Full disclosure. I joined Plaid Cymru to vote for Leanne Wood. Joining a political party goes against pretty much everything I believe in, but I did so because I believe that this is an issue which transcends Plaid Cymru and impacts the whole Welsh body politic. Leanne Wood has been, for around a decade now, Wales’ moral compass. As Welsh Labour continuously drag the name of socialism through the mud, she has been the only champion of socialist values in Wales (and until Jeremy Corbyn, across the whole of the UK)- standing up against austerity, racism, and championing minority rights. She has been a vital bulwark against the creep of the far right both in Wales and beyond. It was Leanne who publicly put Farage in his place, and her decisive interventions on these topics have been even more important when set against Carwyn Jones’ embarrassingly spineless, value-free leadership.
Without Leanne Wood, Welsh politics would be in an even worse state than it is now.
I also believe that in Wales, only Leanne Wood really gets the gravity of the current moment in world politics. As Istvan Meszaros so lucidly pointed out, ‘socialism or barbarism’ is not just a slogan: mankind- not just Wales- faces a stark choice between fascism, warfare and environmental catastrophe under capitalism; or a green socialist future which promotes tolerance and community. Leanne Wood’s recent blueprint, ‘The Change Wales Needs’, recognizes the threat of creeping fascism and militarism. It recognizes the need for a complete economic paradigm shift, that economic ‘growth’ as currently conceived is not only not desirable, but not sustainable. This is not just being radical for the sake of things, it is the only approach that will work: only a wholesale transformation of society- a break with capitalism- can save the planet and attend to everyone’s needs, not just the richest few.
The Plaid Cymru leadership race has been jarring for me in a couple of ways. The first (and the most upsetting) reason is that it has revealed a nasty side of the Welsh nationalist movement that I had hitherto believed was simply a bogeyman, a smear dreamt up by the Labour party in Wales. But no, it definitely exists: a vocal minority of the Welsh nationalist movement absolutely despise Leanne Wood. Leanne is ‘labour-lite’. She cares too much about ‘niche issues’ like LGBT rights and the rights of refugees. Leanne Wood, who has been arrested in the past for campaigning against nuclear weapons, is now apparently not sufficiently anti-nuclear. Above all, she is not nationalistic enough.
Of course, the majority of Leanne’s critics within Plaid Cymru are not like this, although I note that there does not seem to have been any organized effort by her more sophisticated critics to rein in the right wing lunatic fringe. Leanne Wood has, as ever, taken the high road and kept things comradely and dignified, yet the vitriolic tone of some of the personal attacks on Leanne and her supporters may make it difficult to heal some of the divides which have opened up once the election is over. As well as being morally abhorrent, this creeping right wing presence within Plaid Cymru and the nascent Welsh independence movement, if left unchecked, represents a potential disaster in electoral terms. This increasingly intolerant rhetoric will undoubtedly alienate progressive people who would otherwise be increasingly sympathetic to the arguments for Welsh independence.
The second issue, and the focus of this essay, is that the leadership race has revealed that many people in Plaid Cymru have little clue about the huge structural barriers faced by Welsh nationalism.
The belief that all Plaid Cymru’s ‘failures’ and limitations are down to Leanne Wood, and that if she can only be replaced by Adam Price or Rhun ap Iorwerth, Plaid will suddenly start to win, is staggeringly naive. I have also noticed complaints that Plaid hasn’t emulated the SNP, and that (of course) this is Leanne Wood’s fault. Scotland is a completely inappropriate comparison, but that is another essay (although I will say that when the SNP outflanked Labour they did it from the left, not the centre).
One glance at the Labour and Plaid leadership races should illustrate to Plaid how warped Welsh politics is. The Plaid candidates are all intelligent, articulate, capable, passionate. Mark Drakeford aside, the Labour candidates can’t even get 5 votes off their own peers. They have to crowdsource policies and values because they don’t believe in anything, because they have no ideas. To an outsider who knew nothing about Welsh or British politics looking at the candidates from the two parties side by side, the notion that the Labour candidates represented the dominant force in Welsh politics and Plaid represented the challengers would be completely ludicrous- as indeed it is.
The best and brightest are not in power in Wales, and this is because of how Welsh politics is structured. As Ffred Ffransis points out, Welsh politics is set up, whether through accident or design (in reality, it is a bit of both) to perpetuate one partyism and the status quo- it is not conducive to Plaid Cymru.
The media deficit
The first thing is visibility. We don’t have a national media in Wales. The lack of a media means that Welsh politics registers to a tiny amount of people. Welsh Labour can be eye-wateringly incompetent; can destroy our natural environment; continually break their promises; can be racist; corrupt; can give away powers to the Tories at Westminster, and they still won’t be voted out because people simply don’t hear about these things. There is no cause and effect in Welsh politics.
Adam Price is a brilliant mind. Rhun ap Iorwerth is a fantastic, engaging orator. But what does that matter when no-one has heard of you, or when no one will ever hear or see you do it? Plaid have had all the radical policy ideas since devolution, yet no-one knows about them. Welsh Labour barely even bother putting out a manifesto, then simply take Plaid’s ideas and pass them off as their own. Plaid routinely stand capable, excellent candidates who get thrashed by Labour candidates who are barely sentient. None of this is Leanne Wood’s fault.
