The Talking Point #32: The case for and against a Plaid leadership contest

(Title Image: ITV Wales)

It’s still unclear yet whether Leanne Wood will face a leadership challenge, having announced last week her intention to stand down if she doesn’t emerge from the 2021 Welsh General Election as First Minister.

We’ll know for definite by July 4th, with pressure reportedly increasing on possible contenders for the leadership to make their intentions known. More recently, it took the form of a less than subtle nudge via a joint e-mail from Elin Jones, Sian Gwenllian and Llyr Gruffydd.

After the 2017 House of Commons election, I said:

“Other commentators are getting over-excited about a leadership change….changing leader would be a silly over-reaction. Despite the foundations being built on sand, Plaid have still matched their best ever result in a Westminster election and there are no more scheduled elections until 2021….

“Nevertheless, it’s time to take stock and seriously consider what direction the party are heading in, because the Lib Dems have….given Plaid a warning of what the future could look like.”

That’s still my belief. However, after high-profile problems both in Llanelli and with Neil McEvoy – as well as a deja vu inducing “relaunch” from Leanne Wood herself in January – it’s understandable why there might be dissatisfaction in how things have (or haven’t) progressed in Plaid over the last year.

Why there should be a leadership challenge

Plaid’s electoral and parliamentary performance since 2016 – I’m sure, like myself, most of the people reading this like Leanne personally and were happy when she took Rhondda. Despite that, Plaid was on the losing side of the Brexit referendum, regained lost ground in the last local elections (but didn’t do much more than that) and won an extra Westminster seat by a mathematical fluke.

Their opposition scrutiny has been pretty flat, rarely going further than press releases that follow a familiar template, or Leanne/party spokespeople landing the occasional verbal punch in the Senedd. It’s only since the breaking of the compact with Labour that Plaid turned up the heat – which bodes well for the second half of the term. It’s a question as to whether someone else could do a better job of leading the charge to avoid complacency.

Ease tensions within the wider party – Leanne Wood hasn’t come across as the most effective personnel manager (which is part of a leader’s job); Dafydd Elis-Thomas should’ve been deselected before 2016 and Leanne was nowhere to be seen on the Neil McEvoy spat, leaving it to Simon Thomas to explain it in public.

It’s not a Labour-style split because the malcontents are, for the moment, nothing more than a vocal minority – but there’s clearly a problem. A leadership election – which Leanne would still stand a good chance of winning – might kick-start the debate on where the party are going wrong, what they’re doing well, as well as giving grassroots members a long overdue chance to let off some steam and say what they really think without affecting the party’s electoral prospects (….barring another snap election).

To steal headlines during “silly season” – Alright, this one might be a bit shaky but the summer and autumn are going to be dominated by the leadership contest in Welsh Labour. In what is traditionally a very slow news period, a leadership contest within Plaid could keep them in the headlines. It’ll give all of the potential candidates a chance to air their ideas, set out why they should form the next government and why they should be taken seriously in opposition now. It would be a far better relaunch for Leanne than rewording the “Greenprint” or publishing the occasional article on Nation.Cymru. If there’s going to be a new face at the top of Labour, it might be worth having one at the top of Plaid as well.

Why there doesn’t need to be a leadership challenge

Leanne Wood is “the face” of Plaid – I doubt there’s ever been a more well-known Plaid Cymru leader apart from possibly Dafydd Wigley. That doesn’t mean Leanne should stay leader in perpetuity, but come the next election it may be better to go into it with a leader that the public is familiar with; Rhun ap Iorwerth will be familiar amongst Welsh-speakers for his BBC work and Adam Price among nationalists generally and the political bubble, but neither perhaps with the wider public (though Adam Price is perhaps closest to being so).

Continuity in the face of chaos (Brexit, the Sargeant affair, continued public spending cuts) isn’t a bad thing even in light of relative underperformance. Take Andrew RT Davies, for example. He’s been on the way out on more than one occasion and look where he is now – arguably stronger than ever and one of the most effective opposition AMs at present. There’s no reason why Leanne Wood couldn’t do the same thing, we just need to see more “Leanne from Penygraig”, less “Leanne Wood: Guardian darling”. More substance and authenticity, less polish and stage management.

Would it be a genuine choice or a shuffling of the deck? – The ideological differences between Leanne and the most talked about potential candidates (Rhun ap Iorwerth and Adam Price) seem paper thin and that goes for outside bets too like Simon Thomas and Bethan Sayed. Unless one of them is really going to set their stall out to offer something radically different to what Plaid already portray themselves as offering, then what’s the point? Yes Cymru and its supporters are now doing a lot of the gruntwork Plaid should’ve been doing in terms of the party’s “long-term-goal-that-must-be-spoken-of-in-hushed-tones“, with a fraction of the material and human resources at their disposal. They’re arguably doing a better job of it too, so why complicate things?

There’s a risk a contest would end up resembling an academic seminar, with polite discussion about what dead men with or without unkempt beards thought decades or centuries ago. Perhaps another electoral underperformance (come 2021) would give potential replacements the kick up the backside they need to make the necessary changes and it would be the right time to change leader. Also, if Plaid meets Leanne’s “challenge” for 2021 then she’ll have earned the right to stay on anyway.

Plaid’s problems don’t stop at the leader – While Leanne’s leadership style may be in part to blame for some of the recent issues in Plaid Cymru, it would be unfair for her to become a lightning rod for discontent. Using a football analogy, the manager always gets the sack when the team underperforms – but changing manager is often done in a panic and doesn’t always work as the problems often lie at board level or with individual players.

There are problems in how Plaid is organised (the NEC seems disproportionately powerful and there are too many micro-branches), its disciplinary rules, the impression that members are there to be talked-at and pay their subs not to be listened to, candidate vetting and selection, the seeming lack of tolerance for going “off message” (a sign of groupthink) and the party’s consistent failure to become a “broad church” like the SNP. None of those things can be pinned on Leanne and will still be there if she’s replaced.

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