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A new Cymru – Leanne Wood interviewed

Emma Hughes spoke to Plaid Cymru’s new left-wing leader Leanne Wood

June 28, 2012
15 min read

Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.

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Leanne Wood is on the move, travelling by car to Aberystwyth. She’ll spend the morning meeting Plaid Cymru local election candidates before driving down the Welsh coast to Aberteifi (Cardigan, as it’s called in English) to visit a community co-operative. The day is typical for Plaid’s newly elected leader. In the leadership campaign she was appearing at meetings all over Wales, and since her victory she’s been on the road again visiting hopeful candidates. Her enthusiasm for meeting people and talking face to face partly accounts for how she came from behind to win the leadership. It also helps explain why Plaid’s membership increased by 23 per cent during the leadership race.

She didn’t manage to repeat the success in the local elections. Plaid lost councillors instead of gaining them, including in Caerphilly, the one Welsh authority where they’d been in control. Labour tapped into concerns about public sector job losses and Plaid’s vote suffered as a result. The party isn’t going to be turning on its new star just yet though: Wood was only elected six weeks ago and Plaid has barely begun its process of renewal.

As Wood told party activists after the results: ‘We know from the findings of our internal review, Camu ’Mlaen, what we need to do to turn Plaid Cymru into a successful party capable of making inroads into new territory. Plaid Cymru activists must now be ready to roll up their sleeves to carry out the hard work needed to rebuild our internal party structures.’

Camu ’Mlaen (Moving Forward) was an internal review carried out after the 2011 Welsh Assembly elections. Plaid had just lost seats they won from Labour in 2007 and dropped from being the second to the third party in the assembly (after Labour and the Conservatives). The election results were particularly poor as Plaid had been in coalition with Labour during the previous term. Camu ’Mlaen argued that Plaid had not succeeded in distinguishing itself from the Welsh Labour party, and called on the party to define and articulate a vision of decentralised community socialism to contrast with Labour’s centralist approach.

In many ways Leanne Wood’s election fulfils the recommendations of this review: there can be no doubt that she offers a vision of decentralised socialism. Her Twitter feed sums up her position: ‘Plaid Cymru. Welsh Socialist and Republican. Environmentalist. Anti-racist. Feminist. Valleys.’

In South Wales she is known as a woman who lives by her politics. She has supported activists and striking workers, spoken out about police brutality and attended many a demonstration. Her actions have caused controversy on occasion, most famously when she was expelled from the assembly for refusing to retract a statement calling the queen ‘Mrs Windsor’. She lives in (and represents) the former coal mining valley where she was born: the Rhondda. She recently turned down the extra £23,000 she was entitled to as party leader (which would have put her annual wage at £77,000). Her continued connection to Welsh social movements ensured her election as leader was greeted with delight, especially on her home turf of South Wales, where anarchists and local SWP members alike described her success as the victory of a comrade.

Left expectations

Wood spends her journey to Aberystwyth talking to me. We begin by discussing the Welsh left’s expectations for her leadership. She is clear that her first priority is to represent the members of Plaid: ‘The Plaid Cymru leadership have appeared distant and I think that’s why the membership now have opted for me. I’ve said that I will honour and respect conference decisions and take the views of the membership very seriously. That’s the basis of democracy and that’s what I intend to do. But if Plaid members are up for going down the route of a more radical politics, and I think that’s what my vote reflected, then we’re in for a really interesting time in Wales.’

Wood’s victory does indeed mark a departure from the traditional party leadership. Not only is she the first female Plaid leader, she is the first not to be fluent in Welsh and the first, at least since Dafydd Elis Thomas in the 1980s, to so clearly define herself as socialist. Plaid remains a broad coalition that includes conservative cultural nationalists, but it is clear that the left of the party is now setting the agenda.

For Wood the key policy area is the economy: ‘We’d focus on a long-term job creation plan to enable people to earn an income because without jobs you can’t have anything. So I think addressing Wales’ economic problems and the inequalities both between Wales and other parts of the UK and the EU and also inequality within Wales is key. What we need is a US-style “new deal”, like they did in the Thirties in the United States, but for us it should be around renewable energy and food production.’

Economic greenprint

Decentralisation is crucial to Wood’s economic vision. Last year she wrote A Greenprint for the Valleys, in which she set out why credit unions and co-operatives are central to financial renewal in the upper part of the valleys. It’s an idea she’s keen to expand on.

