Leanne Wood Elected Leader of Plaid Cymru

19th March 2012

This is an article first published by Socialist Party Wales in March 2012.

The election of Leanne Wood as leader marks a significant change in the development of Plaid Cymru and Welsh politics. Coming from the south Wales valleys and from the left of the party, she has broken the mould of Plaid leaders originating in its more conservative heartlands in the north west. A radical, republican, anti-capitalist female leader will make a sharp change from the grey leadership of the past that could attract trade unionists and young people to the party. Her more assertive advocacy of independence will add to re-interest in the issue as Wales receives more blows from the Tories in Westminster.

Leanne has identified as a socialist and trade unionist supporting most socialist causes and is chair of the PCS group in the National Assembly. She has generally been prominent in support of many struggles of the labour movement, anti-war demonstrations and anti-cuts struggles.

Her election as leader opens up the prospect of a more robust approach by Plaid in taking up social issues and in calling for independence. Politically her election marks a big change. She has ruled out any coalition with the Tories, has been prominent in opposing cuts in public services, is critical of the capitalist-dominated EU and clearly opposed nuclear power (traditionally supported by Plaid Cymru because of the power stations that were at Wylfa and Trawsfynydd).

This will put the left in Plaid Cymru in the ascendancy, calling the shots and at least on the surface appearing as the radical alternative, especially as the “two Eds” (Miliband and Balls) insist on Labour supporting Tory cuts at Westminster. It will put Welsh Labour under pressure as Wood accuses them of “sitting and waiting” while Wales sinks under the cuts. “Well I know who I am voting for in May” was the comment on Saturday of one ex-Labour trade unionist battling pension cuts in further education.

However, while being the most prominent politician in Wales in support of workers in struggle Leanne does not have confidence that a mass movement can defeat the cuts or change society. For example she opposed the ‘needs budget’ strategy that that a number of trade unionists and Socialist Party Wales have advocated to defeat the cuts and would involve mobilising a mass movement in support of a Welsh government refusing to carry out Con Dem cuts from Westminster. Reluctantly she supported a budget that included some cuts.

And while calling for an economy that serves "our people rather than the market" and "a role for the state in the economy", Leanne does not propose clearly socialist policies. She says she favours a “social economy” rather than a socialist economy. She supports decentralisation and co-operatives rather than nationalisation and calls for "a robust economic infrastructure that can shelter us from future economic storms".

But Socialist Party Wales has explained that on the basis of capitalism the future for Wales is one of relentless economic decline whether part of the UK or independent. A weak, independent, capitalist Wales can withstand the forces of global capitalism even less than Greece or Ireland. Only a socialist Wales linking with workers in Scotland, England, Ireland and the rest of Europe can hope to defy the rigours of the capitalist markets. Leanne's model of a string of co-operatives, islands of socialism in a stormy sea of capitalism, cannot possibly make up for the past destruction of industry and mining now to be accompanied with huge Con Dem public service and welfare cuts. And the tidal waves of capitalism would overwhelm these tiny co-operative islands.

Nevertheless her election opens up an interesting chapter in Welsh politics. During the leadership election Plaid Cymru’s membership increased by 23% largely because of the number of people who supported her election. A thin but significant layer of young people were drawn into Plaid by her campaign. If she continues to put forward a radical message Plaid could appear an attractive alternative to the relatively grey, conservative politicians in Welsh Labour, especially as the Welsh government begins to get the blame for the cuts they are making to health and other services in Wales.

She has linked a clearer demand for independence with a campaign for social justice that could resonate with many workers looking for a solution to the dire economic situation opening up in Wales. Most working people have opposed independence partly because of the weakness of the Welsh economy especially since the destruction of industry by Thatcher in the 1980s. But the prospects opening up for the Welsh economy (already standing at 74% of the UK average) with massive benefit cuts, regional pay and huge public service cuts is to sink to eastern European or Greek levels even while part of the UK. When challenged by a TV commentator that independence would impoverish Wales she replied "Well we have that already within the UK".

That message will get more support as a Con Dem government which has never won support in Wales threatens to cut Welsh public sector pay by 18% with regional pay and benefit cuts hit local economies in many areas. At this stage support for independence stands at about 10%, but as Scotland moves towards a referendum on independence in 2014 and the economic situation worsens in Wales this is bound to rise, especially if Plaid links the crisis to the issue of independence.

However Plaid Cymru contains within it quite a conservative section ill at ease with radical rhetoric and uneasy even with independence. Many of the councils they control have been happy to carry through big cuts in schools and privatisation and in some cases have attacked trade unionists who stand against them. Plaid-controlled Caerphilly council had attacked facilities for UNISON and a Plaid councillor has attempted to start a witch-hunt against UNISON activists in Carmarthenshire. While Leanne Wood publicly supported the Occupy Cardiff camp, Neil McEvoy the Plaid Deputy Leader of Cardiff council (supposedly on the left of Plaid), denounced many as extremist and agreed that it should be moved from the castle before the police used tazers and horses to break the camp up.

Whether the significant conservative section will accept a radical campaigning Plaid Cymru for long remains to be seen. A section could form a conservative drag on Plaid’s move to the left and even attempt to undermine Leanne Wood. A split or series of splits is possible given the breadth of ideas and cross-class support in Plaid.

In any event the election of Leanne Wood opens up new prospects and challenges for socialists in Wales.
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