Why we need to get behind Leanne Wood, the politician who broke the mould
After having spent most of my adult life being an activist, ‘mainstream’ politics held little interest back in 2012.
There was no variety, no radicalism and no sincerity to be found in any of the political parties as far as I could see.
It was a politics populated by grey suits with bland politics who always seemed to be more interested in getting their own seat at the table rather than holding power to account.
During this time of neoliberal consensus every politician owed their career to being seen favourably by a constantly shrinking and more centralised media elite, who acted as middle men between politicians and the public.
If they said something too radical or too far from the mainstream belief in capitalist market economics their views would be blocked or condemned by this very small number of media channels.
The public figure in question had no way of addressing the public directly to correct the record.
What emerged was a culture or conformity and timidity that led to the commonly held belief that “politicians are all the same”.
Even well-intentioned and radical hearted individuals had to ‘tone down’ their message and be very wary of saying anything that was too far from the norm as an eerie group think settled over politics.
The result was an entire political class raised in a culture of fear of saying the wrong thing.
Leanne Wood was different. I and many others were drawn to Plaid by her political leadership. The new ideas and radicalism that she represented broke the mould.
A staunch republican, feminist, socialist and advocate of Welsh independence, Leanne was a state school educated, working-class woman who seemed to say directly what was on her mind.
I was convinced that she would be ‘weeded out’ by the natural selection of all-powerful media scrutiny. Surely, she would be hounded for her every word and could not rise to the top of a political party?
Maybe it was because Plaid was a small party when compared to the Westminster behemoths, or maybe it was because the SNP in Scotland had already managed to put independence back on the agenda, but I was wrong.
Either way, her leadership campaign on a platform of ‘real independence’ won through and nearly secured her the Plaid leadership in the first round of voting in 2012. When the second round was counted she won decisively.
Plaid had chosen its radical.
So why did Plaid break out of the ‘grey consensus’?
From the current vantage point of 2018, there doesn’t seem to be anything too unusual about a political party electing a radical and outspoken leader.
The politics of ‘business as usual’ has rapidly been replaced by a political climate in which radicals and populists of both left and right and thriving.
In the era of Corbyn and Sanders, Trump and Farage, the mainstream mould is no longer a barrier to reaching the top; it actually seems to be a benefit
Leanne’s breakthrough, however, was unique for its time.
For a considerable period before her election, the party seemed stuck in a rut. Their message of gradual independence and cultural preservation had always done well in the Welsh-speaking heartlands, but failed to attract serious interest in the majority English speaking Valleys where the bulk of the population lived.
She embodied a combination of three vital elements. She was:
- a passionate defender of the culture who could appeal to the heartlands
- a staunch advocate of independence
- a working-class woman who’s cultural home was right in the centre of the valleys world that Plaid needed to win.
Leanne represented an opportunity for Plaid, and the party grassroots overwhelmingly decided to take a risk on doing something different.
For me, an English-speaking leftist from the north-east borders, she stood out in an otherwise stale political landscape.
In order to support her vision of a united Wales that could push its way towards independence by focussing on the bread and butter issues that most concerned people, I joined Plaid Cymru.
It is a badly kept secret that some elected members at the top of the party have been jostling for position and putting pressure on Leanne since the summer of last year.
Shortly after she released a publication that restated her commitment to focusing on the grassroots issues and paving the way towards independence – including a discussion on the place of community-led socialism in Plaids economic thinking – a counter-narrative of ‘moving to the centre’ and being open to working with the Tories has gradually emerged, one hint at a time.
This has since been picked up by a media establishment quick to exploit the perceived weakness in any party and have a pop at a radical.
To me, this appears to be an attempt by some elected officials to retreat back into Plaids comfort zone and abandon the drive to reach out to the electorally vital valleys.
More than that, a willingness to work with the Tories would push Plaid further to the right than it has ever been before, so this position goes further than just a retreat back to Plaid’s more centrist days.
It is natural that there were always going to be elected officials in Plaid who were uncomfortable with the party having such a different leader and so it is logical that a reaction was always going to come at some point.
Perhaps the remarkable thing is that it has taken this long for Leanne to face a formal challenge.
The argument against Leanne is that her strategy has failed, and the party is not moving on. But that is quite simply false.
In 2016 Leanne – with her unique message, platform and style – won a resounding victory in the Rhondda, unseating a Labour minister right in the heart of Plaids main target area with 51% of the vote and a huge swing.
This is the first time the party has had a break-through in the valleys since its short-lived gains of 1999. Its significance cannot be under-estimated.
This seat – combined with Leanne’s huge public profile – can now be used as the launch pad and model for a campaign at the next election that seeks to take a string of valleys seats.
The formula has been tested and it works.
However, Leanne has rather unfairly had to shoulder the blame for a turbulent year within Plaid, where the party’s creaking machinery failed to quickly deal with numerous disciplinary issues that have still left a bitter taste in the mouths of many.
This is unfair because the leadership has no influence in these matters, and Leanne has rightly focussed on promoting the radical, one Wales, real independence message that she was elected on.
Neither the lack of break-through nor the recent internal troubles are the real reasons for the emerging challenge and ‘change of direction’.
I may have joined the party and stood for election as a councillor because of Leanne Wood, but since then I have become attached to the vision of a more independent Wales that is free to chart its own course in the world.
Giving up the post-2012 strategy and toning down the progressive economic message that seeks to appeal to all of Wales would, to me, be strategically disastrous. This is an impoverished country where about 60% of the population ‘votes left’.
A change of direction would not be enough to drive me away from the party. Cuddling up to the Tories, however, would.
I would resign, and I would not be the only one. Anecdotally, I’ve heard people use the ‘R’ word a lot in recent weeks.
It is one thing to state that Leanne’s Valleys strategy should be abandoned, but it is another to suggest teaming up with the austerity-promoting, ultra-British Nationalist party that has caused so much pain to so many in Wales.
Sadly, the statements of several elected officials have hinted in this direction since Leanne restated her platform with her publication in January.
For many who have joined the party in recent years such a change of direction would be a serious red line.
This retreat is being presented as a strategy because the Tories have opened the door to future cooperation.
To retreat at this point would be a terrible mistake, and to lurch to the right would be catastrophic.
The reality is that the comfy, consensus, grey suit politics has collapsed.
Rather than recognising this and getting behind their own unique public hero in these radical times, the small ‘c’ conservative instincts of some in the party are using this turbulence to try and go back to a politics that is more familiar to them, just as the Blairites did in Labour and the Clintonites did in the Democrats.
I support Leanne Wood for First Minister in 2021 and we need to get behind her.