Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood: ‘Listen To People, Hear Their Problems And Listen To Their Solutions’

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Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood talks to John Haylett about the party’s manifesto which she sums up as three ambitions to build a Wales that is ‘well, well-read and wealthier’
April 26, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Morning Star -- Plaid Cymru’s manifesto for the May 5 National Assembly of Wales election is longer and heavier by far than other parties’ offerings, but party leader Leanne Wood is unapologetic. Wood, who has just celebrated her fourth anniversary as leader, insists that The Change Wales Needs is not just a manifesto but a programme of government going beyond a single term of office and, in some areas, laying the basis for generational change. She sees the manifesto as the fruit of a process begun when she became leader and embarked on a programme of public meetings to “listen to people, hear their problems and listen to their solutions from their perspective.” In this sense, Wood says that 700,000 people have contributed to the manifesto, since “that’s the number of conversations we’ve had in one form or another.” She sums up the kernel of the manifesto as nine key pledges attached to three ambitions to achieve a Wales that is “well, well-read and wealthier.” This slogan underpins proposals on the health service, education and the economy that she believes add up to a long-term plan to turn round the fortunes of Wales. “For too long we have been stagnating and bumping along at the bottom of all the league tables, not just UK-wide but often Europe-wide too,” she says. “If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll get the same results. It’s time for a big change.” Standing in Plaid’s way is Labour, which has held office since the National Assembly was set up in 1999, albeit on occasion depending on other parties for a majority because of an electoral system foisted on Wales by Tony Blair in hopes of establishing a permanent Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. Former first minister Rhodri Morgan took issue with New Labour’s desire to control Welsh Labour, summoning up the image of “clear red water” flowing between Westminster and Cardiff Bay to indicate rejection of Blair’s obsession with foundation hospitals and schools’ academisation. Welsh Labour’s independent stance, in contrast to Scottish Labour’s self-abasement to New Labour, explains in part Plaid’s inability so far to emulate the electoral victories of the Scottish National Party, despite Wood showing her personal qualities to an all-Britain audience during last year’s general election debates. She is determined to take the battle to Labour, highlighting perceived weaknesses in the Welsh government’s response to the crisis in steel. “There is a lot more that our government in Wales could do to step up to the mark and not just point the finger at London and say that it’s all up to Westminster,” Wood says. Born and bred in the Rhondda, traditionally a very strong Labour stronghold, she discerns a growing recognition in the area of the need to do things differently. “We’ve lost a lot of services here in the valleys and that’s been on top of decades of economic stagnation since the pit closures,” she says. “There’s been a woeful lack of employment opportunities to replace that heavy industry. Now seeing what’s happening with steel is a stark reminder.” Wood lived through the Tory destruction of the coalmines and recalls her father losing his job at a builder’s merchants because the loss of miners’ wages meant that there was little money around to do home repairs. “It’s staggering the number of times that the steel crisis comes up on the doorstep here,” she says. “People are well aware that, when you lose a massive industry like that, the impact is not just on the workers and their families and the contractors. It has a massive ripple effect. “We’ve lost one industry and we’re feeling the effects still. Look around you and so many parts of the Rhondda and elsewhere in the valleys are in urgent need of regeneration.” Wood says that her AM colleague Adam Price began working with economists to put forward alternative proposals in January, urging intervention by both the UK and Welsh governments. “Adam put forward a range of options including nationalisation, taking a part state ownership on a temporary basis, supporting a workers/management buyout, seeing that every¬thing possible was done over procurement and using steel made in Port Talbot for as much public-sector infrastructure investment as possible. “We did that background work and offered those solutions and it was disappointing to lose the time since we first put them forward.” Wood voices no preference for any particular alternative, insisting: “I favour the option most likely to give a long-term future to the industry and to save as many jobs as possible.” She is more explicit about her party’s “well, well-educated and wealthier” commitments. “Our plan is to create a cure-and-care NHS with a national contract commitment on cancer, which makes diagnosis quicker — diagnosis or the all-clear within 28 days — a new treatment fund to give access to new medicines and gets rid of the postcode lottery and one-to-one care for cancer patients,” Wood says. She pledges 1,000 extra doctors and 5,000 extra nurses to cut waiting times, together with home care charges for the elderly and people with dementia. On education, Plaid proposes a “cradle-to-career” education service, with free universal childcare for all three-year-olds and a national premium for teachers who undertake additional training. At present, the Welsh government pays £6,000 towards students’ £9,000 tuition fees and this policy is guaranteed until next year. “It’s not sustainable beyond that. The money isn’t in the budget,” she says, explaining that a cross-party group is currently reviewing the policy. Plaid suggests a change so that graduates, “wherever you study anywhere in the world, on your return to Wales, you can apply for £6,000 of your £9,000 per year to be written off when you work and pay into the Welsh Treasury. “The idea is that we get a return on our investment in a way that we’re not at the moment.” The party’s economic approach calls for major investment in green infrastructure projects, energy, transport, digital communications — a Welsh Development Agency for the 21st century to promote Welsh businesses abroad and to promote Wales in which to do business. It would cut business rates for small companies, enabling them to take on more people and create conditions for Welsh companies to win public contracts “so we can lock much more of the public pound into our communities and make it work for us in our local economies.” All of this costs money, so where would it come from? Wood says that changing the higher education finance system would save £235m over an assembly term. Rejigging the council tax system to benefit people in Band A, B and C properties while increasing the cost for those living in houses worth £250,000 and above could also contribute. But her major — and most controversial — hope lies in asking businesspeople to search for up to a billion pounds of efficiencies in Welsh government spending of the £15bn block grant from Westminster. “They’ll make recommendations. I think it’s important to try to get fresh a pair of eyes on the situation as possible,” she says, stressing that the final political decision would be taken by a Plaid government. “I’m not convinced by any means, just by looking at the outcomes, that every penny being spent at the moment is being spent to good effect and a Plaid Cymru government would want to be in that position,” she says. Wood retains fond memories of the 2007-11 One Wales Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition government, calling it “a good positive administration, the most dynamic we’ve had since devolution was born.” But she believes that it ran its course and “it’s difficult to see from a constitutional perspective what the next step would be now in terms of future collaboration.” The Plaid leader wants to get as much of her party’s manifesto into operation as possible, insisting that the way to do this is to vote Plaid “rather than for a combination of different parties that potentially may or may not be prepared to work together after the election.” She has been unequivocal about ruling out any coalition with the Tories but doesn’t want to spend the election campaign talking about potential deals or coalitions. “We’re not just looking at this election but trying to turn round the future of a country and Wales needs nothing less at the moment,” Wood insists.