John Harris

Journalist & Author

Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood: ‘I looked at local politics. I didn’t like what I saw’

Her leadership victory sent a ripple of both excitement and apprehension through her party’s collective psyche

Leanne Wood is a 40-year-old mother of one, and a former probation officer. Her Twitter feed comes with a neat summary of her politics: “Welsh Socialist and Republican. Environmentalist. Anti-racist. Feminist. Valleys.”

When she won her party’s leadership contest back in March, you could sense two conflicting reactions rippling through the Welsh nationalists’ collective psyche: excitement about such a radical politician taking the top job; and from more conservative quarters, a real trepidation about what she might do with her new role. During the leadership campaign, one of her senior colleagues had issued a thinly veiled warning about the dangers of what he called “Fisher-Price politics”. But enough Plaid members decided to ignore this rather patronising advice, and give Wood her chance, something she traces to our turbulent times: “People are radical, and they want radical solutions to the situation we’re in,” she says.

Before becoming Plaid’s leader, Wood was chiefly famed for an episode in 2004, when she upset some members of the Welsh Assembly by referring to the Queen as “Mrs Windsor”, and found herself temporarily excluded from proceedings. Passionate and prone to shoot from the hip, she doesn’t seem to fit any of the usual political stereotypes – even when it comes to her own party.

Plaid’s traditional heartlands are north and west Wales, and the party has usually expected its leaders to be fluent Welsh speakers. Wood is still learning the language, and hails from the post-industrial heart of Labour-dominated south Wales. Her nationalism is solidly pragmatic rather than romantic: She believes in Welsh independence not primarily as a matter of national identity, but the best way of pulling her country away from a system in which government “puts all its effort into promoting London and the south-east, and neglects the periphery”.

As with so many people who have found a home on British politics’ outside-left, Wood links some of her convictions to Labour’s failures and shortcomings, and the way it has long behaved in its rock-solid heartlands. She grew up in the Rhondda Valley in a Labour-voting family, but any sense of loyalty to the party soon palled. “I looked at local politics, and I didn’t like what I saw,” she says. “I saw mainly older men, with rightwing politics, and a real sense of entitlement – that they just deserved to get people’s support, regardless of their politics, and how they operated.”

I meet Wood on a Thursday morning in the town of Cwmbran, near Newport – way outside Plaid’s usual stamping grounds, where there are only two Welsh nationalists on the local council. We talk in the back room of a local community centre, where one Plaid councillor has been energetically promoting a self-help group for people who have suffered strokes: an example, Wood tells me, of the kind of community activism that might open up new opportunities.

Her party faces a steep climb, to say the least – support for Welsh independence has long held steady at around 10%, and after four years of sharing power in Cardiff with Labour, Plaid finished third in the last Welsh assembly elections, behind the Conservatives. But Wood insists that the SNP’s success in Scotland proves that politics is now in flux as never before.

“I think the context has changed, massively,” she says. “Since 2008, lots of things have been turned on their heads for people: old certainties are not certainties any more. And that’s opened up the space for radical politics. I may not have won the leadership election had the banking crisis not happened.” She goes on: “If you can offer some hope of a different kind of structure to base our society around, and a different set of values in opposition to the ones that drove the crisis, then maybe we’ve got some light at the end of the tunnel. I think people are open to different ideas.”

Even if you’re being generous, Wood’s vision of an alternative can feel like a utopian work in progress. She talks me through the essentials: “changing the most basic structures of the economy” by encouraging co-operatives and employee participation, pushing for Wales to become a specialist in green technologies, and aiming at national self-sufficiency in food and fuel. “I don’t think that Plaid Cymru can overturn world capitalism,” she says, with a wry smile. “I’m not saying that. But what I think we can do is, if people are up for this, then we could transform our communities, and create work for people.”

Her ideas definitely represent a position well clear of the Westminster consensus. I wonder, though: given that her focus is on Wales alone, what does she think people in England ought to do? “Move to Wales,” she laughs, before mentioning the leftwing voices who are beginning to advocate an English parliament, and then correcting herself. “It’s got to be down to people in England to find the solution,” she says, a little apologetically. “I wouldn’t be very happy if people in England starting telling us how to do our politics, so I’m not going to do it back.”

One last question: given her new job as party leader, she’ll presumably have to turn out at the kind of official occasions when she’ll meet the Queen, and be expected to bow, at least. What’s she going to do?

She looks mildly horrified. “Well, I won’t be doing that. I question this whole thing about deference. I just think in 2012, that we should all strive for equality as human beings, really. And the idea that you bow to someone, to me, is anathema.”

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