On Friday 28th September Adam Price was elected the new leader of Plaid Cymru replacing the defeated incumbent Leanne Wood who had been leader since 2012. It was a landslide win for Price who took 64% of the vote with fellow challenger Rhun ap Iorwerth taking 36% in the second round of voting with incumbent being eliminate in the first round of voting on 22%. Under the constitution of Plaid Cymru leadership elections are permitted every two years but the incumbent leader usually goes unchallenged. So what made Plaid members, politicians and cadres unceremoniously dump their leader?
Leanne Wood was an unlikely party leader when she was elected in 2012 not only was she the party’s first female leader but was also the first to be a learner of Welsh rather than already being fluent in the language in a party that is strongly identified as a bastion of Welsh speakers. Although Wood had been a councillor between 1994 and 1999 as well as an AM for South Central Wales ( as well as standing as a Parliamentary candidate in 1997 and 2001 as well as assistant to Jill Evans MEP)and subsequently Rhondda since 2003 she was seen as something of an outsider with her Socialist, Green , Feminist and Republican views. In fact prior to her election Wood was best known for being ejected from the Welsh Assembly in 2004 for referring to the Queen as ‘Mrs Windsor’. In 2012 she was supported by new leader Adam Price and elected on a platform of ‘real independence, genuinely working to end war, inequality and discrimination’. So what went wrong?
Some commentators have argued that very much like Jeremy Corbyn when elected Labour leader Leanne Wood was very inexperienced when she became Plaid leader in 2012. In fact, when Plaid was part of the Welsh government from 2007 to 2011 in coalition with Labour Wood wasn’t appointed to a government position. There were also many criticisms of her speeches and interview techniques while during the 2015 general election party leader debates despite a devastating repudiation of Nigel Farage which increased her popularity she was largely overshadowed by SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. In fact during the general election itself, Plaid (already only the third largest party in the Welsh Assembly) failed to gain any Parliamentary seats and drifted in fourth place in Wales in terms of the Westminster share of the vote behind UKIP. There was a slight improvement at the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections with Plaid making one gain (Wood’s own seat in Rhondda) and subsequently helping Labour who had lost their majority stay in power. Plaid also supported remain during the EU referendum so the leave vote nationally as well as in Wales itself was a blow to Plaid’s policy of Independence within the EU.
However at the 2017 general election Wood and Plaid were unable to make much of an impact with their vote share declining by 1.7% compared to a 12% increase in the Labour vote. Plaid also failed to take their target seat of Ynys Môn although they did gain Ceredigion from the Liberal Democrats taking their Westminster representation to four seats. Leanne Wood was widely considered to have performed ineffectively during the leadership debates. Indeed it was rumoured that if Plaid hadn’t won Ceredigon Wood would have resigned after the election. Wood was also critised for not putting herself forward as a Parliamentary candidate. It does appear however that Plaid were hit by the ‘Corbyn bounce’ that shifted many voters towards Labour a nationwide trend not limited to Wales.
Wood has stated that she would resign as leader if she failed to become First Minister following the 2021 Welsh Assembly elections but discontent started to ferment in the ranks. In June 2017 three AMs Llyr Huws Gruffydd, Sian Gwenllian and Elin Jones encouraged a leadership challenge. At same time Elfyn Llwyd former Plaid MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd from 1992 to 2015 argued that Plaid Cymru had been standing still for a number of years and ‘maybe it’s time to change the team’. Wood maintained that she would fight any leadership battle filling her candidacy first to be followed by Rhun ap Iorwerth and Adam Price in July.
It was felt that while Wood was ideologically on the left ruling out any deals with the Conservatives following the 2021 former BBC Cymru Journalist Iorwerth was in favour of closer links with the Tories. Price, in contrast, favours a kind of ‘equidistance” in other words arguing that Plaid should position itself equally between Labour and the Conservatives. Price has also discussed the possibility of renaming Plaid ‘The New Wales Party’ as well as setting out a timeline for Welsh independence, buoyed by new polls of increased support for Welsh Independence.
