Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Speechwatch: Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Party Conference, Manchester, October 2012

Ed Miliband needed to nail this one. He decided to take on the mantle of a former Tory Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who became known as a "One Nation" Tory 140 years ago. Mr Miliband's theme was 'One Nation" Labour, in an attempt to position himself as the leader of a party that represents everyone (and by implication, not a party representing a particular class). The "elitism" of the other parties was a theme that was threaded through the speech, either explicitly or by implication. 

Like at a Jimmy Carr gig, the pre-speech visuals warmed up the audience and delivered generous applause. The video was like a minature Olympic opening cermony (images of the Olympics mandatory). His opening lines.. "It is great to be in Labour Manchester" were followed by a few comedic (or at least intended to be comedic) asides. He adopted a very conversational style, and told a story about his three-year-old son, Daniel on a  trip to the park. Daniel asked for "flying dinosaurs", and then hit a very poor punch line about "predators last year". By the way, his tie is the same colour as the one Nick Clegg wore last week. Is purple the new yellow and red?

He used the classic technique of the personal history; "My family hasn’t sat under the same oak tree for the last five hundred years. My parents came to Britain as immigrants, Jewish refugees from the Nazis."   He developed his theme; "I was born at my local NHS hospital, the same hospital where my two sons were born. And I went to my local school with people from all backgrounds". For a while, it was a bit like an episode of "Who do you think you are?".

Despite being "improvised", it was clear that much of his speech had been memorised. He overdid a few phrases, especially "but you know what?" and "that is who I am". Most of all, he repeatedly used the words "us", "we" "we the British people", and especially "one Nation". 

He used the "no notes" technique as a way of making an impression (actually, we professional speakers never use notes, but never mind). That meant no copies of his text for the assembled hacks, which appeared to make them pay close attention. As Channel 4's Jon Snow tweeted from the hall, it made reporters listen to what he said, rather than how he said it. There was no podium or lectern either - a good move in my view.

He had the alliterative slogan - "the forgotten fifty per cent who do not go to university" (with perhaps an implied criticism of former leader Tony Blair and his "fifty per cent to university" pledge).  He also had a lot of choreographed gestures; You (points at audience), Me (points to himself), This party (points to the floor). He delivered the tributes to the Olympic and Paralympic gamesmakers (thanks, Ed, that's me), the army and the police. He still has the political empty phrases "I say this" and "I tell you this", but so do many politicians these days.

There was a huge cheer for his criticism of Andrew Mitchell, followed by a jibe at the "born to rule" government, and a very good rising cadence of a list designed to evoke applause (what the speech expert Max Atkinson calls a "claptrap") - a clearly rehearsed sound bite. He followed it up with a few decent comic remarks. Never a comedian, but not bad for a politician. 

Rhetorically speaking, he was on form with "those with the broadest shoulders will always bear the greatest burden" and "We can't go back to old Labour....we must be the party as much of the private and the public sector....south just as much as north......as much of the squeezed middle as those in poverty". Nice example of anaphora there. He had a good tricolon: "A one nation party, a one nation government to build a one nation Britain" and a neat example of chiasmus "we need banks that serve the country, not a country that serves its banks"

He focused on one of his most potent weapons - the National Health Service, and a great piece of call and response with the audience. It was Obama-like. His conclusion was a personal one "this is where I am, this is who I am, this is my faith". He told a story of his Polish roots, and said "Britain has given my family everything.....it falls to us to re-build Britain". His final phrase: "One nation - a country for all with everyone playing their part, a Britain we re-build together"

His real task, of course, was to convince voters that he is a credible Prime Minister in waiting. He made no spending commitments. He announced no new policies. This was about Ed Miliband as himself. It was a clear pitch for the centre ground, and an attempt to marginalise the coalition government as unrepresentative. My assessment - his best speech so far as leader. Eight out of ten. 

Here's the summary in video:

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