By Chris Jarvis
Earlier this week, the race to crown the next leader of the Wales Green Party kicked off. Mirka Virtanen, Deputy Leader since 2017 was the first to declare her candidacy. Two other candidates were announced in an email to party members but, at the time of writing, neither have announced their candidacy publicly.
The leadership election comes at a bad time for the party. On the eve of the Green Party of England and Wales’ biannual conference, its then leader, Grenville Ham, resigned as leader and defected to Plaid Cymru. His defection came after a bitter and divisive summer for the Welsh Greens, as they voted in a referendum of party members as to whether to become an independent party. Ultimately, members voted against proposals for a breakaway, but it has led to a significant rift within the party – evidenced not least by Grenville Ham citing the result of the referendum as a reason for his defection.
But the current political context in Wales offers the Greens a unique opportunity when it enters new life under a new leadership team. In September, Leanne Wood was ousted as leader of Plaid Cymru. She was defeated in a leadership contest by Adam Price, a long-standing prominent figure within Plaid, who represented the party in parliament from 2001-2010 and in the Welsh Assembly since 2016.
While Wood oversaw a shifting of Plaid Cymru to the political left, representing the progressive tradition within Welsh nationalism, Price is viewed as being much more comfortable working with forces of the right, including the Conservatives. During the leadership election, he argued for a position of “equidistance” between Labour and the Conservatives. He has also placed the demand for Welsh independence at the centre of his campaign, prioritising this above other concerns – economic, cultural, social and political.
While the rightward shift within Plaid Cymru takes place, Welsh Labour are also debating their future through a leadership election
Such positions are a strong departure from Plaid Cymru under Wood’s leadership, which sought to frame problems facing Wales not only in nationalist terms, but also in socialist terms. For Leanne Wood’s Plaid Cymru, the problem was not just the British state, but also its enabling of, support for, and intersection with capital. The problem was not solely one of national liberation, but also of social justice and economic liberation. Adam Price’s rhetoric plays down that analysis. One left critic of Price argued: “The thrust of Price’s leadership then is likely to reorientate Plaid towards its traditional territory as the representatives of the provincial lawyer, accountant and estate agent and landowner.”
While the rightward shift within Plaid Cymru takes place, Welsh Labour are also debating their future through a leadership election. The frontrunner two months before polls close is Mark Drakeford who is viewed as a leftwinger, is supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, and has the backing of Momentum. Additionally, he has been credited with attempts to distance Welsh Labour from the policies of the Blair government.
Despite this, Drakeford’s record is mixed. For nearly 20 years, he has been closely associated with the Welsh Government, and has been a cabinet member since 2013, and the Welsh Finance Minister since 2016. While a minister, he has implemented the Welsh Government’s programme of austerity, under pressure from funding cuts from Westminster. This has included to cuts to Welsh councils of 2% last year, and cuts to local government announced last week which estimates suggest could lead to the loss of more than 1,000 teachers across Wales. During Drakeford’s time in office, homelessness in Wales has drastically increased, and despite nearly 20 years of Labour government in Wales, virtually no inroads have been made in addressing poverty in the country.
Given Drakeford’s contradictory record, and his close association with the unpopular Welsh Government, it is not yet a foregone conclusion that if he does become the leader of Welsh Labour he will be able to channel the energy of the left of the Welsh electorate. Nor is it clear that he will advocate a radical platform for Labour in Wales, or seek to win over voters to endorse radical solutions to the problems facing the country.
If Plaid Cymru distance themselves from their progressive past and Labour fail to articulate a bold set of policy solutions, the Greens can step in to take that place
And this all provides fertile ground for the Greens. With Plaid Cymru drifting to the right, and Welsh Labour’s future unclear, the Green Party have an opportunity to transform its fortunes by vocalising, advocating and embodying a radical alternative for Wales. If Plaid Cymru distance themselves from their progressive past and Labour fail to articulate a bold set of policy solutions, the Greens can step in to take that place, and put forward a new vision for Wales. That vision, built in the core principles of Green politics – environmental sustainability, radical democracy and economic justice – needs to be a radical vision, addressing the key challenges facing Wales at their root. Without the two parties of the traditional left offering a political programme of this ilk, such a vision would also find popularity within the Welsh electorate.
Undoubtedly, it will be an uphill struggle to effectively occupy that space and translate it into electoral success. Despite Wales’ national elections being run semi-proportionally, Greens have not yet managed to utilise the opportunities provided by a fairer electoral system, as they have in elections to the London Assembly and the European Parliament, and as the Scottish Greens have in their national parliament. Rather, past elections have produced disappointing results, and never a Green member of the Welsh Assembly.
Past electoral barriers notwithstanding, radical shifts in Welsh politics are difficult to generate more generally. Media, particularly at a national level is incredibly weak, and fails, even more than that of the rest of the UK, to hold politicians effectively to account, or provide accurate and informed commentary on political developments. Lack of investment in Welsh transport infrastructure makes national and, crucially for elections to the Welsh Assembly, regional election campaigning very difficult – it’s simply more challenging to move party activists across the country than it is in parts of England or indeed Scotland. Turnout in Welsh Assembly elections is low, as is engagement with politics at the Assembly level.
But these are all barriers that can be overcome by an effective organising and campaigning strategy from the Wales Green Party – a strategy built around targeting existing membership hotspots, identifying key voter demographics, activist recruitment and retention, developing national, regional and local party infrastructure, creating powerful and engaging digital campaign content and delivering against ambitious fundraising targets. If the Greens can do this, they will be able to circumvent the traditional challenges facing the party in Wales, as well as overcome the more general barriers to political breakthrough in the country.
For these two things – carving out space as the party of the radical left in Wales and building a comprehensive strategy to translate that messaging into electoral representation – will be crucial to whether or not the Wales Green Party can become a powerful force in Welsh politics. There are three years to deliver on this, before the next Assembly elections in 2021, and before local, and possibly General elections the following year.
But the reality of whether or not this can be achieved will be determined in the coming weeks. The vision each candidate in the Wales Green Party leadership election has for the near future of the party, and which candidate is ultimately successful, will determine which path the party takes at the current fork it finds itself at. Either it could grasp the nettle and truly enter the world of national Welsh politics, or instead stagnate and remain a political footnote.
Featured image credit: Midnightblueowl (Wikimedia)
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