This article is from the October 2012 issue of Total Politics
For a few months after her election as leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood’s Twitter feed proclaimed: “Welsh Socialist and Republican. Environmentalist. Anti-racist. Feminist. Valleys.” It reminded me of a young Alex Salmond, who once championed a “Scottish socialist republic”. Nowadays, he wants a Scottish neoliberal monarchy – but even nationalists grow more conservative with age.
Recently, Wood’s Twitter profile was neutered to say only that she’s “Leader/ Arweinydd [of] Plaid Cymru – the Party of Wales”. Still only 40, the edge hasn’t yet come off the Welsh Assembly Member for South Wales Central. Until she was elected leader on 15 March this year, she insists, “I’ve not had a leadership project”. Wood was not exactly a household name, even in the valleys where she was born and worked (as a probation officer) before going into politics.
Now she leads an Assembly group of 11 Plaid AMs, making it Wales’ third party. In her first electoral test in May, Plaid Cymru lost instead of gaining seats, losing control of its only local authority (Caerphilly) to Labour. Wood admits this was disappointing, although not a surprise, given she’d only been in the post six weeks. Usefully, she won’t face another election until that for the European Parliament in June 2014, giving her what she calls a “nice period of time” to build support.
As we meet in Wood’s unassuming Cardiff Bay office, she’s in the midst of an internal party row. When veteran Plaid MP and former presiding officer Dafydd Elis-Thomas – Wood beat him to the leadership – opted to preside over a Bangor University graduation ceremony rather than join Plaid, Tory and Lib Dem AMs in an attempt to oust health minister Lesley Griffiths, he attacked his colleagues for acting as the “Tories’ lapdogs”, and was suspended from the group.
Rivals tried to make the incident a test of Wood’s authority, while Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones also made mischief, inviting Elis-Thomas to join the Labour Party. Elis-Thomas admitted considering defection, but just days before a disciplinary panel was due to consider his case, Wood dropped the proceedings. She admitted the incident had been “damaging”, but made it clear she would not tolerate similar behaviour in future.
However magnanimously Wood appears to have handled the affair (she made a point of praising Elis-Thomas’s contribution to Welsh politics), it was a strategic retreat with a colourful backstory. In December 2004, when Elis-Thomas was still presiding officer, he had asked Wood to withdraw a reference to the Queen as “Mrs Windsor”. When she refused, he had her ejected from the Chamber.
But while Wood’s witty republicanism rankled with Elis-Thomas (a left-winger, albeit an establishment one), it also – perhaps inadvertently – boosted her profile. With anti-monarchists in short supply, the Plaid AM stood out as articulate and principled. Recently, when Labour tried to capitalise on Wood’s stance during Jubilee celebrations, she wrong-footed them during a Senedd debate with a nuanced restatement of her position: “I place on record my personal and my party’s best wishes to the Queen as she celebrates her 60 years of public service”. This echoed a similar performance on the BBC’s Question Time.
Nevertheless, Wood’s views of the monarchy has led to claims she’s little more than a placard-waving protester and not a serious politician. But, unashamedly left-wing, she also has a deep hinterland on the radical left and a detailed interest in policy development. Process holds surprisingly little interest for this Plaid leader; politics to Wood is about the art of the possible.
Although this might work on a personal level – she does ‘human’, and voters seem likely to notice – her problems are essentially strategic. Unlike its Scottish counterpart, Welsh Labour is not a discredited force – “yet,” interjects Wood. Now she’s trying to outflank Labour on the left at the very moment it stands to benefit from an unpopular Conservative–Lib Dem coalition in London.
“The centre of gravity in Welsh politics is on the centre-left,” reasons Wood. “The context we’re in at the moment is quite significant in all of this; the [economic] crisis has demonstrated to a lot of people that we can’t carry on with the old way of doing things.”
Isn’t Carwyn Jones offering an alternative? “There’s a lot of rhetoric which sounds fine and it is attractive to people,” she replies, “but over time the lack of ambition and action will become apparent.”
“It’s easy to lay into the coalition government – I do it myself – but it isn’t enough to run your [own] government in opposition to another, especially when there are chronic economic problems that need tackling.” She suggests Jones just seems to be hanging around and hoping Ed Miliband becomes prime minister, rather than offering “any new ideas or new thinking”.
