This has been an unusual summer, to say the least, in Welsh politics. For a period there were simultaneous leadership elections running for all four parties in the Welsh Assembly. But today’s declaration in the Plaid Cymru leadership race means that all the opposition parties in Wales are now under new management. We only await the result of Welsh Labour’s leadership race – although that will also decide the small matter of who is the new First Minister.
The Plaid Cymru race saw a clear win for Adam Price, the Assembly Member (and former MP) for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. He received 2,863 first preference votes; Ynys Môn AM Rhun Ap Iorwerth got 1,613; while incumbent leader Leanne Wood was humiliatingly in last place, with only 1,286 first preferences. After Wood’s votes were re-allocated, Price won by 3,481 votes to 1,961.
Adam Price has been talked about as a potential leader for his party more or less from the moment he captured the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr parliamentary seat in the 2001 general election. Few could doubt his talent and energy. He is an ideas machine; at his best he is also probably the most impressive political performer in the Welsh Assembly. But can he now demonstrate the management and interpersonal skills to bring Plaid Cymru, which has had a highly fractious last couple of years, back together? And in the longer-term can he be relied upon to show the necessary judgement about which of his multitude of ideas will help to revitalise Plaid Cymru’s fortunes with the Welsh electorate.
For Leanne Wood, this was the toughest of ends to her leadership. Her time as leader saw her build a very positive profile with the Welsh public, many of whom seemed to sense her (quite genuine) personal warmth. But she was not able to convert that personal popularity into substantial numbers of extra votes for her party. And she found it increasingly difficult to lead a party that was beset by internal squabbles and personal conflicts. These problems were certainly not all of her own making, but by summer this year she had evidently lost the confidence of many of her colleagues in handling them. In the end, only two of her Assembly or parliamentary colleagues backed her. The party membership took the hint.
As for the other contender – well, there will probably be relief among London-based broadcast journalists that they will not have to announce the name Rhun ap Iorwerth too often today. His campaign never quite caught fire. But he remains a thoroughly competent performer for the party on the media, and will surely be and influential and senior figure within the new leader’s team.
Only 5,762 first preference votes were cast in the ballot. That says something about the doldrums that Plaid Cymru is currently in. The contrast between its membership levels and those of the SNP border on the embarrassing. The party is faring no better in the public opinion polls in Wales, and it has now lost as leader its most well-known figure, and someone who all polling showed was consistently one of the most popular politicians in Wales. However energetic and effective Adam Price proves to be, Plaid is starting from a low base.
But the election outcome gives the party at least the chance for a fresh start. They certainly need to improve organisationally, and come together as a party. But Plaid also needs to find a broader purpose. Its long-term ambition is for an independent Wales. For years it has talked of “independence in Europe”, where Europe was understood primarily as the EU. This vision was part of a broader sense – not only in Plaid, but across much of Welsh political and social elites – that Wales was a more progressive and internationalist nation than its neighbours to the east. The Brexit vote, and the presence of seven members of the Welsh Assembly elected for Ukip in 2016, says otherwise. For Plaid, key questions remain unresolved. How does it understand Wales now, what is its realistic vision for the nation, and what is its strategy to get there from here?
But such questions are not only problems for Plaid Cymru. It may be of little consolation to the Welsh nationalists that their existential uncertainty is one thing they have in common with so much of the centre-left across Europe and other established democracies. In times of economic stringency, how can they craft convincing appeals to communities that are increasingly willing to turn to more radical, or simplistic, alternatives? That Plaid is faced with this challenge in as poor a nation as Wales merely adds to the scale of their task.
Meanwhile, looming over everything and giving it all an air of deck-chair-shuffling-on-the-Titanic is Brexit. While we still have little idea about how this will happen or be managed, we know that Wales is particularly vulnerable. One of the poorest parts of the UK faces imminently losing EU structural fund payments to its most marginalised communities; the loss of CAP funding to its rural farmers; possibly losing single-market access on which several of its largest private-sector employers depend; and losing the role for several of its ports as a key transit route between the single market and Ireland.
A hard or chaotic Brexit would be bad for everyone, but for Wales there is the realistic prospect of generational damage being inflicted on its economy and society. The iceberg gets ever closer, and everyone knows that the lifeboats are wholly inadequate. Neither the new Plaid Cymru leader, nor anyone else, yet has the answers to this.