If Leanne Wood is going, it may be best to go now
Ifan Morgan Jones
I’ve always thought that Leanne Wood was the best person to lead Plaid Cymru.
As demonstrated by her Rhondda win, she has an understanding of what is required to break through in the valleys seats that Plaid Cymru so desperately need.
She also has the highest public profile of any Plaid Cymru leader, and is popular with the public (well, as popular as a politician can be).
However, I can’t help but feel that, following her statement that she’ll stand down as party leader after the next election if she fails to become First Minister, it may be better to go sooner rather than later.
I’m not completely sure why she made this deceleration. Party leaders usually only declare an intention to step down in order to head off a challenge that could force them to resign much sooner.
Although there had been a few murmurings of discontent in the party, the consensus seemed to be that Leanne Wood would only be expected to step down if the party made no progress at an Assembly election, or had a disastrous GE (losing Arfon, or instance).
Neither looked that likely to happen – after the Corbyn bounce in 2017 the Labour surge looks to have largely abated, making a breakthrough more likely and an embarrassing loss, less so.
But while Plaid Cymru can be reasonably confident of having a good election in 2021, it would take a something of a political earthquake for Leanne Wood to become First Minister.
Realistically, therefore, her declaration amounts to ‘I’ll be gone in three years’.
As soon as a leader sets a departure date much of their authority starts to ebb away as the possible contenders and their allies within the party start to jockey for position and set a new course.
She has, in effect, therefore, made herself something of a lame duck.
Her declaration will also no doubt undermine the next election campaign. If Plaid Cymru don’t look like having made much progress by 2021 all the journalists are going to ask Leanne Wood is ‘how can you promise Plaid will do X, Y or Z if you’re going to be replaced by someone else in a few months?’
And every Plaid Cymru contender will be asked ‘Do you have designs on the leadership?’ rather than ‘what makes you the best contender in this seat?’
This is why party leaders usually deny they’re going to step down after an election until the votes have been counted, even if it’s obvious to everyone else that they will do so.
Saying that she will step down as the leader is also an admission that many at the top of the party are pushing for a change of direction, anyway.
Statements by Liz Saville Roberts and Jonathan Edwards prior to the party conference made that clear. The party also had what was by all accounts a very frank meeting in Aberystwyth on this subject a few weeks ago.
Change is coming, and Leanne Wood seems resigned to it. Which begs the question, if she’s prepared to step aside and allow this change of direction, then why wait three years?
It’s too short a time for her to chart a completely new course, but also a very long time for a party to be sitting still.
Why not simply allow the change of strategy now, and see if it could make the difference that could win Plaid the next Assembly Election?
Keeping all this in mind, it’s difficult not to interpret Leanne Wood’s comments as something of an invitation to challenge her for the leadership.
I’ve suspected that she may be looking beyond the Plaid Cymru leadership since she suggested that she could stand in last year’s General Election.
Her comments to the BBC that part of her “would welcome a leadership challenge” tends to reinforce that view.
Therefore, I don’t think her possible successors (most likely Rhun ap Iorwerth or Adam Price), should have any qualms about throwing their hats into the ring now.
This could be the impetus they have been waiting for. After all, by 2021 there could be other contenders in the Assembly vying for the crown who are currently at Westminster or temporarily suspended.
Leanne Wood can bring her time as leader to an end satisfied that she made a real difference to Plaid Cymru’s electoral fortunes, winning the Rhondda at the Assembly and Ceredigion at the GE.
She still has a huge contribution to make as an Assembly Member for the Rhondda and as a member of the Plaid Cymru team. The party can’t afford to lose the few big, experienced beasts it does have.
But since she herself has now admitted that her time as leader is coming to an end, why not allow someone else to take the reigns and see if they can make a difference?