Politics From the Grassroots : An Interview with Cllr. Aaron WynnePlaid Cymru County Councillor, Crwst Ward, Conwy
Elected earlier this year, after standing for Plaid Cymru in Llanrwst whilst still twenty, Aaron Wynne is Wales' youngest County Councillor. Looking for someone to interview to understand what makes Plaid distinct politically beyond independence and language, he seemed an obvious choice.
I met Aaron in The Albion, Conwy - after he had just spent a full morning at Council meetings. I was a few minutes late, and he was talking to two tourists, asking where they were from, as I arrived.
We started the interview by exploring how Aaron's political interest was initially sparked. The answer proved specific and personal:
AW : "It started when I was in sixth form. I had no interest in politics, I was taking Physics, Chemistry & Geography at A Level, and I wanted to go to University. But it was the General Election year (2015), so a range of candidates and party representatives came to school. One of them was Leanne Wood."
"There was an immediate difference in the way she spoke to us from the rest. She spoke as if she knew our concerns, and spoke like a friend - she didn't have the feel of a politician - not as polished maybe, but with a real connection."
"After that I thought - I am going to have to look into this, what do I believe? Which party represents me?"
"And Plaid Cymru - they stood out for me. They represented what I believe about the Welsh language, and what I believe should happen for Wales. That there should be more powers for the Assembly, and more powers from the Assembly devolved to local councils - power, and decisions made, as close to the people who they impact on."
He also, quite evidently, had a strong local imperative, as he continued:
AW : "I live in a rural area in Conwy - and I think our voice is not heard as strongly as it might be. There is a saying in Llanrwst about the 'Tal y Cafn line' - anything north of that line gets the funding. Below it - we are left behind. So there is a feeling in the valley that the Council does not care so much for rural areas - similar to Plaid's political view that Westminster does not work for areas outside the South East of England, including Wales."
"So putting the three things together - my impression of Leanne Wood, the politics of Plaid and the local feeling, I decided I would not only vote for Plaid at my first election, but would join - and I did that in 2015."
"Then, in 2016, I got heavily involved in the Assembly elections. We lost narrowly in Aberconwy, but we slashed the majority (Sitting AM Janet Finch Saunders' electoral cushion slipped from 1500 to 750 votes). The Conservative still won. Unlike a lot of our candidates Trystan Lewis was from the coastal area - that might have helped.
"I was then offered a job in Plaid Cymru - running elections. And, after a hustings, I was also asked to stand for my own town for the County Council. I didn't expect to win - I thought I was making a platform for myself for next time, but the local people got behind me." (no mean feat - in a three way contest Aaron beat the sitting independent, taking Plaid's vote from near 20% to over 40% in the process).
FtM : "All this means your long term career plans have dramatically changed?":
AW : "I had always planned to go to University - I have put that on hold initially, but I don't seem to have got back round to it! (laughing) - I am not sure I will now, not since I was elected on to the Council."
From there, we talked about the recent post-election ructions on Conwy Council, with one Plaid group member, Gareth Jones, leaving Plaid Cymru to form a governing cabinet coalition with independents and Conservatives. Aaron laid out a very straight explanation for the reticence of the rest of the Plaid group to be involved in the arrangement, "In the end our vision for Wales is not the same as the Conservative vision for Wales."
Discussing this matter in detail confirmed his commitment to local issues, prompting a further question about how his beliefs are shaped by his community experience. He answered definitively:
AW : "Most Plaid politicians come into the party from that route, with a local vision - it is not a secret that Plaid believes in independence for Wales, but the reason we believe that is bringing democracy closer to the people. It is not just bringing more power to the Assembly - it is then moving it on to the Council and then to town and community councils - it is about grassroots action."
We moved on to discussing day-to-day concerns of young people in Wales. To open the topic out, I asked if he felt Plaid's messages on higher education had got lost in the last General Election, amid Labour's tuition fee promises:
AW : "2017 was difficult - it came down to a presidential election between May and Corbyn, the smaller parties were squeezed out. In the 2015 election our tuition fee policy was for all Welsh students studying in Wales there would be no tuition fee to pay, unless your course was not offered in Wales, when again it would be paid, and there would have been another level of help if you did just want to go and study elsewhere."
