Where Ed still needs to improve in his speeches

Ed’s speech yesterday was better than his last few, but still does not show as much leadership as it could says speech writing expert Asher Dresner

Ed Miliband

Asher Dresner is an independent speechwriter; his MA was in Political Communications, with a dissertation on leaders’ party conference speeches over the last 30 years

Ed’s speech yesterday was better than his last few, but he is still not making the best use of speeches to show leadership.

Politically, the tactic of the speech was to tie together the issues of excessive pay and benefit fraud into one package, put a ribbon marked ‘irresponsibility’ on it, and so claim ownership of ‘responsibility’ as a buzzword for Labour.

Rhetorically, it was better than recent speeches in a few ways. He put a bit more passion into the delivery. He didn’t just talk about issues like antisocial behaviour, he illustrated them with pictures – a front garden strewn with litter – and sounds – “the throb of loud music played by the neighbour in the small hours”.

And he condemned excessive pay without sounding like he was condemning wealth creation, by deftly comparing the pay of Sir John Rose, outgoing Chief Executive of Rolls Royce, with that of Sir Fred ‘the shred’ Goodwin, which was three times as much when the crisis hit.

Perhaps the credit for the improvements should go to his speechwriter Greg Beales. But there is so much more he could do!

Firstly, register. Yesterday’s speech mostly stayed on one register – exhortation. The language of exhortation was everywhere. He exhorted people not to “shirk their duties”, the Labour Party to “understand where New Labour succeeded and failed”, benefit claimants not to “abuse the trust of your neighbour”, businessmen not to “pay yourself an inflated salary to the detriment of your company, your shareholders or your staff”. He should have varied the tone a bit more.

Part of the problem was the structure. He should structure the speech by register. So you have a clear ‘scolding’ section, a clear ‘attack’ section, a clear ‘uplifting’ section, and so on. The speech was almost all “finger-wagging” in tone, with stray sentences about his positive vision for the future scattered like crumbs throughout the text. Gather them up, put them together at the end, and you have a final, hopeful passage.

Sentences criticising the government were also sprinkled around like asides. Group them together in a passage, tie them into your one central critique of the government, and you have a punchy, pugnacious passage which might hope to land a knock-out blow. That can transform a speech from a series of points into something which takes you on an emotional journey.

The second problem is subtler. Speeches can perform actions. Think of Neil Kinnock using his party conference speech to denounce Militant, or Ronald Reagan using his at the Berlin Wall to challenge Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. Leaders should use their speeches to perform actions which are strong. Challenging, confronting, or taking a stand, are all strong actions. They show leadership. Exhorting is not a strong action. It has an air of exasperation about it.

The irony is that in the question and answer session afterwards, Ed seemed much more pugnacious. He came across as much more combative than his speech made him seem.

One of the strongest parts of this speech was when he performed a simple rhetorical action: drawing a line. Saying enough is enough. “No more”, he said. Unfortunately, what he was drawing a line under wasn’t really clear:

“We did too little to ensure responsibility at the bottom. I say – no more.”

Surely any ordinary voter would say – ‘no more… what, exactly?’ By not getting specific about what he was drawing a line under, he fluffed the chance for a strong passage.

What he could have said was:

“When we were in government, we let companies get away with paying executives 145 times more than their own average workers were earning. I say – no more. When we get back into government, we will put workers in the boardroom so they are there to speak up when those decisions are made.

“When we were in government, we let companies hide what they were paying their executives from the public. I say – no more. When we get back into government, we will force companies to publish how much they pay their top earners compared to the average worker. We will let the light shine in on corporate pay.

“That way, consumers will be able to make their own decisions about which companies it’s ethical to give their money to.”

These examples only use those policy ideas already in yesterday’s speech. Of course, once he settles on more, he’ll have more to work with. After all, rhetoric can only do so much. You can only really make hard, decisive speeches once you’ve made hard decisions.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

11 Responses to “Where Ed still needs to improve in his speeches”

  1. Rhys Williams

    RT @leftfootfwd: Where Ed still needs to improve in his speeches http://t.co/wV7whRh

  2. Karen Aspinall

    RT @leftfootfwd: Where Ed still needs to improve in his speeches http://t.co/ithIXQB

  3. Selohesra

    How do you expect Ed to make serious impression as potential leader when the policies he is expected to champion are still just a blank sheet of paper – hardly fertile ground as a rallying call to potential supporters. People will decide one way or the other about Ed when he finally decides what he ‘really’ beleives in and what his manifesto for alternative government is going to be.

