It was standing room only at the Pick and Shovel Club in Ammanford for the formal launch of Leanne Wood’s campaign for the leadership of Plaid Cymru, in the first week of the year. The former miners’ club provided a solid Welsh working class reference point for Wood’s own political background, and she recalled impressions made, 20 years before, in the same club, at a commemoration of International Brigade members and the fight against Franco’s fascists.
The venue was also appropriate as Plaid Cymru has been actively rejuvenating community pubs and clubs, formerly the province of Labour and the unions, all round Wales.
So the message was of education, self-advancement, community and culture – a politically literate people, building from the grassroots to reground the Welsh values of ‘collectivism’ and ‘communityism’.
That history, and these values encourage her to take on the challenges of life in Wales today – people without food and heating, more and more without safe and secure homes, while the 1% live on in luxury.
On these foundations she brought in the ‘I’ word: independence. Both she and her first sponsor, MP Jonathan Edwards of Carmarthen, leaned heavily on the SNP’s electoral successes in Scotland, where Labour has provided a much easier Blairite target for populist policies. The SNP has stood to the left of Scottish Labour on many issues and has been rewarded by the electorate.
In Wales, Plaid is self-critical for its dalliance in coalition with a Labour Party that, under Rhodri Morgan, retained a modicum of ‘clear red water’ against Westminster and just held on to Assembly power, despite the British electoral disaster. Plaid was seriously damaged, losing both seats and leading campaigners.
Wood avoided the rightist anti-Labour rhetoric that currently dominates Plaid’s media work – and also satisfies Plaid’s Labour-alienated left. In the week when Labour’s Liam Byrne launched his ‘Welfare Reform’, barely distinguishable from the Tories; when Twigg set about education in a similar vein, and when Diane Abbott’s loose but innocuous tweet was met by Labour with cringing apologies instead of forthright anti-racist defence, Leanne could have made more of the opportunity to put Plaid firmly at the forefront of the growing numbers that want to see politicians stand up to all this Tory tosh, lead the fight for jobs and against the cuts. She has already prepared the ground with her vigorous campaigning and her ‘Greenprint for the Valleys’, a serious attempt to move towards a ‘green economy’ in Wales.
If independence is the answer, then that is how it will be built. Nationalism won’t win; policies for Wales will. That is why the Welsh powers’ referendum was such a success and why Plaid’s turn away from these co-operative successes with the better side of Labour, and towards nationalism, has reaped a poor harvest. Despite their legitimate enthusiasm for the SNP, Plaid has missed the fact that in Scotland, the SNP’s success has been built on left-populism (too frightening for Labour) and putting ‘independence’ on the back burner.
There is a great debate to have about the nature of independence, beyond devolution, but one thing is for sure. People in Scotland and Wales have made clear to their parties that last thing they want is Tories. Politicians that start to come to terms with the substance of that, will be the ones that deserve to lead our political parties, and Leanne Wood is well versed on that ground.
Nominations for Plaid Cymru leadership are now open and voting will take place in March. There are three others standing: another woman, Elin Jones AM, (Lord) Dafydd Elis Thomas AM, and Simon Thomas AM. This article first appeared in Celyn, a Welsh ‘green left’ online magazine which involves members of both Labour and Plaid (including Leanne Wood herself)