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Presidents and country solicitors

Betsan Powys | 14:37 UK time, Monday, 23 June 2008

There was a time not that long ago when the most important qualification for becoming Plaid Cymru president was, to put it bluntly, 'not being Ieuan Wyn Jones'.

Now there are some in the Party of Wales who stand accused these days of behaving a little too presidentially at times.

Ieuan Wyn Jones was never guilty of that. In fact the man described by one of his own MPs as "coming across like a good country solicitor" seemed pretty much to admit he wasn't really cut out for the job when he gave up the combined leadership and presidency after the 2003 Assembly Elections.

Llywydd Wyn Jones stood outside party HQ and stood down. He did not tick the charisma box and more crucially, not enough voters had ticked the Plaid box that May. The party took a hammering and the leader lost the confidence of too many of his colleagues.

But hang on.

The two roles were then split and back came Ieuan Wyn Jones as Assembly group and party leader. The job had been redefined and so, apparently, had the man. Before some in his own party had quite worked out how he'd managed it, the country solicitor had negotiated his way into his country's government.

How about the presidency? What did Plaid want from their president in 2003 when the voters had just given them a kicking?

Personality, colour, inspiration, an ability to communicate with the grass roots in a way Ieuan Wyn Jones had not and could not, a figure-head who could galvanise party members, workers, volunteers and voters alike.

They elected Dafydd Iwan, a man best known for having kept "good country solicitors" busy as a political activist and whose speeches and passion for independence packs them in at party conferences.

And now the party get to choose again as Elfyn Llwyd MP, formerly known as and still sometime "good country solicitor", pigeon-fancier and mate of Paul Murphy's has (openly) challenged for the presidency.

Two horses so far and that means Dafydd Iwan must persuade his party that he's still up for the job and that while he may be a defeated Gwynedd councillor and awkward reminder of Plaid's problems in that part of the heartlands, he should retain the presidency.

So what will the party decide they need this time, sitting pretty in government, making strides in the local elections in Labour territory but feeling the pain from a couple of hard knocks in their own, traditional heartlands?

Elfyn Llwyd has set the tone with his warning today that it's time for a change at the top, "for the party to go back to its roots and reconnect with local communities". (Sounds as though he's reworked an old Peter Hain speech to me).

Plaid, he says, needs to "move away from internal navel gazing". He wants to see "joined up thinking and action between various levels of the party" ... not that he's criticising his opponent, who must have presided over this period of internal navel gazing of course.

For his part Dafydd Iwan says that "there is an important role for the president to play in acting as a link between professional politicians and the grassroots."

In other words both men pledge to listen to those who may be glad that Plaid are in government, who supported the deal with Labour but whose concerns are mounting. Some of them may have voted for Llais Gwynedd on May 1st and need some persuasion to come back into the fold. Both men know about that danger. One's already been ousted by Llais Gwynedd; the other will have watched their votes piling up in Meirionydd on May 1st and calculated it's high time he upped his profile before the next General Election.

Both men know that the job is to keep the troops happy while the leader gets on with making the kind of difficult-to-justify decisions that lead to unhappiness in the ranks. Opposition is a luxury, government is difficult etc etc

Or put another way one of the key qualifications for the job seem to have changed - from 'not being Ieuan Wyn Jones' in 2003 to 'allowing Ieuan Wyn Jones to get on with it' in 2008.


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