It’s unlikely to come up as a question in a Christmas quiz, but nevertheless a point of discussion amongst political anoraks on the eve of Plaid Cymru’s leadership election, who has been their most successful leader to date?
Now most would mention the saintly Gwynfor Evans who turned, what was essentially a protest movement to safeguard the Welsh language, into a recognisable political party. Indeed his election to parliament as Plaid Cymru’s first MP was a breakthrough and a coming of age for the party as a force in Welsh elected politics.
But if the measure of leadership is winning votes and seats Gwynfor Evans period as leader was not great. Why? Well, he was careless with his own seat and lost it twice. To loose a seat once may be sheer bad luck, but to loose a seat twice can be seen as careless.
It was Dafydd Elis-Thomas and Dafydd Wigley that gave the party a boost by winning Merionydd and Caernarfon for the party in February 1974.
Gwynfor subsequently joined them in October of that year and had another term until losing his seat in 1979.
Plaid Cymru’s vote had gone up to 175,016(11.5%) votes in Parliamentary elections in 1970 when they fought every constituency in Wales for the first time but down again to 132,544(8.1%) in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher won the UK election
In 1981 Dafydd Wigley took over from Evans as President/Leader of the party. He took over a party that was demoralised having seen its vote go down in the election and perhaps even more of a blow seeing Wales reject even a modest amount of devolution in the 1979 referendum.
But before Wigley could make his mark the internal politics of the party saw him resign, the lefty MP for Meirionydd, Dafydd Elis-Thomas who took over as President in 1985. Under him they gained a third seat in the 1987 election. Ieuan Wyn Jones was elected as MP for Ynys Mon.
Wigley again elbowed his way back to the presidency of the party and saw the party gain it’s fourth Member in Westminster in the 1992 general election. They remained at four until Simon Thomas lost Ceridigion to the Liberal Democrats in 2005
Meanwhile, of course, Plaid’s focus moved from Westminster to Cardiff Bay with the setting up of the National Assembly for Wales.
Under the leadership of Dafydd Wigley in the 1999 Plaid Cymru gained 17 seats in the Assembly and over 28 per cent of the vote. Their most successful results ever. But to who goes the credit? Wigley as leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones the campaign coordinator.
Certainly Plaid Cymru were helped by the perceived disunity within Labour ranks. Labour had had two bruising elections for the leadership of the Welsh party.The first was between Ron Davies and Rhodri Morgan, which the former won but had to subsequently resign after a sex scandal. Then Rhodri Morgan took on Alun Michael who was parachuted in by Tony Blair. Morgan took on the party machine and lost although took over without a contest when Michael resigned.
In that first Assembly election Plaid won seats in the South Wales valleys for the first time, ever. But the best of times were followed by the worst of times. Wigley retired on health grounds. Ieuan Wyn Jones took over as leader. But the party’s vote took a tumble in 2003 Assembly elections. A drop in their seats from 17 to 14 and the party’s share of the votes dropping by over 7%.
Jones resigned the Presidency and the leadership of the Plaid group in the Assembly. The party decided to separate the presidency from that of leader and the come back kid of Welsh politics won back his old job. The party members decided that they liked the cut of his jib when compared to Helen Mary Jones and Rhodri Glyn Thomas the other candidates. So Ieuan Wyn Jones became leader of the party with Dafydd Iwan becoming President.
The next Assembly election saw Plaid Cymru gain back three seats. Labour found themselves with only 26 seats. This put Ieuan Wyn Jones in a pivotal position in Welsh politics. He could head a coalition of non-Labour parties and become Plaid Cymru’s first First Minister. Or could form a coalition with Labour. Jones decided to throw his lot with Labour. History will decide whether he was right or wrong.
The gains of government did not last and the party lost seats. They became the third party in the Assembly and their leader decides to step down. But that’s politics. One minute you’re running the roost next minute you’re on your backside.
Nevertheless for a party that only had 609 votes in 1929 to become a party of government in a little under eighty years is no mean achievement. And all this under a man that many describe as lacking charisma. The party might well reflect on this when choosing his successor, it’s not always the obvious one in politics that get the results.
But back to the original question, who would dare say that Ieuan Wyn Jones isn’t Plaid Cymru’s most successful leader.