The Adam Price interview: His election regrets, the deal with Labour and disappointment

By Ruth Mosalski

When Adam Price took over as Plaid Cymru leader huge expectation was on his shoulders.

He had boldly challenged Leanne Wood and won, now it was time to deliver.

His first electoral test came at the Senedd election in May 2021. The manifesto his party stood on was, in comparison to Labour's, vast, both in terms of quantity and the type of pledges.

In interviews and speeches before that election he repeatedly said he wanted, and believed he could be, First Minister of Wales. He didn't want to do a deal with Labour because, his party could win outright. The campaign was built around Adam Price, the manifesto document itself showed that, of the 32 pictures in it, four are A4 glossy images of Mr Price.

And this time, under his leadership, the party put independence at the fore, promising a referendum on independence by 2026. Except it didn't work.

Plaid won 12 seats under the leadership of Leanne Wood in 2016. In 2021, under Mr Price, it won just one more. Labour took exactly half, with 30 seats, but it is the Conservatives who are the official opposition with 16, up five from the previous election. The party line was that the pandemic had escalated Mark Drakeford's profile to such heights, no other party had a chance but there were grumblings in the party about the strategy.

Fast forward six months and this weekend, at a virtual conference party members will be asked to vote on a deal drawn up between Plaid Cymru and Labour which was announced this week.

It is a co-operation agreement, not a coalition. It means no ministers or deputy ministers for Plaid, but they will get special advisors at the table.

There are 46 areas where the two parties will work together.

We spoke to Adam Price before the conference about his leadership, regrets and where he sees Plaid in the future.

Here's the interview in full:

Are you worried about supporting Labour and how that's going play out at the next Senedd elections?

"Our main focus at the moment is on the radical programme of policies that we've we've got into the cooperation agreement and if we're successful at the weekend in our members giving it their support, then this will become part of the programme of government and that's an incredible achievement given where we were in May. Six months later to be able to demonstrate delivering many of our key pledges from during the election campaigns. Free school meals, extending free childcare to two year olds, a national care service, the first step towards accelerating to net zero.

"These are these are huge shifts in Welsh Government policy that have come about as a result of Plaid Cymru.

"You'll forgive me that the next election does seem like a long way away at the moment. We are a political party and so it's a perfectly pertinent question, but at the moment, like many people I'm really excited and inspired by the prospect of these policies."

Your agreement contained a lot of spending commitments but little about raising funds to pay for them, are you worried that existing core services will suffer to pay for them?

"Clearly, the draft budget is going to be published in December, and that will set out how, if we do get the vote on Saturday, how these policies will be funded. We've obviously had initial discussions in relation to the funding commitments already, but there'll be set out in greater detail in due course."

(Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency)
(Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency)

What would you say to those people who say that like rolling out free school meals for all primary school children, isn't targeting it the people that most need it is effectively helping the middle classes?

"Well, we disagree with that. We said that clearly during the election campaign. I understand where people are coming from but the evidence clearly points in the opposite direction. So those countries in Finland, or indeed cities like Boston, where I lived, it clearly is one of the most transformational interventions that you can make both in terms of children's health but also in terms of early years education.

"By making it universal, you obviously remove any of the stigma that that may attach to free school meals. I received free school meals for part of my time in secondary school.

"That does prevent some families that aren't eligible from applying for free school meals from doing so and there's also the problem of thresholds as well. Wherever you set the threshold, in a system that is means tested, it always means that some children that do really need free school meals will not get it.

"So the only way of avoiding that and ensuring that that no child goes hungry while school is is universality.

"And another key element within education and that's that the FInnish see the free school meals element as central to their educational success and we copied them in the foundation phase and aspects of the new curriculum.

"We want to go as soon as possible to the next stage which is which is rolling out for secondary school pupils as well.

"I think once you've once you've introduced it for primary, I think the momentum is there and you've set the direction of travel, and you've established a principle the clear focus, and as campaigners are already beginning to focus on, is moving to the next stage."

(WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

The NHS is massively struggling at the moment, but it doesn't look like the leverage that you had to over Labour got you any commitments or spending pledges out of them in terms of the NHS. Was that something that was on the table that didn't happen or why else didn't it happen?

"In any negotiation, there are many things that you bring to the table and you're not able to achieve all of them.

"I don't think you'd expect me to give a set of running commentary on all of those, but I've seen the criticism from Conservatives, in fact it's almost obsessive criticism, on all aspects of the co-operation agreement, but it simply, as I said, on Tuesday, it simply isn't the case that there is nothing in there on health.

"The single most important thing that we can do to help relieve the pressures on the NHS is to introduce a national care service. I mean that has been that has been true for for decades.

