‘Reform to Build’ – Plaid Cymru Leader’s full speech to Conference
Everything Rhun ap Iorwerth said in his Conference speech
Thank you very much for the warm welcome. It's wonderful to be here... Lovely to be back here. Ten years ago, I was on the same platform here in Aberystwyth addressing the Party conference for the first time ever, shortly after being elected. I had been to many Party conferences as a news reporter, so I was no stranger to being there, but I remember the thrill of being here as part of the Plaid family. It was a sense of being home. Well today I feel it's a real honour to be here standing in front of you for the first time as leader.
Meeting branches, councillors and supporters on my tour of Wales over the past few months I've seen the Party at its best. The support, the encouragement, the enthusiasm, the working together – all those traits about Plaid Cymru that excited me as I considered putting my name forward for the leadership.
Looking back at that period in June, I know some would have been eager to see a contest. You can look at it two ways, and as a Republican I'm not a big fan of coronation either! But in all seriousness, I hope I have - and will - continue to gain your trust. Leading by ensuring we work together is the important principle for me. The political winds outside can be very temperamental, but together we can face storms, and together we can make sure that we are ready to sail quickly when the winds are fair. And I promise to give everything I have in order to take Plaid Cymru to the next stage and move Wales towards a better future.
Friends, as I embark on this exciting journey with you, I want to thank Adam, on behalf of all of us, for his lasting contribution to the party as Leader. Adam can’t be with us today – he’s representing the Senedd and Wales in a conference in Africa. His work there embodies who Adam is as a politician – passionate and principled. His drive in co-authoring the Co-operation Agreement has led to the implementation of Plaid policy in key areas. I’m not sure if you’re able to keep up with the conference from where you are, Adam, but if you are, I hope you get a real sense of the appreciation there is for your contribution to the party and to Wales. A contribution which continues of course. On behalf of us all, thank you very much.
I've quickly learned that leading a party isn't an easy job, and we have faced real challenges over the past year. With the publication of the ‘Prosiect Pawb’ report, we have had to face some uncomfortable realities, haven’t we. They are what many other parties and organisations have faced, but now it's our turn to say “yes something went wrong”, “yes, we should have known that sooner”, and “yes, we're determined to make things better”.
Our culture hasn't been what it should be: A culture that should be completely open and inclusive. That’s something that is SO important to me – being a welcoming party. Our processes haven't always been as good as they should have been: Processes that should be robust, organised and transparent. But without resting on a laurels for a moment, there is real room for hope, because this Party is absolutely serious about getting through this, and because things are already in place.
I'm grateful to Nerys Evans of course for the work she did in producing the report. But I'm grateful then to everyone, whether it's through the Executive Committee, the staff, through the voluntary party and among elected members, for their hard work acting on, and making the recommendations a reality.
I said this when I became a Leader and I will repeat it today – I am ABSOLUTELY determined to lead a movement that is fair, inclusive, and shows respect for everyone without exception. That's Plaid Cymru for me. That's the party we ALL want it to be.
With twenty years' experience as a journalist, it's fair to say that stories matter to me. And developing our story as a nation means everything to me.
We are all writing the story of Wales. We in this party, yes... but I mean all of us in Wales. In my lifetime, it’s been a story of so many twists and turns. As a journalist I reported on many of them! But let’s retrace some of those chapters.
In 1979 many thought we’d lost it all. But the hope was kept alive. Then in 1997 Wales had it all to win. And we DID win the referendum. But then we had to win Wales. In 1999 the hope boiled over joyfully. I was at the Morfa Stadium for Stereophonics and Margam Park for Catatonia in that ‘summer of Cymru’. Good mornings for Wales, and good afternoons and evenings, that this twenty something young man back then could barely contain.
But as we reflect on what the birth of a new democracy for Wales helped us achieve, we reflect on the realities of missed opportunities too. Things we COULD have done. So, as we look forward to the NEXT quarter of a century and beyond, we must learn from the last.
In the One Wales years, there was a glimpse of what COULD be. But for us as a party whose central mission is about backing Wales’s potential – we believe in our ability to prosper as an independent nation after all – the years of Labour managerialism, of self-imposed limits on what Wales can be, have been frustrating. Labour, a party still too wedded to Westminster, even in the dark days of this Conservative Government’s cronyism and cruelty. And a party too resistant to new ways of thinking.
