In the first of a series of articles we look at the impact of the Scottish constitutional movement from around the rUK and Ireland, Stewart McDonald reports from Aberystwyth. What’s happening elsewhere and what are the connections?
Plaid Cymru’s tanks are on Labour’s lawn.
It was to come to me sitting in Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Packed in to a busy conference hall where I had spent half the time faffing with a headset to ensure that I was on the right channel to receive the Welsh-English translation, I realised that Plaid Cymru will be the next Welsh Government.
I spent two days at the annual national conference of the Party of Wales and was struck by the party’s message before I had even made it through the front door: ‘Wales First’. That sign, welcoming delegates on the windows of the conference venue, stopped me in my tracks. It was everything that a Welsh party should be; bold, confident and unashamedly Welsh.
As I entered the conference venue and signed in I went through what seemed like a constant stream of introductions, with my brain trying to process the pronunciation of Welsh names. I now know what it must be like for Johann Lamont trying to understand the economics of an oil fund – difficult, but I think I had more success.
The first thing that struck me is how welcoming our Welsh cousins are. Every person I met went out of their way to engage me in conversation, ask questions about the Scottish referendum and tell me about the ‘bus load’ that would be coming from [insert Welsh constituency here], and how they could not wait to get involved.
The political highlight of the conference was, as one would expect, the leader’s speech.
Having met Leanne previously at both SNP conference and Cardiff Mardi Gras, I was sure that she would be the darling of the conference. I was expecting a speech that would showcase her growing confidence in her position as party leader, and a speech that would show the people of Wales that her party differed from the Westminster way of doing politics. What else would you expect two years out from the Assembly elections? I was wrong.
Standing behind a lectern that was emblazoned ‘Wales First’, Leanne Wood did much more than that. There were big ideas on health, education, jobs, the economy, housing and she wasn’t even half way through her speech.
Leanne, the first woman leader of Plaid Cymru, addressed head on the crisis in living standards that people in Wales – and beyond – are living with. She outlined her party’s idea of creating a Welsh national energy company that would bring cheaper energy to consumers; rent controls to help Welsh communities through the housing crisis; a tax on sugary drinks that would directly fund 1000 new doctors; and plans to get young people working across Wales. You knew that this was a speech that would have the nation sitting up in their arm-chairs.
Leanne’s speech also covered Wales’ place in the world. Is the limit of Plaid Cymru’s ambition to remain a part of a UK political system that seems to not understand, and not willing to understand, Wales, or was it to put Wales on a forward path so that it can reclaim its position as a normal, independent nation?
Ms Wood puts forward that independence for Wales is quite some time away, but despite lazy media attempts to portray her as somehow having gone soft on the idea of independence, Leanne has shown that she knows exactly what she’s doing. She wants to get the Welsh economy on a stable path, tackle the crisis in living standards, and show Plaid Cymru as a credible party of government, so that by raising the confidence of the nation Wales will then begin to have its independence debate with the real possibility of achieving it.
The buzz that her speech generated amongst the party faithful was palpable. There’s a realist understanding that going from the second opposition party to the party of government is a big ask, but they can see that Leanne and her team have well and truly put the party on track. Add to this an army of activists that are up to the challenge rights across the country and the possibility becomes very real indeed.
All of this against a backdrop of a Labour government in Wales that is managing rather than governing; in office but not in power. Leanne has taken Plaid Cymru’s tanks and pitched them on Labour’s lawn. The message to Carwyn Jones and his team was clear: If you’re not up to putting Wales first then we will.
And the best part? Labour hasn’t seen it coming. Leanne’s style is not the typical macho bullishness that has come to symbolise political discourse. Confident in her ideas and her abilities, coupled with a strong team of able Assembly Members and candidates for the next election, Leanne is quite happy to do politics on her own terms.
At last week’s FMQs, Carwyn Jones said, in his usual dismissive way, that he would ‘take lectures from Plaid Cymru when they start coming up with some policies of their own’. After that strong, policy heavy conference, Carwyn Jones might just be about to eat his own words.