"It is probably the single most glaring, unfinished bit of business in terms of transformational change and in terms of our health care provision, because unless you introduce a national care service, then you'll understand you always have this mismatch between the two systems and that is going to increase the level of pressure on on the NHS.

"To us that was a key priority and it is in the the agreement and it's a pretty big policy.

"How you get there, that is the nitty gritty and the expert group will be providing their recommendations and we will be agreeing a plan to deliver the national care service awareness based on the same principles as the NHS. And that's massive, probably one of the biggest elements within the entire agreement.

When do you think people are going to start to hearing some of the detail of these agreements?

"It'll vary from from policy commitment to policy commitment. You can differentiate broadly between those policy commitments in the agreement that are key measurable deliverables, such as universal free school meals within three years of the agreement, I think would be an example.

"Then there are others which are about setting a direction of travel, but they're no less important. With the national care service, for example, actually getting the Welsh Government for the first time ever to agree that the goal is national care service is massive.

"Delivering that is that is the next stage in the work of the expert group. It needs to be set up fairly soon in order for us to meet that deadline on agreeing on the implementation plan by the end of 2023. But when the detail will emerge about different areas will depend on the nature of the policy area and clearly work is going to have to be prioritised accordingly within those 46 areas.

"I think they're both important. Both the key deliverable outputs, but also those areas which are built around larger ambitions. You're not going to be able to create a national care service immediately but the first and important step has already been taken in this cooperation agreement, which is establishing a new Welsh Government policy, if the agreement is passed, that there is going to be a national care service in Wales.

"The detailed work will come later in terms of the structures and obviously we will shape the policy together. It's the Welsh Government, of course, which retains executive responsibilities for delivery. We have no role in that but we share equally the policy making responsibility in these areas."

Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru, put independence at the heart of his parties manifesto (Rowan Griffiths)

Going back to May, the party didn't make the progress that you wanted it to. In terms of votes and seats. Looking back now, do you think putting independence front and centre was a mistake?

"No, I don't think that made any substantial difference to the outcome of the election. I think we gained votes in some areas and we lost in some.

"But it wasn't a net negative in the sense that you raised the question. Did it explain the the result which didn't give us the progress that we would have liked to create? We did go up one seat rather than going down but obviously it wasn't the level that I had hoped for. However, I don't think independence is the key explanatory factor.

"I think in any election campaign there are always things in retrospect that you would have done differently and we've gone through a fairly detailed process led by Dafydd Trystan identifying some of those lessons learned and we're working through implementing those recommendations.

"Some of them are sort of fairly practical, almost technical issues around the election machine, which are relatively easy to identify and relatively easy to solve. Some of them are more strategic questions, and which are more about the political strategy of the party, and we were doing a lot of deep thinking around this and I'll have more to say about this in the new year."

It was described as a presidential campaign, putting you front and centre as the main attraction. Did the result and failure to make progress damage your credibility and you as leader do you think?

"I think that's probably a more question for you to answer than me, but it's not something that I...I'm a human being and I have feelings, but it's not something that animates me greatest of all.

"I don't get up in the morning thinking think about my approval ratings. The stuff that does get me up, apart from my five-month-old daughter and my three-and-a-half-year-old son, is the stuff that we've talked about at the beginning, the policy stuff.

"As a political party. That's what we're more interested in. Policy rather than office. So actually, I'm not surprised that there's been a lot of enthusiasm for the cooperation agreement, which doesn't give us ministers but does give us a whole massive range of policies. So it's that stuff that gets me excited."

Adam Price (Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency)

You had quite a long period of time off after the election, which I know was personal circumstances but as busy as you will have been a new born, there's no way you weren't sat thinking about what had gone wrong. And 'what did I do?'

"Of course I was disappointed, not so much for me or even the party. I mean, what hurt me was the sense that many of those policies that were at the heart of our manifesto, which we spent so much time on and we got a lot of criticism for, but it was a genuine attempt to put out there an outline of a different kind of Wales.

"Actually we believed in it and, it was a moment for me of sadness at the thought that we weren't going to be able to make the difference to people's lives and and to put Wales on a different course."

So you don't regret saying you were Wales' next First Minister? There's no egg on your face over that?

"What I said repeatedly was that we didn't want to be a junior partner in a coalition, negotiating from a weak position. Because I'm not driven by ego.

"I heard the Conservatives saying before the election 'Oh Adam Price is saying this now, about not going in as a junior partner, but once the thought of the ministerial cars and all the trappings of office, you'll change your mind'.

"Well that's what I'm clear about and what drives me is not that.

"The reason I said repeatedly that we weren't interested in being a junior partner, negotiating from a weaker position, was because we wanted to be an equal partner because that was the only way we felt that we could actually shift the dial and get a transformation a policy agenda. As it happens we are."