We needed to ride the rising tide of Cymru 1999.
Yes, we believed – and believe - that devolution was the right vessel for change, and that it’s part of our journey towards independence. But in our next chapters as a nation we have to chart a new course.
It’s quite apt that we highlight the ebbs and flows of devolution here in Aberystwyth, at the University by the sea, Y Coleg ger y Lli. Speaking of ebbs and flows, you may have noticed there was a full moon last week. And no I didn’t need to consult a lunar calendar to know that – I just looked at Andrew RT Davies’ Twitter feed!
But to be serious, just as the tide comes and goes, and as night follows day, there are things which have felt all too inevitable about life in Wales.
“Gwymon o ddynion heb ddal tro’r trai.” That was the great poet Gerallt Lloyd Owen’s stinging criticism of those who, like seaweed, float aimlessly with little direction, allowing themselves to be overtaken by the passing of time and events. We can’t afford to have Governments like that, and it’s not inevitable.
Having won a Parliament of our own, it can’t be said, can it, that twenty-four years of Labour-led rule have met the aspirations of 1999.
In 2010, the rate of preventable deaths among men in our most deprived areas was 566 per a hundred thousand. A decade later, that figure had increased to 582.
Between 1999 and 2020, Wales saw the fourth lowest percentage increase in primary income per head, out of all UK nations and English regions.
In January 2010, thirteen hundred people were waiting more than 14 weeks for hospital diagnostic and therapy services. A decade later in January 2020 – BEFORE the pandemic struck – that figure was up 60%.
We’ve achieved some great things – through the current cooperation agreement for example, and I’m proud of the way Senedd Members across party lines have come together on innovative pieces of legislation. But those statistics tell a grim tale – and it is not the kind of tale we want to tell our children and their children, another twenty-five years from now. We refuse to accept that this is our lot. And above all, we refuse to let others write the next chapter for us.
So what of the society we’ll choose to build together? How do we make sure that the opening paragraphs of that new chapter captivate, invigorate, and inspire.
It is not enough to criticise – to just dissect a record or dismiss a policy. There is no hope without a vision. So I want to set out mine.
I was born in Tonteg near Pontypridd. Raised in Meirionnydd, then Ynys Mon. I studied then we started our family in Cardiff. And now we live on and I represent my home island. And I’m determined that our nation has to be viewed as one. That’s one key belief that guides my vision.
Urban or rural? North or south? They’re not divisions, they’re just different tones of ONE nation. Not Welsh-speaking or non-Welsh speaking, just ‘people’. Stakeholders in our nation’s future. And let me address that issue directly. We know the charge sometimes levelled against us. Plaid is for Welsh speakers. Well I want to make it as clear as I can. We are for everyone equally. Plaid Cymru speaks YOUR language whatever that language is. We speak your language when it comes to seeking fairness for Wales. We speak your language when it comes to showing real ambition for Wales. To me this is a country at its best when our communities are bound by a sense of belonging whether its residents were born here or moved here last week. This country belongs to us all, and this party takes pride in trying to do our best to speak up for all of Wales. Equally.
In that united Wales… I want our children to have the basic human right of equal opportunity – with the eradication of child poverty a central goal in our mission and with a determination to let our young people reach their potential whether born in Bangor or Bridgend, and educated in well-resourced schools, where teachers feel valued.
Through apprenticeships, through supporting our universities and through innovative measures to attract graduates back home I want our school-leavers to be excited about forging careers here in Wales.
I want Plaid to be the ones helping business flourish – especially the small and medium sized businesses that are so important to us in Wales.
I want us to innovate as a green nation – proud to take our environmental responsibilities seriously. And creating thousands of jobs in the process.
I’m serious about making us a healthier nation, with a real revolution in preventative healthcare – improving quality of life whilst easing the crisis facing our NHS – promoting physical and mental health whether it’s through better housing, better diets, or promotion of sport or physical activity, in school and in all aspects of our lives.
And I want to make sure that we take care of the generation who took care of us, investing in a truly integrated National Health and Care Service which allows our parents to grow old with dignity.
This is the Wales we CAN be!
And the cornerstone of that vision… what makes Plaid Cymru truly stand out… is our belief that the ultimate way to deliver it is by taking the levers of change into our own hands. Westminster Governments, red and blue, have tried and failed. And I tell you they’ll NEVER try hard enough for Wales! Look around you. Do you think this is the best things can get? No it isn’t, and that’s why we’re determined to build a new Wales.