"At the moment, as things stand now - the support given on tuition fees by the Welsh government, the money leaves Wales when students go elsewhere, it does not support the Welsh education system. We want to keep the funding in Wales. In 2017 we hadn't pushed as much on University fees as we should have - our policy did involve not raising the fees though. Corbyn ran on scrapping fees, but Welsh Labour has since increased them."
"But I have to say almost all the issues we campaign on affect young people directly or indirectly. When I was first campaigning in 2016 one of the main issues was jobs; I believe that as North Wales isn't a hot bed for Labour, all the investment and jobs happen in the South, in Labour's strongholds...."
FtM : "That is a general point, what do Plaid's policies mean practically for young people?":
AW : "I think as a young person, we are fed up of being told what we want - for example we are told there are jobs in North Wales, but it is careers we need. Situations with prospects, a situation where we can work our way up, save for a deposit for a house, put money into a pension. Jobs in North Wales are often seasonal, low paid - a job not a career. If you want a career you have to move - to Cardiff, to English cities."
FtM : "And what does Plaid have to offer to address this?":
AW : "We need industry - and the investment to facilitate it - outside Cardiff, and not just around the M4 corridor. So we want it to be easier for investment to be fairly spread around Wales - including spending on infrastructure, services, investment support. Specific Government actions - moving the tax office from Porthmadog, the decreasing jobs in the Caernarfon and Llandudno Junction WAG offices - go against the principle devolution and the spreading of power - it is being centralised in Cardiff. A bias the same as is seen in the broader economy, and that is wrong."
FtM : "Plaid's support does map to language quite closely. Look at Plaid Ifanc's (Plaid Cymru's youth wing) set of principles and they are much more universal, little is culturally bound. With its broader political platform - health, the economy, jobs, education, local democracy - how does Plaid sell itself outside its key areas of support?":
AW : "Electing Leanne Wood leader has been the greatest step for the party in being successful outside our heartlands - making it clear Plaid Cymru is a party for everyone in Wales. We have the right policies. More than anything we need candidates who are local to their communities, who are from those communities."
"Leanne Wood is not a first language Welsh speaker, and she is our elected leader - that must dispel the belief that Plaid is just for Welsh speakers."
FtM : "But the political language divide is a notion felt quite intensely in some places, and very strongly by many people?":
AW : "As an activist in Aberconwy - there is a difference between knocking on a door in Llanrwst and knocking on one in Llandudno (smiling). There is an extra barrier due to preconceptions. We have to work harder to explain what we are about - that we want to form a Welsh government, or run the council so as to bring power closer to the people."
"The Welsh language is obviously important to us, it is important to the nation, but is not just what we are for. I think what makes us distinct is that we genuinely believe in working from the grassroots up."
"In the end proper 'independence' comes from security - in your work, in your community, in your home."
FtM : "And, to come back to language - rules on language don't necessarily preserve it in the way that community, culture and a sense of history does - how does that sit with you as a statement?":
AW : "I agree - language doesn't exist in a vacuum. Rather than more rules we need investment in community centres and increasing the opportunities for people to use language. That is what will save it, not just rules."
"And then we need the investment to keep people here and in jobs. We have a vision for Wales - peaceful, prosperous, Welsh, and one with strong local democracy."
"Ultimately that will protect the language, but it will work for all of Wales too."
Those last few statements drew the interview threads together, and brought it to a close.
Whatever his political affiliations, Aaron Wynne is thoughtful, open and honest, you can see why he was attracted to those qualities in Leanne Wood. You have to admire a political party giving someone of his age the opportunity to represent their community and, if it is exactly as he laid it out, it is hard not to be struck by the heart of Plaid's message. Yet, that he took the chance so cleanly says as much about him and his connection to the place he is from, as any party manifesto or election leaflet.