The media deficit, coupled with the culture of one partyism, is a huge, crippling albatross around the neck of Wales and Plaid in particular. This is about political communications, not personalities. Until this is rectified, Plaid will struggle to take power in Wales.
The language barrier
In the 80s, political scientists mapping party loyalty and voting patterns in Wales characterized Plaid Cymru as a ‘dwarf plant’- a tree which will only grow to a certain height. It will be sturdy and fertile, but it will not grow. They believed Plaid Cymru’s electoral failures were down to it being associated exclusively with the Welsh language in the popular imagination, and therefore limited in its popular appeal. Scottish nationalists, by contrast, had a larger potential electoral audience because they had no such links to Scottish Gaelic.
This is an area which I believe nationalists in particular have developed a real cognitive dissonance. They have convinced themselves that devolution is the settled will of the people, and that the Welsh language is universally popular. Neither of these are true, and they are certainly not true in the parts of Wales where Plaid needs to win- not just the valleys, but Cardiff, Newport, Bridgend, Wrexham, Pembroke, Powys, the Vale of Glamorgan, Flintshire: ‘British Wales’
There is in these areas a deep ambivalence towards the Welsh language and a deep suspicion of Welsh nationalism. The systematic smears that the Labour party have mounted against the language over the last century have penetrated deeply into the national consciousness. People are on the one hand often very supportive of the language, and it is often as a pillar of national identity amongst non-Welsh speakers. But the language also simultaneously reminds people that Welshness is widely understood as hierarchical, that they are ‘less Welsh’ compared to Welsh speakers.
In these places Plaid Cymru is perceived as being for Welsh speakers, not ‘people like us’. Welsh nationalism is seen as a bit scary. In these places, Plaid have a very small footprint. They generally come third, sometimes fourth. These results don’t lie.
Overcoming these perceptions is a massive challenge that will take years, decades even. Challenging and changing perceptions about Plaid Cymru are vital to becoming hegemonic in the English speaking parts of south Wales, and therefore winning Wales. I don’t think that Adam Price or Rhun ap Iorwerth, for all their strengths, necessarily understand the scale of the challenge Plaid face here. In many parts of Wales, you can’t rely on a solid, secure sense of Welsh identity, or at least not a monolithic one. Many people still feel extremely British. You can’t assume people like or even care about devolution. You can’t assume people speak Welsh or view the language as central to Wales and Welshness.
Post-devolution, I believe that many nationalists simply assume that everyone feels like them about devolution, about the language and about Wales, and that people share their hostility to Britishness.
It’s hard to overstate how influential Leanne Wood has been in starting to gradually change perceptions of Welsh nationalism in south Wales. Leanne has convinced many people that Plaid don’t ‘hate non- Welsh speakers’, that Plaid can be a party for ‘us’ as well. She has broken down barriers and challenged perceptions in a way that I don’ t believe Adam and Rhun would ever be able to do. If it looks easy, then that is because she has made it look easy- it is not something that just anyone else could achieve.
Understand the structures of power.
Power does not just lie in the Senedd. The Senedd is a citadel, but power is diffuse, spread throughout society. Labour’s power in the Senedd is defended and buttressed by numerous ‘trenches’ and fortifications. In Wales, Labour- more specifically the Labour right wing- control the civil service, the third sector, local authorities & councils, the quangos, the trade union hierarchy. To take power, Plaid need to become hegemonic in these ostensibly ‘non-political’ areas of society too. More prosaically, the Assembly voting system itself was literally designed to keep Labour in power in perpetuity; or at the very least prevent Plaid ever taking power. It would be hard to take power in a truly representative system, let alone the system currently in place in Wales
Adam Price, like me, is a fan of Gramsci. He believes in a ‘war of position’. He will know, then, that the war of position is protracted. The ‘long march through the institutions’ is just that, long. Taking power, becoming hegemonic, requires tireless work in political and civil society and in local communities.
I would argue that another maxim associated with Gramsci is also appropriate here- the need to cultivate a ‘pessimism of the intellect’: dispassionately map out the existing material conditions of the society you occupy so that you understand the scale of the task you face. We have to map out the reality of how things are, not how we would like them to be. Without doing this, we may attempt strategies and tactics which are unsuited to the realities of the situation.
The fact is that becoming hegemonic will take even longer in Wales, such is the extent to which Wales is integrated into the UK. People in most parts of Wales occupy a British cultural world. Everyday life in Wales is not Welsh, it is British, to a far greater extent than everyday life is in Scotland. We read British newspapers, watch British TV shows, listen to British radio, consume British products using English money, support English football teams, listen to English bands, wear the same clothes. Welsh people serve in and support the British armed forces. We shop in the same supermarkets in towns with the same architecture, drive on the same roads and travel on the same public transport system. We have the same legal system. Until relatively recently, we had essentially the same education system, and unlike in Scotland, we still take the same qualifications. Welsh students are subsidized to go and study in English Universities, and English students study here en masse.
