A red current flows from the valleys of Wales
by Gordon Gibson
The election of Rhondda socialist Leanne Wood to the leadership of Plaid Cymru is a historic event, not just for Wales, but for British politics. Never has a mainstream political party been led by such a committed campaigning socialist. Plaid may be on the margins of British mainstream but, make no mistake, this result can shift the tectonic plates of Britain’s increasingly spin-driven boys’ club politics.
Plaid Cymru is now led, chaired and managed by women. It’s young out-reaching future is bound to appeal to women and youth. During Wood’s vigorous campaign, Plaid’s membership grew by 24%. At the same time, Welsh Labour is tormented by internal strife and squalor over all-women short-lists in the run-in to the May elections. Not since Rhodri Morgan constructed the world’s first majority-women cabinet have we seen such a positive statement of new politics.
Leanne Wood is about to be subjected to vicious political and media pressure. Under the guise of her modest valleys background, her feminism, her campaigning style, her lack of complicity in the games of politics, she will be victimised and abused, from within and outside her party. The real reason is that her politics are dangerous for the establishment. All socialists should give her unconditional support in her new role.
Plaid Cymru has been conveniently written off as an elitist, language party, based, ironically, in the impoverished agricultural and obsolete slate quarry settlements of west and north Wales. The leadership campaign reflected this. Elin Jones, from the Welsh farming community, looked to that tradition, or its farmers and landowners, for her support. Dafydd Elis-Thomas, quite radical in the distant past, was true to his peerage and took a pro-union, cool on independence, slick language stance that saw him being eliminated with just 21% of the vote in the first round. Wood got an romping 48% .
Leanne brought her version of ‘hiraeth’ from the valleys, the less heralded Welsh traditions of self-organisation and struggle. Her campaign was launched on a ‘real independence’ platform, with admirable commitment to the language, even in TV debates. Brave. She established her credentials in the ‘Welsh’ party and won convincing support from MPs, AMs, ideologues and party grandees. Plaid has been greatly influenced by the success of the SNP in Scotland. But latterly, Wood pursued a more sophisticated emphasis on the Welsh economy. If jobs are to be created, services protected, a Green Wales promoted, then Welsh people will have to do it themselves. She promises to bring together the best minds in Wales, both supporters and forces from outside the party, to take on that challenge. Building an inclusive, non-tribal campaigning party to counter the Tories’ austerity offensive, set to cause untold damage in Wales, will win popular support, independence or not. That is the lesson from Scotland.
The model is not just the centrist SNP, pandering to petty-bourgeois nationalism and the Scottish establishment, while dishing out the sops that Scotland’s Blairite Labour, more interested in being pro-Union and ‘realistic’ about austerity cuts, has been unable to bring itself to. More apposite is, was, the Scottish Socialist Party before its Sheridan-led implosion. The SSP had made a powerful impact on Scottish politics, with 7 MSPs in no time. Prominent women, with Sheridan’s ego and legitimate record at the cutting edge, brought support for workers struggles and services, protection of women and children, schools, childcare, public transport, anti-nuclear campaigns, all-sorts, to the mainstream. They won extraordinary public support with their resolute commitment, their challenge to the ‘ripples-not-waves‘ style that pervades Labour.
The new leader’s challenge to Welsh Labour is immense, if she can survive. Labour’s danger is to revert to the ‘placard-waving’ criticism that their leader, Carwyn Jones, alluded to at Labour’s recent national conference in Cardiff. Carwyn has an uphill task too, for the Rhodri days are gone and Welsh Labour is burdened by careerist, Blairite, and apparatchik men who will relish the anti-independence, anti-campaigning, playground boys’ badinage that most are just about capable of. The opposite is the task. Socialists in Wales can unite in the fight against the Tories and LibDems. We can unite for a strong Welsh economy, for more powers to Welsh people and their Assembly. We can talk of independence as we go. Amongst socialists that is a healthy debate; amongst bourgeois nationalists it is quite something else.
There’s our challenge. Leanne Wood will need all the support she can get both within Plaid Cymru and beyond. Socialists should not hesitate to stand alongside her.