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Conference Review: Plaid Cymru

This weekend saw Plaid members gather in Caernarfon for the party’s first conference since the local and general elections and the suspension of Neil McEvoy from the Assembly group.

Leanne Wood’s speech was well-received despite a mixed year for the party. She framed Plaid’s general election result as a success despite the overall drop in vote share, citing Ben Lake’s victory in Ceredigion against the odds of a “presidential” and two-party contest. She also took the opportunity to highlight the party’s more clear-cut successes in May’s local elections, welcoming the installation of Llinos Medi Huws as the leader of Ynys Mon Council.

Turning to Brexit, an issue where the party’s position has shifted slightly since the referendum, Ms Wood accused both the Welsh and UK Governments of recklessness and reiterated Plaid’s opposition to leaving the single market. She confirmed that, if the Welsh Government ends up dropping its opposition to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, Plaid will publish its own ‘Continuity Bill’ in an attempt to protect existing EU legislation within Welsh law. She also highlighted Plaid’s proposals for a Brexit Preparedness Fund.

Looking ahead to the 2021 Assembly elections, she suggested the change of name from Assembly to Parliament will present an “opportunity for political change”, but acknowledged that the party has to earn the trust of more voters across Wales. Framing the next three and a half years as a “journey towards government”, she pledged to show “a new way” for Wales. Clearly, part of this journey was always going to involve the party ending its co-operation with Labour, but Ms Wood welcomed the budget agreements struck with the Welsh Government to allow for several of Plaid’s 2016 manifesto commitments to be implemented.

Running through the other key speeches of the conference, Sian Gwenllian spoke at length on issues pertaining to rural Wales, focusing on agriculture and the Welsh language. Dai Lloyd, in his new role as social services spokesman, reiterated Plaid’s commitment to fully integrate health and social care. Rhun ap Iorwerth announced a proposal to create a not-for-profit organisation for NHS agency staffing. Visiting politicians from both the SNP and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) gave speeches, and as you might expect, the ongoing situation in Catalonia was a frequent topic of conversation over the entire conference.

Speaking on energy and the environment, Simon Thomas repeated plans to establish a national energy company and restated the party’s opposition to fracking. Hywel Williams’ speech came in the context of the surprisingly close retention of his Arfon seat, and mostly focused on the impact that the Brexit process may have on Wales’ devolution settlement. Closing Friday’s speeches, Steffan Lewis also spoke on Brexit and repeated Plaid’s calls for a piece of continuity legislation to be introduced to the National Assembly.

Saturday morning saw speeches from MEP Jill Evans and from council leaders Dyfrig Siencyn and Llinos Medi Huws. Also addressing conference that day were Liz Saville Roberts, leader of Plaid’s Westminster group; Ben Lake, the party’s newest and youngest MP; and economy spokesman Adam Price. Mr Price used his speech to argue more needs to be done to keep Wales’ young people in the country, proposing a basic income for 18-24 year olds and offering help with education or setting up a business. Liz Saville Roberts’ speech was particularly well-received by conference attendees, labelling Welsh Labour an “intellectually exhausted inheritocracy” and accusing the UK Government of holding back rail electrification and the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.

Of course, questions marks remain over how supportive the Assembly group is of Leanne Wood’s leadership, and this did come up over the course of the weekend. Ms Wood seemed to acknowledge the fact that there is some disquiet when, in a television interview, she urged any dissenting AMs to “stop the anonymous briefings” and to come to her directly with any concerns. Rhun ap Iorwerth, who made headlines in August by suggesting that he might be interested in becoming leader at some point in the future, restated his own loyalty. Simon Thomas, who has questioned the direction of the Assembly group in the past, stated that the dissenting voice(s) should either challenge Leanne Wood for the leadership in 2018 or stop “all talk about this”. Whoever the AM is (or AMs are), they likely don’t feel they have enough support within the party membership to go public with a challenge, or are otherwise biding their time until they have the formal opportunity to run for the leadership in 2018.

Either way, the next few months will be crucial for the Plaid group in the Assembly as their relationship with the Welsh Government transitions from somewhat co-operative to oppositional. Coming just weeks after the announcement that Plaid had ended its compact with Labour, this conference was a significant milestone in the party’s journey to 2021. Given that this time last year, Plaid was “genuinely torn” over whether to seek a formal coalition with Carwyn Jones, many in the party will be relieved to see that the leadership has settled on the direction in which it wants to travel.

newsdirect wales is a political monitoring company. We watch all proceedings of the National Assembly for Wales live and check hundreds of online sources to keep our clients in the know about the developments that affect them. We’d like to help you too. Give us a call on 029 2009 0693 to find out more.

Photo Credit: Kosala Bandara // Flickr

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