Leanne Wood’s anti-fascist instinct is why we need her as leader of Plaid Cymru
Like most queer people, I can smell bullies a mile off. It’s part of our training, you see, something we had to learn as youngsters growing into an identity at odds with the mainstream, sometimes violently so.
We learned to scan any situation and quickly identify the thugs, the blustering egomaniacs fizzing with insecurities and the passive-aggressive narcissists who’ve learned the right vocabulary, but not a jot of the meaning behind it.
It’s good training for life, and for politics in particular, because politics is crock-full of them all.
Quite how full only became apparent to me after publishing The Greasy Poll, a diary of the turbulent time I spent as Plaid Cymru’s 2015 Westminster candidate in Ceredigion.
Over the decades, I’ve written more than a dozen books about place and identity; each brings reaction from readers, sharing their stories, agreeing or disagreeing with me.
With The Greasy Poll though, it was amazing just how radically different were the responses, especially the emails from politicians and activists in all parties.
Too many saw themselves in it, and only themselves; to them, it wasn’t so much a book, more a wander through a fairground hall of mirrors, marvelling at their own reflection.
People I know to be savage bullies wrote to wail about how badly they too had been pushed around by party machinery, the press or their colleagues. Devious schemers painted themselves as misunderstood ingénues.
People who have been tipping poison down the communal well for years screeched in horror about the barrenness of the political landscape.
Hiding behind smokescreens and subterfuge, bullies love to whip up problems, and then move into the light to present themselves as the solution.
It’s been there for all to see in every party in the Senedd (except, to be fair, the LibDems; it’s hard to split a group of one).
My concern is with Plaid. If there is a leadership challenge, it will be a tough call for many.
Plaid has not been in a good place this last couple of years. We’ve lost two AMs, internal discipline has been badly handled, election results are patchy, the party has sounded quite hesitant on Brexit, and – its real bête noire, in my opinion – there’s been far too much timidity and emphasis on PR over substance.
As leader, Leanne Wood has inevitably copped much of the blame for Plaid’s woes. She’s far from perfect, but that’s unfair.
It’s no secret that I’m a mate of hers, but – as she would tell you too – I’m that kind of gobby mate that doesn’t hold back from criticism when needed (and even when not!).
She knows that I wish she was less carefully calibrated sometimes, and show more of the fire in her belly that powers her politics.
I wish she’d occasionally overrule her advisers, and voice her real beliefs on everything from nuclear power to drugs, and yes, Welsh independence too.
As a fellow Welsh learner, I’d also like to see her be bolder in using the language.
That all said, there is one huge, over-arching reason why I want Leanne to continue as leader: she too can smell a bully at forty paces, and always refuses to play their game.
Right now, that is just about the most important thing we could need in a leader. Left unchecked, bullies become fascists, and at a time when real fascism is flexing its muscles, we need all the opposition we can muster.
Grim election results all over the world tell only a sliver of the story; evidence is mounting by the day of increased tensions and hostility, and dangerous zealots strutting with newfound confidence.
We are not immune to it here, however much we like to think we are.
Leanne is a fighter, a woman who instinctively takes on the bullies and the bullshitters, and always has. There was no careful calibration when she shot down the dog whistle drivel of Farage and Nuttall in those election debates, nor the creepy utterances of their sometime colleagues in the Senedd.
She has fought racism, misogyny and homophobia all her life, and not just for the hashtags and selfies.
She relishes the scrap, as demonstrated so resoundingly on last Thursday’s Question Time from Caernarfon, the very day that three Plaid AMs (and the fingerprint of a fourth?) had put out a letter calling for a challenge to her leadership, surely hoping to ambush her appearance.
If anything, it had the opposite effect to the one they intended, for Leanne came roaring out of the traps and showed just what a formidable operator she has become in her six years of leadership.
Neither does she fall back on the tactic of stoking easy resentment for quick buck electoral gain or social media likes.
I fear that some in and around Plaid don’t quite understand how dangerous that game is, and what dark places it can lead to if encouraged.
During last week’s Question Time, my Twitter feed was full of people getting way more upset by people’s accents than the actual words they used. Where does that leave those of us who will never sound local?
The new and shiny is always appealing when we’ve had our old model six years. It’s all about upgrades these days, even if they promise the earth and deliver very little.
I’ve wavered in my support for Leanne, and for Plaid too, but now that there is talk of a challenge, it has made me think hard about where we are and what we need.
Leanne is well-known, liked and respected. Her confidence is growing, as is her clarity about the perilous state of Wales and the world, and her determination to improve things.
She needs to finish the job, to take us to the next Assembly election, and to work tirelessly to spread nationwide what she did so convincingly in Rhondda last time.
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