‘Co-operatives have a great potential at this time. If the workforce have more of a say in the way their industry is run, that creates a more successful organisation. I think people need to have a say in the work they do. In the past the answer for the Welsh economy was attracting companies on the basis that we can provide cheaper labour than elsewhere – and so in recent years where labour has become cheaper in other places those companies have up and left. If we can encourage more indigenous, worker-controlled businesses they’re more likely to stay.’

Wood cites the Mondragon Co-operative as an attractive example because of the number of people it employs, but she argues such a model might not be suitable for Wales: ‘I would rather see smaller units of people connected up instead of one big company. I think Wales lends itself to that kind of organisation because we’re quite a small country. But there’s a vast rural area within Wales as well, so you could have small co-operatives in towns and villages that would have a huge impact in terms of unemployment because we’re talking about small numbers of people living in those places anyway. And it would help to secure the viability of those communities over the long term, because without jobs those communities can’t be viable.’

Wood doesn’t just want worker involvement – community participation is also important. ‘If you look at Denmark,’ she says, ‘wind farms can only get planning permission if the community owns a certain percentage, so the money is plied back into community facilities like youth clubs, libraries – that’s the sort of model I favour. Public services are being run down in many areas and removed from some places. So where these big gaps start appearing in the welfare net people need to come together to fill these gaps.

‘There’s obviously the danger of the “big society” agenda here, which I think is a massive con because that is about trying to reduce the state, so we have to be wary not to fall into the traps set for us by the Conservatives. But with, for example, the closing of the Remploy factories [a state‑owned firm that employs mostly disabled workers], we’re losing seven factories – what’s going to happen to the workers in those factories? Who’s going to keep an eye on them? How can we ensure that the communities they live in are supportive communities? Maybe by developing cooperatives in the community we could have a diversity of people in work because they’re supported.’

Community control

Community involvement means people having control over basic resources. Decentralised food and energy production is particularly important, Wood says: ‘At the moment the assembly only has powers to determine energy consents up to 50 megawatts, so we want full power over all energy consents for Wales. But I’d like to go further and give responsibility to communities for generating their own energy and becoming self-sufficient in renewable energy as far as they possibly can. For example, [we could say] to community X (however you define it), if you can produce 50 per cent of your own energy renewably then all of the people living in that area can have 10 per cent off their council tax. But we can only do that if we have all of the powers.’

‘Food production is the other issue,’ she continues. ‘We’re at the end of many supply chains in Wales, so if the price of oil continues to go up then that’s going to have an impact on food. We should be growing our own food for the population in Wales.’

During her tours of Wales, Wood has visited some of the growing number of co-operatives that already exist. She argues these examples should be replicated throughout the country: ‘Last week I went to visit a social enterprise on Caia Park council estate, a very large sprawling council estate in Wrexham. It began when a group of women came together, single parents from the estate, and they set up the creche first. There are now various operations: a community cafe, a wood workshop, a plant nursery, a toddlers’ creche. They’re employing 70 people, all from the local estate. If that sort of model could be replicated it could make a serious dent in our employment problem.’

Wood says her commitment to worker and community cooperatives is something she’s inherited from her predecessors in Plaid Cymru and the Welsh people in general: ‘It does go back a long way. Some of the early thinkers in Plaid Cymru on the economy were DJ and Noelle Davies and they very much came at the question from an anti-big state perspective. So we talk about decentralist socialism. We want power devolved down to communities and people to take decisions as much as possible at a local level, but that has to balanced, for example, by things like the NHS, which should be run nationally.

‘We only need to look back in our history in Wales . . . all of our communities were built by people coming together, putting their money, time and labour together and creating the institutions we have today – miners’ institutions, working men’s halls, libraries, they were built by people coming together. That is Welsh society. We’ve had our own version of it for decades, maybe even centuries.’

Nuclear division

Wood’s Greenprint document presents a manifesto for how Valley communities could mobilise this tradition to reverse the structural neglect that has created decades of economic decline. It’s a vision that has inspired Plaid, uniting it around this plan.

In other policy areas, though, the party is divided. Nuclear power proved particularly contentious in the leadership race, with candidates fighting over whether a new power station on Ynys Môn (Anglesey) should be given Plaid support. Although Plaid is officially anti-nuclear, the promise of new jobs saw rival candidate Dafydd Elis-Thomas supporting the power station. Wood remained vehemently opposed and when she won the election she shifted the former leader from environment spokesperson to food, fisheries and rural affairs, removing him from responsibility for the power station decision.

