Leanne Wood wins Plaid leadership: victory for the left
Leanne Wood, the left candidate, founder member of the Celyn editorial team and occasional ‘Labour Briefing’ contributor, has won Plaid Cymru’s leadership election. The South Wales Central Assembly Member secured 55% of the vote over her main rival, Elin Jones, on the second ballot, after former leader, Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas had been eliminated.
Her victory is remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, she came from behind: virtually no-one was predicting that she would win when the contest began in January. She overtook her rivals partly through the sheer energy and determination of her campaign, which saw her speaking at meetings all over Wales on a nightly basis, while also making extensive use of social networking and other online tools. But equally important has been the clarity and forcefulness of her ideas, and the passion with which she has communicated them. While Leanne’s campaign inspired young people in particular, and undoubtedly played a big part in the 23% increase in Plaid’s membership during the campaign, the original favourite, Elin Jones, was left looking staid and complacent.
Second, the result is significant because of who Leanne is. She the first woman to lead Plaid, the first leader from a working class background in the South Wales Valleys and the first not to have grown up speaking Welsh as her first language (although, as a long-time adult learner of Welsh, she had become sufficiently confident to take part in hustings conducted entirely in the language – which will have impressed many in her party). By contrast, Elin Jones is a farmer’s daughter from rural West Wales, who has spoken Welsh all her life – far more the leader one might have expected Plaid to have chosen.
Third, Leanne is left-wing not just in Plaid terms but by comparison with virtually anyone involved in electoral politics in Britain today. She is a sincere and committed socialist, whose ideas have been profoundly influenced by those of Marxists like Raymond Williams and Gwyn Alf Williams, and who has looked to Cuba for inspiration. She is an outspoken republican, who has consistently boycotted the Queen’s visits to the Assembly, latterly opting to work with the homeless instead. And she is as passionate and serious-minded about green politics as any politician today: see her ‘Greenprint for the Valleys’, which sets out proposals for the sustainable economic regeneration, on a co-operative basis, of South Wales’ ravaged former industrial communities.
Of course, Leanne’s election does not mean that Plaid as a whole has embraced her socialist ideas in their entirety: the party remains a very broad coalition, stretching from Leanne herself to conservative cultural nationalists on the right. But her election shows that it is Leanne and her comrades on the Plaid left who will now be setting the party’s agenda. Part of her success can be attributed to her serious and unapologetic approach to the issue of Welsh independence, which has relied neither on romantic appeals to ‘blood and soil’ nationalism nor to a preoccupation with purely juridical sovereignty. Instead, she has talked about ‘real independence’: the social and economic substance behind any meaningful conception of self-government.
Leanne’s victory should be welcomed by all serious socialists. Sadly, it will be greeted with hostility or indifference by many within Welsh Labour. Some will deny that anything has fundamentally changed, claiming that Plaid has no consistent commitment to social justice or the interests of working people. Others will be preoccupied by electoral considerations, fearing that Plaid will now take votes from many who previously supported Labour. Yet, if nothing else, Leanne’s election almost certainly rules out any future coalition between Plaid and the Tories, something that was a real possibility after the 2007 Assembly election and opposition to which Leanne has made a an important plank of her leadership campaign. More fundamentally, Leanne’s victory will shift Welsh politics to the left, keeping Welsh Labour under pressure to maintain and strengthen its ‘clear red water’ policy programme and to resist the influence of the small but highly-placed number of crypto-Blairites seeking to drag the party to the right.
The Welsh political landscape has changed significantly in the last few days. Socialists should celebrate – and set about engaging with the new realities.
A version of this article was written for Labour Briefing magazine.