Price is an interesting figure the son of a miner from Carmarthen he graduated in European Community Studies in 1991 followed by a period working as a research associate at Cardiff University’s Department of City and Regional Planning. In 1992 he was an unsuccessful Plaid Parliamentary candidate in Gower before being elected to Westminster for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in 2001. In Westminster Price was known as a vocal opponent of the Iraq war including an attempt to impeach Tony Blair for the Iraq war in 2004 and was ejected from Parliament in 2005 for claiming that Blair had ‘misled’ Parliament over Iraq. Price was also very critical of the war in Afghanistan and BBC coverage of Welsh affairs. In 2010 he stood down spending some time in the United, working for a charity and presenting a Welsh language series about the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike. Price is also a member of the LGBT community making him along with Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson one of the first party leaders from that community.
Adam Price’s election appears to signal a move away from the Socialism of Leanne Wood’s tenure back to a more pure avocation of traditional Welsh nationalism. Wood, particularly in her earlier years positioned Plaid to the left of Labour hoping to gather support from those on the Labour, left disillusioned by New Labour and the eccentric Miliband interregnum. However following the election of Jeremy Corbyn this strategy has increasingly felt defunct. It is easy to forget that for many years following its foundation in 1925 Plaid was a socially conservative force for traditional rural Welsh nationalism not a hotbed of international Socialism. Furthermore he appears to be pushing a more assertive independence stance away from Labour (he has ruled out a coalition with Labour in 2021) stronger opposition to Brexit with some arguing that his election will lead to the end of ‘left unity’ in Wales as Plaid appears to its traditional constituency of ‘the provincial lawyer, accountant and estate agent and landowner’.
Price has gone as far as to say that such is the danger of Brexit for Wales that Welsh Independence should be ‘on the table’ in a more assertive pro-Independence stance than was common under Leanne Wood’s tenure. Price also went on to argue that if the UK leaves the Single Market and there is a ‘hard’ inter Irish border this would enhance the case for Irish unity and Scottish Independence therefore perhaps producing a domino effect that leads to Welsh Independence. This clearly puts Plaid at odds with the Conservatives and Labour both in Wales and nationality who insist that the result of the referendum must be respected not to mention UKIP until recently a significant force in Wales. Indeed Price at the recent Plaid autumn conference seemed to be trying to attract Labour voters stating that ‘ the cupboard is bare’ and that ‘Labour represent the Politics of the past’ while at the same time unveiling policies designed to appeal to Labour voters such as a railway line from Swansea to Bangor and a ‘comprehensive child package’ as well as praising the NHS. However Price also many many traditional historical Welsh nationalist references including the use of the longbow by Welsh armies at the battle of Crug Maw perhaps an attempt to try and attract more socially Conservative Tory and Liberal Democrat voters in rural Wales where both parties have traditionally done well. Winning over Ukip voters in Wales to the extent to which they remain a cohesive bloc of voters may be more challenging especially given Price’s assertive anti-Brexit and pro-Independence stance which will alienate most UKIP supporters. However Plaid will hope that some of UKIP’s more working-class supporters will be attracted by some of Price’s Labour like policies particularly if the focus is more on the Welsh Assembly rather than Westminster.
Therefore Price’s election as Plaid Cymru leader may lead to a significant change in Welsh politics. Arguably Price is on an Obama style mission to make Plaid a potential governing party in the Welsh Assembly or at least a significant junior partner despite the talk of no coalitions. This obviously leads to the prospect of wither Price would be willing to work with the Conservatives to form a coalition in the Welsh Assembly? Given that in the forthcoming Welsh Labour leadership election pro-Corbyn candidate Mark Drakeford is likely to be elected Welsh Labour leader and First Minister it is surely possible that Price’s version of Plaid a distinctive proud Welsh nationalist party rather than a more avowed leftist party for disillusioned Labour voters as it was under Wood will become more powerful in the Welsh Assembly. Perhaps he will even lead a distinctive anti-Labour bloc along with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Adam Price is more likely to make headlines with the London based media and may well have changed Welsh Politics.