Scotland feels like a distinct country. Apart from bilingual signage, Wales does not. When most Welsh people say ‘this country’ or ‘us’ in a political sense, they are referring to the UK, not Wales.
Simon Brooks correctly notes that post-Brexit, we will likely witness a ramping up of the ‘Britishing’ of Wales, as much under a Corbyn-led Labour Government at Westminster as a Tory one. I oppose this as much as he does. However, the reality is that the majority of people in Wales possess a British identity as well as a Welsh one. Whoever leads Plaid in the future (and indeed anyone who wants Wales to achieve independence) will have to undermine and displace Britishness as a political and cultural identity, and that will not be easy at all. It will require a seismic cultural shift.
To change Plaid, Leanne must be given time
Bearing these structural barriers in mind, the leadership campaign has set a ridiculous timeline. Plaid in Government- apparently without a coalition- in 2021, ready for independence by 2030. It is unrealistic to expect Plaid to go from their current low baseline to being in Government next election, especially if a coalition is apparently being ruled out. I believe these timescales have been deliberately chosen as a way of forcing Leanne Wood out.
Plaid Cymru’s history is one of repetitive failure: constantly winning the same 3 or 4 seats in Welsh speaking areas, with occasional, brief forays into south Wales. It has always been a party with an inherently limited electoral appeal. Leanne Wood’s leadership should’ve been seen as break from this pattern and the start of a long term hegemonic project, a way of permanently changing perceptions about the Welsh nationalist movement and making Plaid a truly national party with universal appeal across the disparate communities of Wales. Instead, people want to abandon this after just 6 years, ironically (and foolishly) at a time when Welsh Labour are at their weakest.
To an outsider, it has long seemed like Leanne has been trying to fight this battle on her own, with little support from a party hierarchy that has never really liked her or been keen on what she was trying to do.
You would never know this from listening to the current debate, but despite the aforementioned obstacles, Leanne Wood has actually been very successful in narrow electoral terms. Under her, Plaid have greatly increased their vote share in the National Assembly elections, and amidst an unprecedentedly polarised General Election actually increased Plaid’s seats. Plaid have established a secure beachhead in the Rhondda which gives them an excellent platform from which to grow and spread across other parts of south Wales. As for parallels with Scotland, the SNP lost 21 seats to the Corbyn bounce, although interestingly, Nicola Sturgeon was not attacked by her own party in the aftermath.
If Leanne Wood loses, Plaid can forget about taking seats off Labour in the future. The thousands of disaffected Labour voters who went to Plaid because of Leanne may well drift away for good. Plaid can forget about breaking into British Wales. The marginalized groups who have been welcomed into Plaid by Leanne, will they still feel welcome in Plaid? Perhaps, perhaps not.
I suspect that many of Adam and Rhun’s supporters know all this and simply do not care. I have seen some people on social media say that Leanne’s leadership was a failed ‘experiment’- she was ‘allowed’ some time to try something different, but in the eyes of some Plaid traditionalists, this ‘experiment’ hasn’t worked, and now it’s time to take their party back.
Strategically, I suspect that Adam and Rhun’s backers may simply want to fall back on what they know, consolidate Plaid’s core support in the heartland areas and simply focus on nicking some marginal seats. This is a legitimate (and understandable) short term plan for improving Plaid’s seat count in 2021 in the hope of forming a coalition government, but it is not a long-term hegemonic strategy that will alter the common sense of our society. This will not undermine Britishness.
Ultimately, although they are both clearly extremely talented people, I fail to see how Rhun and Adam represent anything other than a return to the same electoral strategy Plaid have utilised for the (nearly) hundred years before Leanne Wood became leader. For all their radical rhetoric, I have yet to see any genuinely radical policy ideas to supplement their focus on independence. Ironically, much of it seems to be reminiscent of the largely meaningless managerial economic language favoured by Welsh Labour: more focus on ‘growth’, ‘building the economy’, ‘wealth creation’- I suspect through low corporation tax, noises about investing in tech, the ‘knowledge economy’, ‘fostering entrepreneurship’ and so on. We could ‘grow’ the Welsh economy significantly overnight- this would not have any impact on poverty or end austerity or improve people’s lives. Unlike Leanne Wood’s blueprint, these ideas do not seem to represent a break from the current economic paradigm which has served Wales so poorly, but simply a way of doing capitalism more competently and efficiently than Welsh Labour. I am also uneasy about Rhun’s nuclear policy, and Adam’s statement about ‘cutting back our spending’. Not only do I not agree with these policies, I do not think they will resonate with an electorate which has proven to be hungry for policies which emphasize wealth redistribution.
Leanne Wood is the biggest electoral asset Plaid Cymru has ever had. If she loses, Plaid will learn the hard way that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Beyond Plaid however, it will be a body blow for the left in Wales and beyond to lose such a prominent champion of socialism and progressive politics. We need people like Leanne in public life, particularly during times like these.