Since being elected to the National Assembly in 2003, Wood has demonstrated plenty of both. During her first term, she was Plaid’s social justice spokesperson and produced a document called Making Our Communities Safer. This was later adopted as party policy. At the end of her second term, she produced A Greenprint for the Valleys, which promoted a job-creation programme aimed at regenerating the area’s former coalfields. The publications established Wood not as a David Willetts-style policy wonk, but as someone willing to apply creative solutions to long-term problems. Her campaign for the Plaid leadership continued in the same vein, promoting what she calls new ways of doing business, emphasising the co-operative model. She’s keen to avoid, however, the impression this is “anti-business”.
Has there been too much emphasis on attracting inward investment? “Yes, although that’s not to say inward investment doesn’t have a place - it does,” she says. “But much more effort needs to go into supporting home-grown business. If you compete on the basis of low wages, it’s a race to the bottom; that’s just not sustainable employment.”
Wood recently visited Scotland, where she was impressed with the Scottish government’s promotion of renewable energy as a means of re-industrialising Scotland. The Plaid leader sees Wales as having similar potential: “Wales has a big coastline, we’ve got a lot of wind, and enough water, so we’re in a really good position to take advantage.”
Scotland is a source of inspiration as well as frustration for Plaid Cymru. North of the border, the Nationalists are not only in government but also enjoying an overall majority. Wood is wary of comparisons between the Principality and Scotland, but when asked whether Plaid might have misread the SNP’s recent success – support for independence remains relatively low – the point does not appear to register.
She explains: “I don’t think we’ve had the [independence] debate in Wales, or that an independent Scotland is on the radar for most Welsh people but over time, some of the debate will begin to register.” And if there’s a “no” vote in 2014? “It’s difficult to predict what will happen this far in advance,” she replies deftly. “In two years, that gap could close.”
Even if it does, there seems to be little enthusiasm for a similar shift in Wales. A recent BBC Wales poll put support for independence at just seven per cent, rising to 12 per cent if Scotland jumped first. The SNP, of course, has spent a lot of time redefining what it means by independence, moving more towards a radically decentralised – perhaps confederal – United Kingdom.
Wood, however, is clearly aware of such shifts, particularly the SNP’s newfound enthusiasm for Britishness, something she echoes in a geographical sense. “Plaid Cymru wants an independent Wales within the European Union, and we’ve held that position for a long time,” she asserts. “As for the detail under that, we haven’t undertaken the same level of work [as the SNP], so some of those things are up for grabs.”
Like the SNP, Plaid has long pursued a gradualist approach to its constitutional ambitions, at first supporting devolution in 1999 and working since – often cross-party – to extend the Assembly’s initially modest powers. “We’ve got a long-term vision, and we know where we want to be,” affirms Wood. “But in order to get there, there are a number of posts along the way.”
Elsewhere, she’s spoken of Wales existing within a “neighbourhood of nations” following the break-up of the UK, and sees herself as a civic nationalist rather than a cultural one. Usefully, she’s a Welsh learner, which means she has both the respect of Welsh and English-speaking Wales.
But one SNP stance Wood isn’t keen to echo is its enthusiasm for retaining Queen Elizabeth II as “Queen of Scots” in an independent Scotland. On her republicanism, she’s in no mood to equivocate: “I believe in equality. If you’re born into a position no-one else can hope to be in then that goes against the basic principles of equality.”
Critics, however, argue that a left-wing nationalist isn’t exactly in a prime position to build support for the party. Wood politely disagrees, pointing out that, in addition to disillusioned Labour voters, Plaid needs to appeal to those who’ve stopped voting altogether. That, she says, requires “honesty and trust”, of which her republicanism is a key element. She predicts: “Given my intention to focus on jobs and the economy, we can appeal to people right across the political spectrum, including disenchanted Tories and Lib Dems.”
To do so, the leader of Plaid Cymru must convince Welsh voters she’s both politically pragmatic and open to working with other parties. Her supporters believe she has the capacity to grow into the post, increasing support for the party and “real independence” as she does so.
Paraphrasing Enoch Powell, in the next two years the Principality will learn of which metal Plaid’s first female leader is made.
David Torrance is a writer, journalist and broadcaster