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.