I spoke to Leanne Wood today as she was on route to a meeting tonight at Neuadd Penygroes, near Caernarfon, for local Plaid members. The leadership campaign means that she, and the other candidates, are travelling the length and breadth of the country for hustings and public meetings. The under-developed civic infrastructure in rural Wales was underlined by the trouble we had continuing a conversation, as her phone dipped in and out of coverage. Travel around Wales can also be difficult, as became clear as we discussed the impracticality of me travelling to Aberystwyth to report an upcoming public meeting.
For some decades Wales’s economy has suffered from de-industrialisation, and the neglect from the government in Westminster, who have prioritised growth of the finance sector in the South East of England. Leanne points out that the Caernarfon area has a GDP of only 60% of the UK average. However, she is quick to acknowledge that the same process has disadvantaged the regions of England, as well Wales and Scotland.
Leanne also understands how the levers available to the Welsh government provide opportunities for promoting economic growth. “I am arguing for a twin track”, Leanne says, “We need to have a long term economic plan, firstly with what we can do right now with the existing devolved powers, and take that as far as we can, but we also need a vision of what we could achieve as an independent nation”
Economic underdevelopment poses particular challenges for the West and North of the country, as second home ownership and tourism can represent a threat to the sustainability of Welsh speaking communities, and the survival of Welsh is complicated not only by geography, but also issues of class.
“Plaid’s vision is that the economy should serve equality” said Leanne, “and that includes economic equality across Wales”, and she agrees that a civic concept of nationalism can promote the idea that the nation should support the interests of every citizen, not just of the business community.
I asked Leanne whether she thinks that there could have been a possibility of the coalition between Plaid and Labour continuing after the last Assembly elections. “I don’t know what they could have offered us, to be honest” she replied, “Plaid has already won all our short term objectives. The One Wales agreement gave us the referendum, and now we have devolved powers, and we have won cross party consensus on issues like defending the Welsh language; and now Labour are not in power in London, they don’t have much scope for offering anything. Plaid are not interested in just more of the same, and we want more for Wales than just managing decline”.
The current leadership election does find Plaid at the crossroads, having won the reforms they have been campaigning for over the last few years, and now contesting a new political context with the Senedd enjoying greater powers. Leanne sees their opportunity because she believes that Labour does not speak up consistently and unambiguously for Wales, and the Blairite strategy of triangulating around the concerns of swing voters in marginal constituencies in Southern England acts against the interests of Welsh voters.
Leanne believes that Labour did pull a fast one by organising the Welsh referendum two months before the Assembly election. “After the referendum campaign our activists were exhausted” said Leanne, “But we did win”.
“The economic crisis is opening a space for Plaid”, Leanne argues, “We can build on that space based upon different values, and arguing for economic recovery for Wales”. She is excited that the leadership contest has revealed a willingness for large numbers of people to engage in a different type of politics. She believes that the debate in Scotland over independence has shifted the political context. “We are two different nations, with two different cultures and histories, but if Scotland gains independence, then there is no more UK, and that is bound to have an impact on Wales”.
Leanne believes that Labour is too oriented towards the British state and British national identity to effectively represent Wales. “There is a tremendous amount of ignorance from some Labour politicians in Westminster about how devolution works, and what devolved powers we have”.
The next stage of the campaign will be a number of hustings meetings for Plaid members, who will hear from the four candidates. It is a testament to Plaid’s forward looking approach that the two leading candidates are both women.