Every year, the media and the political class get themselves well and truly worked up about party leaders’ conference speeches.
They seem to forget that most voters hardly notice these performances. The party activists have almost always forgotten them by the time they get home. There are usually sound reasons why this is so.
Still, a leader’s conference speech provides the scribes with a quick and easy barometer of how well a party leader is performing. With luck, they and the activists will pick up some clear signposts as to where the leader wants to take the party next. More likely, the speeches typify how badly a leader is performing. Remember Iain Duncan Smith’s cringe-making declaration to the 2003 Conservative conference that “the quiet man is turning up the volume”.
Yesterday’s speech by Ed Miliband mattered, because he desperately needed to define his vision for the Labour Party and for Britain and, with dismal personal poll ratings, to present himself as a credible prime minister. The consensus in today’s media is that, not to put too fine a point on it, the speech was a dog. (See, for instance, Paul Waugh of PoliticsHome, Andrew Gimson in the Daily Telegraph, and Michael White in The Guardian.)
Some of the commentary is too harsh. Yesterday, Ed Miliband explained how he will try to reposition Labour. He sided with the "wealth creators" against the "asset strippers". There was a good, Clintonesque pitch to the “squeezed middle” -- "the people who don't make a fuss, who don't hack phones, loot shops, fiddle their expenses or earn telephone number salaries at the banks". Ed Miliband spoke of a tough, new stance on public spending. And it was back to Beveridge – yes, what Beveridge actually said- with talk of rewarding responsible people who work hard and contribute to society with higher housing priority and better benefit entitlements.
But there was no narrative. (If you want to know how I define a political narrative, and why I think it matters, click here, and here.) Ed Miliband says he knows what he wants – an end to the “something for nothing society” and a new type of social democratic prospectus. His ambitious speech tried to map out a long term project, to remake Britain’s economy, along continental “social market” lines.
Well, those bold ideas were in the speech, if you knew to listen for them. But somewhere along the line, Mr Miliband seems to have lost the will to explain what he was up to, out loud and in full. . .
These are bold ideas [on industry policy and taxes and dividends], and it would have been helpful if Mr Miliband could have spelled out more clearly what he really intends to do . . .
. . . There were a host of other areas in which Mr Miliband started to say something clear and bold, only to dive for the safety of waffle.
He’s quite correct. Much of the content was very tentative, and the Labour leader shied away from making specific ideas and proposals, and from telling stories about how they would work for people. You can’t have a story without an ending and in political narratives, the people listening want the ending to be a happy one. Ed Miliband showed yesterday that political marketing is not as divorced from belief-systems and policies and it may sometimes seem.
The second, admittedly more tentative, explanation for the speech’s failure concerns political values. Bagehot makes another interesting observation:
. . . Mr Miliband's speech was intended to hold up a mirror to the British public, and explain to them how their own existing values were his values. [This] sounded like a belief that the centre-ground of British politics had shifted towards Mr Miliband, merely described a different way.
The result was a lot of painful straddling . . .
. . . This was a left wing speech, in many ways, but sounded like a right wing speech a surprising amount of the time.
I have argued many times that politicians’ narratives only work when they speak clearly to the values of the people they are trying to convince. Bill Clinton’s much misunderstood “triangulation” is a good example. Bagehot may be right about Ed Miliband’s assumption, but the centre ground may not have shifted in quite the way that the Labour leader may think. That’s a discussion for another day.
There’s a more immediate challenge for the Labour leader. Ed Miliband didn’t sound completely confident yesterday about whose values he was speaking to - the values of the people in the hall, or those of the people watching tv at home. The end result was a sense of fuzziness, something a “defining narrative” can never suffer from.
The way Ed Miliband sounds, and the voters’ sense of him, brings us to the third and most brutal explanation of why his attempt at presenting a narrative didn’t come off. The public and the media simply don’t take him seriously. Last week saw the release of new research commissioned by the former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft. The words focus groups used to describe David Cameron were "determined", "competent" and "ruthless". The word they volunteered for Ed Miliband was "weird".
In today’s Guardian, Jonathan Freedland says:
Put simply, my fear is that you can make all the speeches and policy statements you like – carefully devising a strategy on this and crafting a narrative on that – but what matters more are shallow considerations of looks, demeanour, speech patterns and biography. That, in short, it is personality, not policy, that counts . . .
. . . [This] is the problem for Ed Miliband. He is a decent, clever man but he does not look the part. He looks too young; he looks more like the speechwriter than the speechgiver, an adviser to the leader rather than the leader. That could change; he might grow into the role over the next three-and-a-half years.
Ed Miliband may know what he stands for, what he wants to do. But the counter-story about him is much, much more powerful and keeps on overwhelming the Labour leader's halting attempts to explain who is and what he is about. And, although Jonathan Freedland wants to cling on to hope, the counter story shows no sign of changing.