  4. cim

    Ed’s speech yesterday was better than his last few

    I’m scared to look at his last few speeches, if they were even worse than that one.

    He didn’t just talk about issues like antisocial behaviour, he illustrated them with pictures

    … and in doing so claimed a moral equivalence between having an overgrown front garden and getting paid millions to cause a global financial crisis.

    The whole speech was based on a fundamentally flawed principle from start to finish, in that he tried to tie together the genuine irresponsibility of the rich with the situations of people he considers the “undeserving” poor.

    That’s a horrible equivalence to draw, and the whole speech ended up incoherent, confused, and often factually wrong as a result. That’s what really needed fixing, not whether he used concrete or abstract images.

  5. Anon E Mouse

    cim – I thought the speech was OK and unlike you Ed Miliband realises that Labour will never win without attracting middle England.

    Since stabbing Labour’s greatest electoral asset in the back the party needs a Tony Blair style leader not a Gordon Brown one.

    If anybody out there seriously believes that Labour should adopt a socialist agenda then they should get used to opposition. With Portugal gone there is not a single country in the world given a choice that votes for socialists. Why would they?

    Ed Miliband realises that and I for one am in agreement with him. And there are a lot more people like me in this country….

  6. cim

    Mouse: unlike you Ed Miliband realises that Labour will never win without attracting middle England

    And, of course, winning is the important thing. Which policies get implemented once you win is irrelevant – principles are for losers. Real politicians went into politics because of their great ambition to say whatever the swing voter wants to hear.

  7. Ed's Talking Balls

    But if Ed Miliband opposes a cap of £26k, after tax, for those who don’t work, he will end up losing the argument electorally and from a principle standpoint.

  8. Leon Wolfson

    Why? It’s complete and utter nonsense. A cap per-person might make sense, but all the 26k cap will do is drive apart families and increase the bill for housing councils have to shell out, as vulnerable families split.

  9. Anon E Mouse

    cim – WInners can implement changes. Nothing major can be done from opposition.

    And what exactly are these Labour principals to which you allude?

    Private operations in the NHS were performed under a Labour government. No trades union reforms under Labour. Taxes were lower under Labour. The bankers were let loose under Labour. Nuclear disarmament didn’t occur under Labour. Nothing was privatised under Labour. Aggressive wars were conducted under Labour and on and on.

    The whole world given a choice has rejected socialism and moved to the right. For Labour to not adapt it’s policies to accommodate that change would be crazy.

    Miliband wants to win the next general election. Shifting to the left is a surefire way of losing it….

  10. cim

    Mouse: Winners can implement changes.

    Yes, they can. Since the changes Miliband is saying he’ll implement aren’t ones that I want to see happen, why should I care if he wins an election or not?

    If he really wants to win the next election, the thing to do would be to talk to Cameron and announce a merger of their two parties. Guaranteed win, with a landslide majority. (And probably for the next few elections, too)

    …but anyway, it’s not even as if this approach is sensible politics even on the “it doesn’t matter why you win the election, only that you do” approach. Labour spent 13 years kicking people on benefits and making their situation worse. They got a reputation for being too loose on benefits. Miliband’s solution: talk about kicking them some more in the hope that this time it works and shifts their reputation. Clearly a skilled election-winning political operator, here.

    Nothing major can be done from opposition.

    If a party would do the wrong thing in government, that it can’t do it in opposition is a good thing. If it would do the right thing in government, but can’t get elected, then at least it can use its opposition to oppose, rather than agree.

    And what exactly are these Labour principals to which you allude?

    If I thought they had any (beyond “I should be in charge”) I might be more inclined to vote for them. But Miliband was sold to his party and to the public as a break from the New Labour “say whatever you need to say to get elected” approach. It doesn’t surprise me that he isn’t.

    (And, by the way, I don’t think stopping Labour’s war on benefit claimants would be particularly socialist anyway. Not that, since I’m not a socialist either, I’d care if it was)

  11. SimonM

    A fine rhetorical analysis. You could also have tried a mathematical one:

    “Too little” + “No more” = “Too little”


Leave a Reply