Do they think it's all over?

  • 2 February 2012
  • From the section Wales
  • comments

Why are 'they' and what do they 'think is all over?'

Let's take this step by step.

For a first clue, take a look at this piece from John Harris in the Guardian . Read the first six paragraphs and look at the first of the two photographs. In fact, the first two words should give it to you. Leanne Wood.

Got it?

I'm not talking about the future of the United Kingdom here. I'm talking about the Plaid Cymru leadership race. I was chatting to an interested but non-party affiliated academic this morning who made me sit up with a clear assumption that the race has already been won. He's not alone.

The bookies have Leanne Wood as a clear favourite now. She won the battle for nominations from branches and constituency parties hands down. Her 'big names' are bigger than anybody else's. (Adam Price was no surprise. Dafydd Iwan rather more so, say the Elin Jones camp). What was seen as inexperience a few weeks ago, is now seen as a fresh approach, a politician whose time - to the surprise, even, of some of those who plan to vote for her - has come. In the world of online polls and twitter support, she is the runaway winner. They, at least, might be tempted to think it's all over.

They may all be right of course.

I don't think either Leanne Wood - or her campaign team - are that complacent, mind. She's taken the contest by the horns. Her campaign is by far the most visible. When she's talking to the people of Blaenau Ffestiniog, we know about it, we know about what and the photographs are there, online, to prove it. Independence? She seemed to grab the impetus early on - now the others (who want to) have to grab it away from her.

Those close to the Elin Jones campaign admit that the role played by Welsh Language Society campaigners and their support for Leanne Wood was 'unexpectedly prominent'. They know how to campaign and they've been doing it effectively for Leanne Wood. Their role may seem counter-intuitive to some, given she's the only non-fluent Welsh speaker in the race, but it's there.

The conversation this morning moved seamlessly on to what sort of leader Leanne Wood would make, a stab at working out what her strengths and weaknesses are likely to be. One interesting theory I'll mention in passing - would she become the 'definitely-not-Ieuan-Wyn-Jones' leader, a bit like Ed Miliband was the 'definitely-not-Blair-or-Brown' leader? It gets you over the 50% mark but ... what then?

But is it all over?

Remember the winner needs to take, not it all perhaps but they do need to win over 50% of the vote for it to be done and dusted in one round. By the time Welsh Labour officials were holed up counting the votes in their own leadership election back in 2009, it was clear to all that Carwyn Jones was way out in front. As a seasoned politics-watcher reminded me recently, what percentage of the vote did Carwyn get? He just about did it - 52%. That's pretty tidy in a three horse race, mind, and surprised even him.

Winning in the first round is never easy. Once second preferences start to kick in, certainty slips away very quickly. When it gets to a third and fourth round, anyone sitting in the G-Mex conference centre in Manchester and who saw the colour drain from David Miliband's face will remember that anything can happen.

How many of those who'll vote for the new Plaid leader are more likely to be influenced by the material that lands on their doorstep, than what is said on Twitter? The tweetosphere may have called it, but this battle will be won on the doormats and the hustings.

What about those new members Plaid have been signing up? Someone who's been able to to take a good look at exactly who these people are reports that there is little sign of entryism. The suggestion is that most of those who've signed up are lapsed members of old who've been prompted to rejoin and that only a handful are from places like the student halls of Aberystwyth.

And what about the men - and I don't (just) mean the men in the race. Never forget, says another voice, that key group of Plaid voters: "men from the North West". Dafydd Elis-Thomas won't have the support of every one of them but he will have an awful lot. When Plaid, locally, were taking heavy fire over school reorganisations in Gwynedd, he stood with them in the trenches - one of very few senior figures who did, it's muttered. Who will get their second vote? Will Leanne Wood have done enough in that patch to grab them? What about Simon Thomas? If he has concerns about a lack of momentum in his campaign compared with some of the other candidates, his characteristic quiet confidence and affability wouldn't let him betray it.

And is this now the battle of the two women? Don't you believe it, say too many voices to discount. It's still definitely a three-horse race, with Elis-Thomas still in the frame, if not Thomas.

So where does all this leave us? Leanne Wood may have beaten Carwyn Jones to the intro in today's Guardian, but it's tomorrow's chip paper, and being leader in opposition through the long years before to the 2016 Assembly elections is, frankly, no one's idea of fun.

If the members do decide, whether by first, second or third preference, to plump for Leanne Wood, it will represent the strongest break possible with what's gone before. They'll have rejected a former Cabinet minister, a former Llywydd and party leader, and a former MP and special adviser.

Does that seem like an unlikely scenario? It certainly would have as recently as a month ago. Now - no it isn't - but when you have people with years, or even decades of experience of calling leadership contests across the parties throwing their hands up - you know it's very far from all over.