Conference, in my ten years in the Senedd, I've been fortunate enough to spend periods as Shadow Minister for Economy and for Health and Care. These are fields I'm very passionate about.
Our Health Service. All our health. And the health of our economy. The state of our nation.
Since I was elected I have met so many people – doctors and carers, apprentices, nurses, students, entrepreneurs – each with a valuable story to tell, each conversation sparking new ideas about how to do what we are here to do – improving the lives of the people of Wales.
Because we have to improve – urgently. The kind of urgency that we’re not seeing from the current Labour Welsh Government at present. And there are consequences to that – consequences such as the decline we have seen in the NHS for almost a quarter of a century.
It's a crisis situation, and if you look closer you’ll see crises within a crisis.
Within the crisis facing our NHS, there is no greater heartache than hearing the word ‘cancer.’
Every day, 55 people are diagnosed with cancer in Wales, with that number projected to rise by more than a quarter, to around 25000 new cases a year in 2040.
But as the challenge becomes greater, our capacity to face it is diminishing. It’s something we HAVE to address. There is no silver bullet, but there are things that could be done right now to help save lives.
Today I want to tell you about Plaid Cymru’s Cancer Contract – the steps we say Welsh Government can take to help tackle a crisis which has touched all our lives in some way.
We know that the sheer number of people waiting to be seen by a specialist means that many simply fall down the priority list. That’s why I want to see no downgrading of urgent suspected cancer referrals, meaning fewer cases would be missed.
We must improve how we screen for cancer. Lowering the sensitivity threshold for bowel cancer screening as they’ve done in Scotland and England. We were promised that, but the Labour Government has so far failed to deliver.
On lung cancer, it’s 12 months since Welsh Government accepted the UK Screening Committee’s recommendation on targeted lung cancer screening. At the end of July this year, Labour’s Health Minister issued a statement saying that the government was still “considering how this could be delivered in Wales.”
When almost half of people with lung cancer are diagnosed at a late stage when the cancer has spread, surely there’s no more time for “considering”.
And these measures must be applied equally throughout Wales – we must end the current postcode lottery. I want to see greater co-operation between Health Boards. Sharing capacity where that helps provide quicker diagnostics, for example.
Plaid Cymru also wants to place a greater focus on PREhabilitation, getting people ready for cancer treatment to help recovery afterwards.
And of course none of this will be possible without a well-resourced workforce. By resolving the “three Rs” of recruitment, retention, and proper remuneration, we can grow the health workforce of the future and not have to resort to squandering millions each year on agency staff.
And the workforce problem is acute in cancer care. Within the next four years, Wales is projected to have a 41% shortfall in oncology staff – the highest by far of all UK nations.
A new workforce strategy from Plaid Cymru would see a new approach to keeping the staff we have AND to training those we’ll need in twenty years.
We need to invest in the workforce so we can attract the brightest and best and so we can develop our health services.
And today I can announce that we are commissioning an expert policy development programme to examine the delivery of healthcare in Wales. I’ve long made the case that patients in the north of our country in particular are being failed not by the committed and compassionate frontline staff, but by the inability of successive Labour Health Ministers to address the deficiencies of the failing Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board.
So this work will not only look at creating a sustainable structure for the future of Health Boards in Wales as a whole, but specifically at remodelling health provision in the north.
Friends, we can’t just manage ill-health in Wales - we must confront it head on. Bevan’s dream is floundering on Labour’s watch, but working with our Health Spokesman Mabon ap Gwynfor we can show what’s needed to put the NHS back on a sustainable footing – free at the point of need, always there when you need it most.
Our work in leading innovative policy development will touch on all aspects of life in Wales… tackling inequalities, raising standards in education, investing in language and culture, supporting farming and rural Wales, building a transport system that works! And of course tackling the economic challenges that hold us back.
The long shadow of deindustrialisation has left Wales with stubbornly low wages, meagre productivity levels and a shortage of high-skilled, well-paid jobs. A shadow cast even longer by the current Government’s apparent willingness to just sit back and wait for the next wave of bad news to hit.
Wales needs a government on the front foot – and a government which brings a wholly new approach to economic development.