With no minister? You believe you're equal?

"We are absolutely.

"I know this is a new way of doing politics but we are absolutely joint decision makers in terms of the policy objectives within the cooperation agreement, because we've just negotiated between us as equal partners.

"It will only happen if both partners decide and implement the further interpretation of those policy areas.

"So yes, within the policy agreement, in policy terms, we are partners, but we decided not to go into coalition as a junior partner.

"So absolutely I kept to what I said for the reasons that I said. We are driven by the need for transformational change. Now, we could have done more in wider areas, obviously, if we were able to lead again, but that's not what the people of Wales decided.

You said there 'we decided not to go in as junior ministers'. Does that mean it was offered? Or was that a turn of phrase?

"It was never on the table.

"We would not have gone down that road because having a couple of junior ministers, which would then be subject to collective responsibility in areas where we possibly wouldn't have agreed with the government.

"There is a much bigger price to pay in political terms for going into coalition because that often involves you doing things that you're less keen on. So I think getting the transmission policy programme was the key and we're not in politics just to have a few positions of power or ministerial positions, that it's not what drives Plaid Cymru fundamentally.

"To deliver the comprehensive transformational programme then obviously, we would want to be in cabinet at the next election because that's the only way that you can actually have that fullest possible programme, but given where we are, what we've come up with, I think is a very, very good position for us to be in six months after having had a disappointing election."

Since we last spoke, Leanne Wood has come out and spoke and said that the timing of your bid to oust her was bad but also the party's gone backwards under your leadership and that you haven't been friends for years. Does it hurt when you see that stuff played out publicly?

"I'd rather not respond to that.

"I have the greatest respect for Leanne and I look forward to the fantastic work she's going to be doing it on the Constitutional Commission. I still have strong, positive, feelings about Leanne and her contribution and as far as I'm concerned..."

So where does Plaid go from here? If there was say, a snap election tomorrow, would you play the same tactics again, as you played in May?

"I think if the coalition agreement is passed, then I think that gives us a fantastic platform to demonstrate to people the great positive contribution that Plaid can make to our politics.

"People's response to the cooperation agreement has been so positive. I think in a time when people are looking for inspiration and hope, and a sense of Wales being able to do things differently and better than Westminster, I think this is precisely what people need and want to this moment in our history as a nation.

"And that's a great start for us.

"Many people, will, like me be looking saying, 'well, this is a mature, progressive politics' and it says something I think about who we are.

"The policies themselves say something about our values, that we're a radical party, that we're about changing Wales for the better. We've managed to do that, despite our weaker position, and actually we've managed to use all those 230,000 votes that we got in the election.

"Every single one of those voters will be will be proud, I think, to have afforded Plaid Cymru a chance to do that and I think many of those who thought about voting for Plaid Cymru will be positively impressed by the policies themselves and also the way that we were approaching a different way of doing politics.

"So I think it's a great way for us to engage with people. And what we need to focus on is those voters that are very warm towards us. We always top the scales on 'who is your second favourite party?' If you ask Labour voters in particular, but not just Labour voters, then they always say Plaid Cymru we're the least hated party in Wales.

"But we've got to translate that sort of warmth towards us into to actual votes. I think the co-operation agreement sets us in good stead. But I'm going to be spending a lot of next year going out there to communities listening.

"I often, despite my very long answers, learn more when my mouth is shut and my ears open so I'm going to be listening to voters that didn't vote for us this time, particularly Labour voters where we know we've got a majority or near enough that now support independence so that should be a bridge that allows many of them to come over and support us.

"I want to be asking what is it we can do to win your support, how can we persuade you? But I think if I'm able to say, 'Look, when we have the opportunity to make a difference, these are the things that we did: free school meals, free childcare and national care service that says something about our values but our values are your values and can you come over to supporting Plaid Cymru at the local elections next year. I think they're going to be critically important but also beyond that as well.

"So I'm optimistic about the future. I think we've we've built a platform for ourselves of growth. And I'll have a bit more to say in the new year about learning from the lessons of the election.

"I think a bit of humility is not a bad thing.

"Where do we go and how do we build a platform for greater success between 2016 election and the next one and not because of Adam Price, because he's got plenty of great stuff going on in this life. It's not about me and it's not for Plaid Cymru, we don't want to have our names above the door or anything like that. It's all about how do we get transformation, a radical change and we've been able to do it.

"If we pass the agreement this weekend, through the cooperation agreement, while in opposition, imagine what more we could do if we get into government next time and and I think that's a really exciting conversation to start having with people.

"We've got a programme that we can really sell to people and present in the most positive light and I think that's not a bad outcome six months on from where we were in May."

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