‘Some members have promoted the building of a new power station because of the dire situation with jobs on Ynys Môn,’ says Wood. ‘If you look at the GDP figures they are horrendous; there’s about 58 per cent of [average per capita] UK GDP on Anglesey. So the jobs question is the big driver. But my argument has always been “yes, jobs, but not at any cost”. So the Real Independent Energy paper I wrote was an attempt to provide alternative solutions for jobs in Anglesey that didn’t involve nuclear. We could create an energy island on Anglesey, really pushing on the marine renewable energy sector like they have in Scotland, and there could be more jobs created than there would from a nuclear power station.’

Another question that plagues Plaid is how to increase support for an independent Wales. Wood’s commitment to socialism is matched by her belief in liberation nationalism, but it’s a belief much less fervently held by the country at large. Support for Welsh independence currently stands at only 10 per cent.

Wood says Plaid’s success will hinge on the economic case for independence: ‘People fear that we would be much worse off economically if we were independent and so we have to address that. I would argue that Wales can’t prosper unless we become independent, unless we have the lever of control in our hands. Our poverty isn’t inevitable – we don’t have to have a weak economy – but our effort needs to go into making that case.’

Voting for cuts

Despite arguing against the cuts, Plaid Cymru councillors have voted for reduced budgets. While the Socialist Party of Wales and others, including some trade unions, have pushed the Welsh government to set a needs-based budget, Plaid refused to support the campaign. Wood says it was a pragmatic decision.

‘There’s no mechanism for voting down the settlement as it comes from Westminster,’ she says. ‘So [regarding] the idea of setting the needs-based budget, I just don’t see how it could practically be done. There’s no independent means of raising income through the assembly, no tax-raising powers, and that’s why we’re pushing for fiscal powers now so that we can raise money to plug the gap. And that’s the difference between [us and], say, Liverpool council in the 1980s, who tried to stand against cuts – they could independently raise their own revenue.’

Like the Green Party in Brighton, Plaid is struggling to put clear ground between its choices in power and Labour’s ‘management of the cuts’. Wood says the key issue is where the cuts fall: ‘What I’m seeing is that the people on the lowest income are bearing the brunt, whereas the people at the top of the tree aren’t taking a hit. If you had a maximum pay policy for the public sector you could then save money at the top end. So I wouldn’t take a position of absolutely no cuts.

‘The Wales Audit Office paid a package to one of their senior officers of £750,000 and those sorts of fat cat pay deals do need to be addressed. We’ve also got a situation in the Rhondda Cynon Taf council where the Labour leader of the council has got four jobs, earning more than £100,000. The same authority has ripped up the contracts of their lowest paid workers and imposed a wage cut of 40 per cent on some of them. It’s that sort of inequality that needs to be addressed.’

Tax and business

Cannily perhaps, Wood refuses to commit herself on tax levels. ‘We want power over all taxes in Wales so we can determine the best way to stimulate the economy,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to get into a debate about what levels of tax would be set, that’s a matter for discussion when we have those powers. It will depend on the particular problem we were trying to tackle.’

Nor does she want to come across as hostile to business. For example, although the Greenprint document strongly argues in favour of co-operatives, Plaid also supports giving Welsh brands financial assistance. ‘I do support government support for business,’ says Wood. ‘But it’s the type of support and business we need to look at. I would like to see support linked to ethical businesses, businesses that treat their workers well, as well as being Welsh businesses. I would prefer the loans approach rather than grants, so that that money can be put back into the system and recycled.’

To argue this case convincingly, Plaid will need to closely define the size, organisational structure and remit of an ‘ethical company’. If the party is serious about supporting co-operatives, then the criteria should surely include some elements of worker control.

Plaid’s socialist credentials are yet to be proved, but Leanne Wood’s victory marks a significant step in establishing Plaid as a party of the left. It also ensures there won’t be a repeat of 2007, when Plaid entered into coalition talks with the Conservatives – a move that horrified many Plaid voters and members. Wood’s success will also put pressure on Welsh Labour to maintain its policy of keeping ‘clear red water’ between Welsh and Westminster Labour.

Wood is unequivocal that her role is to represent the views of Plaid members. Although she favours a more radical direction for the party, she will not head that way without grassroots support. When I ask Wood how she’d suggest the people of Wales should spend their jubilee holiday, the woman who has rejected an invitation to take part in ‘Mrs Windsor’s’ jubilee visit laughingly reminds me that Plaid does not have a policy on republicanism.

‘People should spend it in the way they feel most comfortable. If you want to participate in the celebrations that’s okay, but if you don’t that’s fine too.’ She pauses, before adding, ‘Personally, I won’t be hanging the bunting out.’

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Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.

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