Asher Dresner analyses Ed Miliband's speech to the National Policy Forum on Saturday, and looks at where the Labour leader can improve in future speeches.
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; here, he analyses Ed Miliband’s speech to the National Policy Forum in Wrexham on Saturday
Ed Miliband’s speech on Saturday was designed to secure his control over the party and widen Labour’s appeal. Here is how the speech used good framing to do that, and how subsequent speeches could build on it. Labour politics are normally framed in terms of right versus left, ‘Blairites versus Brownites’, ‘David supporters versus Ed supporters’, and so on…
If you think about Labour like that, then you are likely to listen to any leader’s speech and judge its suggestions on whether they move the party left or right.
One of the things that Saturday’s speech did fairly well was to frame the changes in an advantageous way. It didn’t draw your attention to the party’s left-right choice. It instead drew your attention to a completely different choice: how the party makes decisions. That was encapsulated by the argument that:
“…old Labour forgot about the public; new Labour forgot about the party.”
That frame helped Ed Miliband argue that Labour should make those political left-right choices by going with the grain of what the public wants, not against it.
That in turn does the political work of gently disappointing those who want Labour to confront the public, and challenge and change their views. Emphasising that he saw his mission as winning the next General Election reinforced that.
Many of the other changes – rejecting the suggestion of a 50% quota on female shadow cabinet members, and ditching the election for shadow cabinet posts, were probably designed to increase the leader’s power to pick a team he thought were best placed to fight that election.
Some Labour party members might interpret it as a trimming of the party’s internal democracy – but I expect Tory party members will interpret it as the actions of a leader who is serious about making the public vote Labour again.
The speech also charged the government with recklessness. The government has been incredibly reckless with the economy and the NHS. But I doubt that the ‘recklessness’ charge will stick, as the successive u-turns and tinkering show a government constantly trying to recalibrate everything but its economic policy to limit damage. That’s the opposite of recklessness.
Still, trying to tie the government’s faults together and label them with a single criticism is the right tactic. Once that is done, the next task for subsequent speeches is to develop a single unified criticism of not just the programme, but the ideas which motivate this government.
And the stage after that is to develop a single unified expression of the ideas which motivate Labour, and which would tie together its programme for government. And that’s probably the hardest thing of all to do, because of course, any party, any programme, even any single politician, is motivated by a complex muddle of ideas.
One idea would be for Labour to advocate the central principle of ‘fair play’ and ‘getting what you deserve’. This isn’t original. But it’s a way of expressing Labour’s values which has a few advantages.
Firstly, it can be used to express some of Labour’s instincts. For example, on high pay, executive pay is 145 times average pay; that ratio is double what it was a decade ago, but executives aren’t working twice as hard as in 2001, and productivity isn’t twice what it was in 2001 – so executives are getting more than they deserve, and that’s why we’re concerned about it.
Labour’s position on climate change is because our kids do not deserve to have to clean up the mess we made of the planet. Labour’s position on welfare is that if you’re too ill to work, you deserve to be supported, but if you’re not, you don’t. ‘Getting what you deserve’ is a crucial instinct behind many Labour values.
Secondly, it can also be used to contrast Labour’s values with the government’s. While Labour stand for ‘getting what you deserve’, the government stand for ‘taking as much as you can’. They tried to allow price competition in the NHS despite the evidence that price competition reduces the quality of healthcare – that’s letting companies take as much as they can at the expense of the patient.
They tried to privatise forests and let companies take whatever they can from charging us to visit them. And even after the Royal Bank of Scotland messed up so badly that it should have gone out of business and had to be rescued by the government, they agreed to pay its chief executive nearly £7 million. Needless to say, he took what he could.
From a speechwriting point of view, one of the next challenges is to add historical weight to Miliband’s speeches. One way of doing this is by expressing the continuity in values.
After all, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was built on the idea that workers deserved to be allowed to work less than 18 hours a day; the NHS was built on the idea that you didn’t deserve to die from treatable diseases just because you couldn’t afford the treatment; and today the idea of the living wage is built on the idea that if you’re working full time, you don’t deserve to be paid less than bare subsistence.
In short, I would like to see subsequent speeches tie their analysis into a simple expression of a motivating value, and show how it has been consistent through the party’s history.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.