Plaid Cymru should think again before trying to topple the party’s best electoral asset
Guto Prys ap Gwyfor
“California earthquakes are a geologic inevitability”.
So said a report on the American network CBS. California is expected to suffer a severe earthquake every hundred years or so, and it is said that California is now overdue an earthquake. Plaid Cymru is much the same.
Every twenty years or so it goes through its own little earthquake. In nearly every case, except for the first, it boils down to frustration and knee jerk reaction. And as with every such case, decisions made in frustration are inevitably the wrong decisions.
Plaid Cymru was formed in 1924. The party only fielded one candidate in elections between then and 1943, and that was in Caernarfon.
Then, during the 1943 University Seat by-election the party had very high hopes of winning, with Saunders Lewis considered to be head and shoulders above every other prospective candidate, only to be scuppered by the betrayal of WJ Gruffydd, who had previously been a party member.
This was seen by the party’s enemies as the high-water mark for the young Plaid Cymru. However, with the hope and reinvigoration that came with the 1943 by-election, it also heralded in a new era.
By 1945 the party’s old guard decided to step aside. Saunders Lewis, JE Daniel, and other stalwarts decided for various reasons to move on.
Saunders Lewis, on his departure, announced that it was his opinion that the young Gwynfor Evans should be President.
And so Plaid Cymru became a professional party. Gwynfor Evans changed it from what was seen as largely a protest party, to be an electoral force, increasing the number of candidates that they fielded in every election.
In the 1959 election the party fielded no fewer than twenty candidates. However, by the early sixties things were not all well.
The party was coming under continuous sniping for not doing enough for the Welsh Language. It had failed to make an electoral breakthrough.
And worst of all it was facing an existential crisis, with a real threat of the party splitting in two – between the more Anglicised Valleys of south Wales, and the more Welsh-speaking rural north and west.
It was all coming to a head, when, in mid-1966, a by-election was called in Carmarthen following the passing of Lady Megan Lloyd-George. Gwynfor Evans won a historic by-election, becoming the party’s first MP, and changing the course of Wales’ history. Plaid entered its next phase, as a Parliamentary party.
The 1966 success stimulated the party faithful and brought in a generation of new supporters. Plaid had a series of very strong by-election showings.
By the second 1974 election Plaid Cymru had a candidate in every one of the 36 constituencies in Wales, and succeeded in getting three MPs elected.
But, as with every elation there comes a fall. The party was once again experiencing an existential crisis in the early eighties following the hammer blow loss of the 1979 devolution referendum.
Gwynfor’s triumph over Thatcher with the establishing of S4C galvanised the party and the movement, and gave it that thrust that it needed to carry on with the fight.
It also resulted in Gwynfor stepping down as the party’s President, and saw the heralding in of the new generation – the leadership of both Dafydd Wigley and Dafydd Ellis-Thomas.
Fast forward twenty years, and the party was once again facing a crisis. This time largely of its own making.
Plaid Cymru’s 1999 National Assembly elections were truly historic. They won seats across the south Wales Valleys and became a real political force. And what did they do? A plot was hatched, and the experienced and popular Dafydd Wigley was dispatched.
The party wasn’t facing any sort of crisis. It had just managed to get the Labour First Minister, Alun Michael, sacked. It had had its most successful election ever, and was seen as a real political threat.
It’s difficult for us today to understand just how much of a threat Plaid Cymru was back then.
So much so that London newspapers, most notably the Labour loving Mirror, threw resources at discrediting the party and damaging Plaid’s political chances. This was a sure sign of success.
And here we are today. History suggests that we’re due for another internal crisis. It’s a generational thing. Plaid Cymru are once again building up a head of steam.
However good or strong the leader, once every generation frustration boils over and the knees start jerking. Gwynfor Evans, Dafydd Wigley, and Leanne Wood.
The sad irony is that it isn’t pressure from the outside, but in every case it’s pressure from the inside.
However, the party isn’t facing an existential crisis, like it did in the 1960s and early 1980s. In fact, Plaid enjoyed one of its most successful local election campaigns ever last year.
They increased the number of MPs back to 4, with the first ever female MP elected in 2015. Half of Wales elected Police and Crime Commissioners are there as Plaid Cymru representatives.
And they succeeded in capturing the symbolic Rhondda constituency in 2016. And yet, for some peculiar reason, much like the plot of 2000, there are people itching for an internal, damaging fight.
Having just come out of a bitter public row with former Plaid Cymru AM, Neil McEvoy, and just as Labour are embroiled in their own internal fights about their structures and leadership, some of the Plaid group of AMs have taken it upon themselves to demand a leadership election.
Conversely, Leanne Wood has, and is, travelling the length and breadth of the country, holding open meetings in village halls, pubs and clubs, engaging with people of all political persuasions and none.
The Labour Party will go into the next election with the least known First Minister in the history of the National Assembly.
Whether it’s Mark Drakeford, Vaughan Gething, Eluned Morgan or AN Other, the new FM’s recognition factor will be tiny. Leanne Wood is the most well known and most liked politician in Wales.
Plaid Cymru will go into the next election with what can only be called political gold. Recognition, brand awareness, call it what you will, but it’s one of a political party’s main currencies.
Leanne Wood has this in bucket loads, especially when compared to her rivals. What would be achieved by throwing all of that away?
Plaid Cymru supporters are all frustrated that the party is not in Government. None more so than Leanne herself, I’m sure. Yet the blame cannot, and should not, be laid at her feet.
Politics is a team event. The whole membership, especially the professional, elected politicians, should take a long hard look at themselves before trying to topple the party’s best electoral asset.
If anyone thinks that changing one person will change the fortunes of the party, then they’ve completely miss-read the political situation in Wales, and are failing to tackle the root causes of our problems.
If some Plaid Cymru politicians fail to identify the democratic and media deficit, which are at the root of our problems, then heaven help us.
Leanne Wood has clearly identified these problems and is doing everything within her considerable ability to redress the issues. They should all get behind her.