Like a big lunch: the leader’s speech is too much to digest

by Kevin Meagher

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear Ed Miliband make a speech like that ever again. Not a criticism of the contents of his recent conference address in Liverpool – perish the thought – rather a call to scrap the whole palaver of the annual leader’s speech.

Well not really scrap, more a “refounding” of the whole idea. The current model has had its day. The annual hour-and-a-bit long, Tuesday afternoon speech has become stale and predictable. Not so much a shop window for Labour but a stock check. Visionary bit? Check. Thank-yous to unsung party heroes? Check. Anecdote about meeting a real person? Check. Emotional bit about own life? Check. Attack stuff? Check. Serious and inspirational bit? Check. Clap lines? Check. Gags? Check.

The overall effect is stodgy and lumpy. Like eating a big lunch, it becomes rather hard to digest and does little for your productivity for the rest of the day.

For next year, Ed should try something different. Some iconoclasts around him were said to have been arguing to do away with the annual ritual altogether, making a series of speeches around the country instead. Others say that we should follow the Tories and Lib Dems and store up the leader’s speech until the end of the week.

But take a closer look. Shorn of a steer by their leaders’ address, both the Tory and Lib Dem conferences tend to see an array of disjointed, and sometimes contradictory, speeches grab the headlines. To make matters worse, Cameron’s below par offering was a bum note to end his conference on. Neither did Nick Clegg soar to oratorical heights with his end of the week pep talk.

So little to learn from how the others do it, but there is, to coin a phrase, a third way. Labour’s Tuesday afternoon leader’s speechathon should be split in two.

Tuesday should still see a substantive address, but it should be much shorter, crisper, unambiguous and seamlessly delivered; developing a big message from first principles. This approach plays to Ed’s strengths in that he is capable of talking about themes and ideas, but not great at the multi-tonal, gear-shifting delivery style practiced by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Rather than rattling on for an hour or more, the speech should last half that time. Then, on Thursday morning, Ed should return to the podium for twenty minutes or so to provide a rallying cry for delegates. This could be one of those shirtsleeves and stage-walking affairs. He’s good at that, and it works better than those tedious question and answer sessions that are constantly used to show our leading politicians “unplugged”.

But why change? First off, splitting the speech would guarantee two chances in the spotlight during the conference week. Crucially, it would also provide a useful backstop to correct any errant interpretations of the main speech. “Conference, when I talked about predator companies the other day clearly I didn’t mean all companies. Digby Jones, please take the cloth out of your ears…”

More prosaically, it would help the pacing of the conference, providing some justification in hanging around on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. At the moment, the whole thing is effectively over by 4pm on the Tuesday. These days, another 36 hours of boozing, plotting and gossiping are increasingly hard to justify; even for the more louche among us.

By stripping out all but the main message for the Tuesday slot, there is more chance of people actually hearing the big arguments. In a month’s time only the most earnest political anorak will be able to tell you the main gist of any of this season’s leaders’ speeches. In that respect, they are all a failure. Far better to sharpen the message – and chance it getting heard – by radically shortening it.

Less is more and in these parsimonious times, that should also stretch to political rhetoric too.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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4 Responses to “Like a big lunch: the leader’s speech is too much to digest”

  1. Nick says:

    So more spin and no content.

  2. swatantra says:

    I think that the Leaders Speech should come a lot earlier on Monday am, and should set the tone for the rest of Conference, and the Leader then spend more time being seen around chatting to ordinary members at Conference, and popping into Fringes.
    Its also pointless having the Thursday am session you might as well bring that forward to Sat pm. Nobody really wants to hang around for just a couple of hrs.
    We also need less security; thats what frightens people off, those infernal checks.
    I had to take my belt off every time.

  3. Delbert Wilkins says:

    There’s a simple reasno why this wouldn’t work – the media wouldn’t cover two speeches. Both Cameron and Clegg have given two speeches before – one at the beginning of the week and one at the end. The media barely blinked, ignoring the first and focussing on the second.

  4. Maldwyn Dobbs says:

    I get really worried because to me its obvious that the coalition are making a coplete hash of things. I would like to hear some real substance from Labour ministers so that things can hurry along and the con/dems can be moved out.

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