How Plaid leader Leanne Wood is building a new era of Welsh politics

Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru.

After a tense week of behind-the-scenes talks, Labour’s Carwyn Jones has been reconfirmed as first minister in Wales – but not without a tense standoff with Leanne Wood, the charismatic leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru. The deadlock was finally broken after a week of negotiations between senior figures in both parties – but Welsh politics will never be the same again.

The Welsh Assembly has 21 areas of responsibility including health, environment and housing, and comprises 60 seats. Of these, 40 are elected on a constituency-based first-past-the-post vote, while the other 20 are elected from regional lists to represent one of five Welsh regions (four assembly members (AMs) per region). Since it was created in 1999, Labour has been the largest party in the assembly but never won an outright absolute majority. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, has played both the official opposition role (1999) and joined Labour in a coalition in 2007.

Following the latest round of elections, and subsequent nominations of the presiding officer (speaker) and her deputy, the resulting arithmetic of the assembly was mostly as expected: Labour had 28 seats and the deputy presiding officer; Plaid, 11 and the presiding officer. The Conservatives meanwhile won 11 seats; UKIP seven and the Liberal Democrats won just one seat. Plaid, with the second largest number of seats, became the official opposition.

Though Plaid would surely not have chosen anyone else, the nomination of Wood for first minister (FM) surprised many, as it had generally been assumed that Carwyn Jones would take up the role unopposed once again. Even more surprising was Plaid’s subsequent support from UKIP and the Conservatives which pushed Wood and Jones into a deadlock (the sole Liberal Democrat AM, Kirsty Williams, supported Labour). In the end, because the presiding officers don’t vote, the two candidates had 29 nominations apiece.

And so, in a matter of days Wood emerged both as her party’s heroine – after dramatically clinching a Welsh assembly seat in Rhondda from Labour – and as a controversial figurehead, following this nomination for the top job.

Many had expected Jones to automatically lead Labour in a minority government. However, in an attempt to show that Labour has no “divine” right to rule, the opposing parties chose another path – though whether this was an orchestrated collaboration remains unconfirmed.

Bewilderment that Welsh politics had suddenly got exciting followed, as people wondered just what would happen to their government. Initial reactions, especially from Labour members, included soundbites about Plaid’s alleged treachery and the sell-off of Wales’ soul to the “evil” Tories and UKIP – though there was some more balanced analysis from commentators who recognised the legitimacy and boldness of Plaid to question Labour’s entitlement to govern Wales without proper consultations and negotiations. This was in stark contrast to 2007, for instance, when parties did engage in negotiations and the prospect of a possible “rainbow” coalition between Plaid, the Lib-Dems and the Tories threatened Labour’s access to power. Rhodri Morgan, the outgoing Labour first minister at the time was eventually nominated to form a government three weeks after the elections.

But has Wood, who now takes on the role of leader of the opposition in the Senedd for the first time, been left unscathed by this? And, more importantly, why did no one see this coming? After all, Wood’s background and profile spell out a strongminded and rebellious political figure.

New kind of leader

Wood is a product of the Welsh valleys, with strong convictions on gender, the monarchy, the environment and Trident. She became an AM in 2003 and was elected as Plaid leader in March 2012, over two far more seasoned candidates, thanks to active younger supporters and a platform advocating bold policy changes. Praised by her own party members as a leading communicator resonating across Wales, she marks a double first for Plaid: the first woman and the first non-fluent Welsh speaker to lead the party.

Outside Wales, Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru were relatively unknown prior to the 2015 general election televised debates. She capitalised excellently on being given a national platform, however, and emerged as a political leader “speaking for Wales”. Sharing the stage with other national party leaders, she came out relatively well, winning plaudits for her admonition of UKIP leader, Nigel Farage.

Leanne Wood battles Nigel Farage in a 2015 general election debate.

When elected leader, Wood inherited a party that had come third in the assembly elections the year before. Plaid’s further electoral record under Wood is a mixed bag: poor EU parliamentary election performance saw Plaid’s vote share decrease by 3.2% from 2009, but the party held on to its only MEP. In the 2010 general election, Plaid’s vote share increased marginally by 0.9% from 2010 to 2015 – but that only enabled it to hold on to the three seats it already had.

This year’s assembly elections were the real test but – though there were some modest positive swings in vote share – 1.3% in the constituency vote and 3% in the regional ballot – Plaid won only one seat more than in 2011, but this was enough to give them a strong negotiating hand in the fifth assembly.

Most disappointing however, has been Plaid’s declining record on producing gender-balanced assembly teams, despite Wood’s own strong feminist convictions. Once a pioneer leading on gender equality advances in Wales, Plaid has now regressed significantly. Only four of their 12 AMs are women, down from 45% (7 out of 15) in 2011 elections and, 50% (6 out of 12) in 2003.

Flexing new muscles

Despite these results, other aspects of Wood’s leadership are more encouraging. The first minister “episode” is an exemplar of Plaid’s ability to show unity despite being ostracised by Labour and risking losing some of its hard-won support. It is also telling of the party’s more muscular approach, and its new-found determination to demand Labour’s respect and maximise opportunities to implement its own policies. After all, we can argue that Plaid has capitalised excellently on the very minor electoral gains made on May 5.

No doubt the negotiations with Labour to break the deadlock were tough – but Wood stood her ground. Both parties left posturing aside and successfully kept the talks out of the media. Being able to secure an advanced look at the budget and winning a formal platform for early consultations with Labour via liaison committees on finance, legislation and the constitution are outcomes that should please Wood and do her position no harm at all.

Plaid seems ready to challenge the establishment and the next five years will certainly test the party’s unity and Wood’s ability to build towards further electoral success. No longer content with the eternal opposition status, Plaid is growing up under Leanne Wood’s leadership.