Two weeks before Plaid Cymru's spring conference, delegates will meet in private session on 16 February to consider a new constitution. It's a document aimed at getting the party into better shape for fighting Westminster and in particular Assembly elections. Constituencies will become the main unit of party organisation, rather than local branches as at present. Other units such as county parties will also be made clearly subordinate to constituency organisation.
Plaid's leader Leanne Wood has made winning more constituency seats in the next Assembly her priority and said that she will abandon the relative safety of being top of a regional list to fight a constituency herself. As constituencies account for two-thirds of the seats in the Senedd, they offer the only route to becoming the biggest party in Cardiff Bay. The SNP's success in Scotland has been partly attributed to having a better constituency organisation than the Labour party.
But what's alarmed some Plaid Cymru activists is the proposed creation of a new body at the top of the party, to be called the leadership team, 'responsible for the day-to day political tactics of the party and executive implementation of the party's strategy'. Apart from the leader, it will consist of the party chair (currently Helen Mary Jones), the parliamentary leader (Elfyn Llwyd), the European parliamentary leader (Jill Evans) and the chief executive (Rhuanedd Richards) The post of party president is abolished.
– Proposed Plaid Cymru Constitution
There shall be a Leadership Team which shall be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day political tactics of the Party and the executive implementation of the Party’s strategy.
To some extent, this legitimises what happens anyway. These are key individuals who already advise Leanne Wood. And every leader of every party has an inner circle. When Gwynfor Evans led Plaid Cymru, he appointed a 'president's committee' without ever seeing the need to formalise it in the party's constitution. Arguably, what's now proposed is more legitimate as the members of the leadership team are all elected to their posts, although as Plaid Cymru's sole MEP, Jill Evans need only vote for herself.
Helen Mary Jones' role as chair of Plaid Cymru becomes much more powerful. She takes over from the president, currently Jill Evans, the job of 'representing the voice of party members'. She will also 'take responsibility for internal party machinery'. But some Plaid members are asking if that is the only burden taken off Leanne Wood's shoulders. Will she decide and the others only advise? The new constitution states that the Chief Executive is a non-voting member of the leadership team. That implies that votes will be taken and that the leader could be out-voted on questions of tactics and strategy.
– Proposed Plaid Cymru Constitution
The Leader shall be the Leader of the Party’s group in the National Assembly. The Chair shall take responsibility for internal party machinery and for representing the voice of the members.
Debate at the special conference in Aberystwyth is likely to centre on whether the internal party machine, in other words Plaid Cymru's staff, should answer to the leader. Also whether the leadership team should be limited to an advisory role, on the grounds that even if the present leader is entirely comfortable with the individuals who currently hold the other leadership team positions, the proposed constitution creates potential for future power struggles.
All Welsh political parties are potentially prone to confusion and disagreements about who are their leaders. Andrew RT Davies has so far failed to be formally recognised as the Welsh Conservative leader, rather than simply the leader of the Tory Assembly Members, although David Cameron, who is officially his party's sole leader, says he is happy for Mr Davies to be known as leader of the Welsh Conservative party.
Carwyn Jones and Kirsty Williams have parties -and UK leaders- that are relaxed about their claims to lead in Wales. But in Plaid Cymru any confusion is more surprising. The leader used to be Plaid's president but Ieuan Wyn Jones ended that clarity when he resigned as president in 2003 and was then elected as leader in the Assembly, with Dafydd Iwan taking on the presidency.
For a while Dafydd Iwan was seen as Plaid's overall leader but eventually Ieuan Wyn Jones regained that status by amending the party's constitution. It made the leader in the Assembly the person registered with the Electoral Commission as the leader of Plaid Cymru. Under the proposed changes, Leanne Wood will no longer be guaranteed that status. The new constitution describes the leader's role only as group leader in the Assembly, though the group's standing orders confirm that she is the Plaid Cymru candidate for First Minister.