rhondda where she was born, and where her political ideology seems to have been predominantly formed. Sipping coffee in Cardiff Bay the frontrunner in the race to be the next Plaid Cymru leader traces her political beliefs to growing up in the eighties in Wales, and witnessing first-hand the effect of Thatcher’s scorched earth economic policies. It had, she says, a profound influence on her politics,
‘There was just a sense of someone in political power who was deliberately wreaking havoc on us. That there was no thought, at all, as to the real lives behind the policy decisions that were being made. You can’t underestimate the effect seeing that had.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly Wood sees clear parallels between the Conservative government of the eighties and the current coalition in Westminster,
‘The Tory government then was carrying out a deliberate ideological plan to shrink the welfare state – though they didn’t actually achieve it. The same is going on now.’
Leanne Wood has gone, in under a month, from being the outsider in the race to lead Plaid Cymru to being the favourite. Back in December the all-knowing Paddy Power had her chances at 5/1. This week they declared her the favourite at 4/5. Elin Jones the former frontrunner is now at evens.
It has been a remarkable campaign so far. Through leveraging social media (in particular Twitter) and setting out her views on a wide range of subjects in a detailed and frank way, Leanne Wood has begun to win over those who were initially sceptical about her chances, and her views. It is worth noting that almost from the moment the Plaid leadership was up for grabs there were calls for her to run. Particularly, but not exclusively, they came from the left of the party.
Despite this she was last to declare she was in the race,
‘It was quite a difficult decision. I am a political activist. I’ve come into politics in order to continue and put political activism on a different level I suppose. I haven’t spent years dreaming about being the leader of a political party.’
The use of the words ‘political activist’ rather than politician, tell you a lot about Leanne Wood’s views. She’s well known for being on the left of the party, and for being a staunch republican and socialist.
She was, for instance, the first Assembly Member to be ordered to withdraw from the Welsh Assembly Government chamber. She had referred to the Queen as Mrs Windsor and another AM complained. Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas (then Presiding Officer, and now one of her opponents in the leadership race) asked her to withdraw the comment. She refused. Wood later told the BBC that she had referred to the Queen as Mrs Windsor because,
‘I don’t recognise the Queen’ and ‘I called her that because that’s her name.’
Plaid Cymru is a broad church of political views therefore it is perhaps no surprise that an outspoken left wing republican with strong views on independence was initially considered the outsider. Her current success, therefore, begs the question – what has changed? Undoubtedly Leanne Wood’s views haven’t.
Last year she boycotted the Queen’s visit to the Assembly. She still favours independence ‘as soon as possible’. She also talks with passion about socialism,
‘I’m a socialist, I recognise the world is not an equal place, I support measures to equalise things.’
Some activists have suggested her current success is down to a change in approach to politics, perhaps a softening of her previous uncompromising attitude, that has made her, as they put it – ‘not as scary as she used to be’. But if political commentators are a little bemused at the support she is drawing, then Wood herself is less so,
‘The politics of the day have changed. The failure of all the British parties to provide any solutions to the economic crisis, and Labour saying that they would stick to the Tories’ austerity programme means there’s no opposition at a UK level. So it’s a good time for us to show something different. To put something really different out there.’
Wood has demonstrated her commitment to developing new ideas about the Welsh economy (the weakness of which she views as the biggest challenge currently facing Wales) by producing the thought provoking ‘Greenprint For The Valleys’ a document that sets out ways of the rescuing deprived areas of South Wales from their current managed decline. It’s a mixture of the Red and Green in Wood’s politics, with a strong emphasis on community. And it’s bold.
When discussing the Welsh economy a new urgency creeps into Wood’s voice. She recognises the need for short-term and immediate solutions to the long-term problems the Welsh economy faces. She cites worrying levels of youth and women’s unemployment (that seem likely only to get worse given the dependency that Wales has on public sector jobs). And she’s clear that Welsh politicians need to urgently grasp the nettle and save an already badly floundering economy. She favours a Keynesian approach to the economic crisis and cites examples of manufacturing co-ops in the Basque Country. Primarily she’s clear that the difficult work to come up with solutions to the inherent weakness of the economy in Wales must begin, and quickly,
‘We need to pull together all the best possible brains that we can in Plaid, outside of Plaid, all the friends Wales has got to work together to turn around the Welsh economy. And make sure people have got jobs. Because unless we do that we’re going to continue on this downward slide, and I don’t think that’s something we can afford to do.’
Whilst the short-term aims are about keeping Wales afloat during difficult times, the second aspect of Wood’s approach to a solution to the economic crisis is the one perhaps winning her the most fans. Independence. So can Wales ever reach its full economic potential without independence? On this she’s unequivocal,
‘No. I don’t think so. I think we’re tied into a system that prioritises London and the South East of England and sees Wales, and also other parts of the UK, as being periphery territory. And unless we’ve got full control over all the levers that we can use to shape our economy then I’m convinced we’re stuck in a weak position.’
Wood is convinced the economic case for Welsh independence is there to be made and that Plaid Cymru should immediately begin making that case. She concedes the situation is chicken-and-egg: Wales won’t achieve independence whilst it is economically weak, but Wales will only achieve economic strength if it becomes independent. Ticking over is not enough for Wales, she argues,
‘There are things that we can do now, but ultimately I don’t think we can really motor until we fully control all those levers ourselves.’
Putting independence back on the agenda for Wales is central to Leanne Wood’s campaign. And the fact the party hasn’t been clear on the subject in recent years, she says has damaged Plaid Cymru,
‘I think the danger is that we’ve come across as a bit shifty. Trying to avoid answering questions on independence because we haven’t done the detailed economic work and that’s the bit that needs to change.’
She pauses before answering, when asked whether the position the party has taken on independence in recent years has been frustrating,
‘Yes. For so many Plaid Cymru members and activists independence is the reason we’re in the party. So not having the arguments that we need to really push that has been difficult. But I’m not going to spend too much time crying about the past either. What we’ve got to do now is think about now and where we go in the future.’
Wood admits to being frustrated by the Plaid leadership not following through on left of centre policies, motions and amendments at conference. But rather than being an outsider in the party, Wood suggests she is in tune with the left of centre positioning of most party members.
She fundamentally rejects the label that she’s on the far left of Plaid Cymru,
‘If you look at the motions and amendments that are passed at conference they are consistently to the left of centre. There’s nothing in the broad breadth of Plaid Cymru policy that I can say that I fundamentally disagree with.’
As nominations close for the leadership race at midnight tonight it is shaping up to be an intriguing battle; and one that Leanne Wood, not altogether predictably, is at the centre of.
After last year’s disastrous election results for Plaid, and with the party having broadly achieved many of its short-term aims through the One Wales government, the question remains for Plaid Cymru – what next? After a wide ranging internal review the party seems ready for change but just how much? These are questions that will directly decide whether Leanne Wood becomes the next leader of Plaid Cymru, as she well recognises,
‘If there is a sense within Plaid Cymru that now is the time to take this new path. Then I’m more than up for being the person to lead that.’
Leanne Wood may have been a reluctant candidate, but the power of an idea whose time has come is often irresistible. And it is rarely wise to bet against it.
The other candidates in the Plaid Cymru leadership race are:
Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Elin Jones and Simon Thomas.Tagged in: Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru, welsh politics
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