Small and medium sized businesses need to know that political leaders in Wales are on their side. And that’s what they’ll get in Plaid Cymru, not least through a new Economic Plan led by my colleague Luke Fletcher.
In 2022, Wales was ranked last of the UK nations in terms of the profitability of its small and medium sized enterprises. A poor exporting record is just one symptom. Last year just 14% of SMEs here sold their goods or services outside the UK – the lowest ‘export intensity’ of the entire UK SME sector.
So whilst helping businesses grow at home, let’s link up the Welsh economy to the world. And yes we continue to champion a new Wales Development Agency for the 21st century. Attracting investment, boosting trade, promoting enterprise, working across the UK and globally, growing exports, creating new Welsh supply chains, boost our procurement levels in the process.
My views on how we need to support business mirrors in many ways my ambition for Wales. As Westminster retreats, let’s make sure Wales reaches out. This is my vision for independence - a nation growing in prosperity and more able to ensure the wellbeing of its citizens at home, and at the same time a nation that asserts its place in the world – confident, ambitious, collaborative and internationalist.
And crucially as we build the nation, the economy we develop must be strong, sustainable, AND socially just.
All this needs reform. We must reform to build. By reforming the structures and systems that sustain us, that educate our children, and care for our parents, we can begin building the strongest foundations possible for an independent Wales.
So as our democracy changes in 2026, so too must the government of the day. Because a bigger Senedd demands bigger ideas and bigger ambitions if we are to realise the full potential of having a parliament of our own.
In the run up to that Welsh General Election, my colleagues in the Senedd that I’m so proud to work alongside will set out their vision for a wide-ranging reforming agenda. As the world moves apace, so must Wales.
But first, a Westminster election looms.
And with that on the horizon, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the true value of having a Plaid Cymru MP. My early years in political journalism were spent among those grand corridors of power in Westminster. Meant to impress? But with the power to oppress. The architecture as intimidating as it is awe-inspiring.
But friends, let’s pay tribute to those Plaid Cymru representatives who’ve gone there and felt no fear – serving their constituents with real distinction, standing up for their communities and speaking up for Wales when others talk us down. They embody Plaid Cymru’s values and our determination to seek the best for Wales. Diolch i chi am bopeth.
Keeping up with the Tory chaos is no mean feat. It seems that whilst nearly every Cabinet member is determined to spend at least 45 days as Prime Minister, Grant Shapps is determined to spend at least a few weeks in every post in the Cabinet!
So as the powers that be seek to diminish our nation’s voice even further, cutting the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 32, let’s resolve to do what it takes – engaging with people in all parts of the country on our positive vision for our communities - so we can send the strongest possible team of Plaid Cymru MPs to Westminster. And wasn’t it wonderful to listen to Llinos Medi earlier who I know would be such a brilliant MP for Ynys Môn!
Faced with a UK Tory Government which governs with contempt and with Labour still seemingly uninterested in showing real commitment to delivering for Wales, the stakes are high.
Speaking up for fairness, for ambition and speaking up for Wales – ALWAYS - becomes our moral obligation.
We have to speak out on the fact that a third of our children live in poverty.
That we have the longest waiting times in history.
A meaningless cancer guarantee.
Worst and worsening unemployment rates.
England’s railways improved at the expense of our own.
Smoggy skies and sewage seas.
Our water taken, and rivers polluted.
Nearly half of all wealth in the hands of 10%.
Brexit inspired “Rule Britannia” nostalgia.
Small boats and even smaller minds.
Mortgages rising, real terms wages falling. Hope a scarce commodity.
That’s the broken society the Westminster parties built together! It’s CHANGE that we in Plaid Cymru choose.
So, Friends, as the blue wall comes crumbling down and with the well of clear red water running dry – this is our moment to fight for change. To inspire, to convince.. and we have a good story to tell.
When others talk of breaking the class ceiling but vote to shatter the life chances of the disadvantaged – remember that in the best traditions of this party it’s us who pushed for real change.
Bold strides to address the housing crisis, giving more young people a chance to live where they grew up.
Warm, nutritious school meals for everyone that needs them. No more children going hungry as they learn.
A national energy company – Ynni Cymru – empowering communities to be a part of Wales’s green energy revolution.
Ground-breaking mental health hubs. A step-change in the provision of Welsh language education – normalising the language and creating confident speakers.
