UP UNTIL my early twenties, I’d never thought of myself as political. I didn’t vote at my first election, in 2010, much to my family’s annoyance.

Growing up in the Rhondda, the received wisdom was that on polling day you voted, and you voted Labour, but I’d never really understood why this was, beyond that it was “something to do with mining”.

Tony Blair’s Labour had been in government for much of my life at that point, and we’d still been skint. Nothing about these stiff, suit-wearing characters and their obsession with “hoodies” appealed to me.

My interest in politics was sparked by the 2015 general election. Through five miserable years of austerity, the news had been full of stories about soaring NHS waiting lists and rising poverty. My mother’s pay as an NHS staff nurse had been frozen for years, which jarred cruelly with the long, exhausting shifts that she put in.

I’d struggled to find work after university, beyond a brief stint as a receptionist. I was on jobseeker’s allowance, still living at home, and deeply unhappy.

In my newfound political enthusiasm, I’d watched every one of the televised debates. The person that stood out to me, besides the SNP’s uber-confident Nicola Sturgeon, was Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood.

Leanne, I knew, had grown up in Penygraig, two miles up the road from my home in Cymmer. She’d by then served as the South Wales Central MS for 13 years, so I was vaguely familiar with who she was.

I’d always had an odd sort of reflexive suspicion of Plaid. The party’s Welsh language focus gave me the impression that it was for posh people, and independence seemed like a pipedream pursued by people with nothing better to worry about.

But Leanne dealt in sentiments that resonated with me deeply. She spoke frankly about poverty, about dwindling local facilities in her home town, and easily dismissed UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s insistence that our problems were the fault of immigrants.

In her closing statement at the ITV leader’s debate that April, an assured Wood told viewers: “I hope that what you’ve heard here tonight doesn’t fill you with too much despair.

“Despite what you’ve heard, there is an alternative to the Westminster consensus in favour of more cuts. Austerity is not inevitable. It’s a choice.”

My political awakening didn’t begin in earnest until later that year, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader and when, over the backdrop of further welfare cuts, I began volunteering at my local Citizens Advice Bureau, handing out foodbank vouchers and helping ill people deal with the woes of Personal Independence Payments.

But it was Leanne Wood who first shifted the boundaries of the possible in my mind.

While practised, inoffensive Ed Miliband was proposing cuts, Wood stood firm in her conviction that the poor should not be made to shoulder the burden of hard times, and it stuck with me.

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In another of Ms Wood’s statements at the time, she observed of Labour: “Opposition that promises more of the same is no opposition at all.”

Speaking bluntly in line with her principles has become her trademark. A staunch republican, she was ordered from the Senedd chamber for discourtesy in 2004, after referring to the Queen as “Mrs Windsor” during a debate. She later remarked: “I called her that because that’s her name.”

She’s been known to boycott the ceremonial Senedd opening because of its attendance by the monarchy. Most recently in 2011, she instead opted to pack emergency food boxes at a Rhondda foodbank, prompting local Labour MP Chris Bryant to brand the move “childish attention-seeking”.

Leanne saw it differently: “It’s nothing short of a national scandal that there are people who cannot afford to feed themselves in modern day Wales. It is worth remembering that while millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is spent every year on maintaining the royal family and their hangers-on in the style they’re accustomed to, adults and children are going hungry.”

In 2016 Ms Wood took the Rhondda Senedd constituency seat from Labour for the first time in 13 years, and she’s served my home seat with a level of grit and genuine care that’s rare in politics, never deviating in her demand for better.

I’ve never doubted that the Rhondda was safe in her hands – if nothing else can be said of Wood, her love of the Valleys is undeniable.

I remain optimistic that incoming Rhondda MS, Labour’s Buffy Williams, will serve with the same commitment. A community campaigner, born and raised in Williamstown, she’s a far cry from Labour’s previous occupant of the seat, Leighton Andrews.

By all accounts, she, much like Wood, spent last year volunteering in the flood relief effort, and helping to distribute food during lockdown.But I’m sad to lose Leanne’s uncompromising voice in Welsh electoral politics.

Now a committed socialist myself, my own belief that the state can and must provide a safe, comfortable and enjoyable life for its people informs everything I do.

And I owe it in part to Leanne.