And a fit for purpose Senedd.
That’s the Wales we are building right now and that’s the change we choose.
Those recent achievements have been from opposition, through the cooperation agreement – just imagine if we were in Government! When the ‘party of Wales’ is at the heart of Wales’ decision making – communities are better off.
But Conference, there’s so much more to do. And we must achieve it through the shared values, shared vision and shared hopes for our nation’s future that drive us every day.
We’ll have to work harder than ever, and smarter than ever. To compete with the Tories and Labour, one with the millionaires and moguls on their side, the other with the might of the unions - unions many of us are members of, of course, but unions who are no doubt reflecting on their loyalty! – then WE must learn to do things differently.
Where we can’t outspend them, we must outsmart them. When they patronise with empty promises and endless U-turns, we must prove that not all political parties are the same.
When they give up on supporting the most vulnerable in society, we will double down.
And when red and blue align on refusing to rejoin the single market, on denying Wales funding from HS2, on attacking workers’ right through draconian legislation, we will guard the clear green water between their politics and ours.
And on HS2 let me just say that laid bare this week was not only the shambles that is the Conservative party – it’s not so much what they could or couldn’t organise in a brewery… it’s turned out that their journey to the brewery has been stopped half way there!
We know the Conservatives care little about Wales. But with the sheer injustice of HS2 brought into clearer focus than ever this week, the Labour Welsh First Minister decided to sympathise with his party leader Keir Starmer rather than with the people of Wales … telling me in the Senedd that his leader would have many priorities to consider if he becomes Prime Minister and that it's entirely understandable that he can’t commit to paying Wales what we’re owed. This is the First Minister for Wales! The injustice is clear as daylight and Wales deserves better than Tory insults and Labour dithering.
And as for the crumbs offered instead. North Wales electrification? We won’t be conned. Of course I support electrification, I always have, but that’s only a fraction of what we’re owed… and experience tells us not to trust them to deliver even that! We’ll hold them to account until they do… and we’ll keep standing up for our communities.
When people ask us why we believe in independence – it’s because we KNOW we can do better than this. On our journey towards that goal, we must convince the curious and as yet unconvinced that this really is a destination for both the heart and mind, a place where aspiration is met with a dedication and determination to improve the lives of the people of Wales.
And whilst independence isn’t an issue for one party to own - it’s an issue for all of us in Wales - it is an issue on which we must be leaders. Bringing others with us, building a broad coalition. The clue is our name – Plaid Cymru, The Party of Wales. Wherever you live and whatever your background, come with us… It’s about wanting what’s best for the place we call home.
Conference, I’m reminded of Gwynfor’s words when he wrote of Fighting for Wales.
“National freedom is the condition of Welsh national survival. If we don’t put an end to our servitude, our servitude will put an end to us.”
That is why we must fight for Wales. Giving up or giving in is not an option, just look at the alternative.
A billion pounds taken out of the Welsh economy due to welfare cuts.
Clinging on to control of the Crown Estates while Welsh citizens pay some of the highest energy bills in the UK.
The Great Brexit Betrayal – no share of the promised £350m a week for the NHS, no pound for pound support for Welsh farmers, and a £772m hole in the funding which supported some of our most deprived communities.
And a Home Secretary who seems to have struck her own personal post-Brexit UK-US trade deal. And what’s she importing? Her own brand of tin-pot Trumpism.
Whilst it takes Braverman to turn her back on people fleeing some of the most desperate places on earth, it takes a far braver man or woman to embrace those in need with the decency and compassion so lacking in this Conservative cabinet.
If ever there was a reminder that sometimes we must do the right thing, not the easy thing, it is the heartbreaking images of children on dangerously crowded boats, clinging on to their parents as they cling on to life itself. Because it is this moral austerity that we deplore.
It is why we fight every day to be the antidote to Tory antipathy towards Wales.
And every day we are reminded at the same time that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party will NEVER make fair play for Wales a real priority.
Wales faces a choice as we ask ourselves who is fighting for Wales, on the side of young and old, urban and rural communities alike? Who are the game changers, the nation builders, reformers, and innovators? Who will guide Wales when others turn a blind eye? Who will fight for fair treatment for Wales?
We’ll be the ones fighting for a better future for you and your family, your community, and your country.
Diolch yn fawr.