Slowly but surely, Ed’s speeches are getting better

Asher Drasner analyses Ed Miliband’s Labour party conference speech yesterday, and concludes that his style, slowly but surely, is improving.

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

There’s room for improvement, but rhetorically, Ed Miliband’s party conference speech was better than many of his previous speeches.

Party conference speeches are especially hard to write because as well as all the usual requirements of a speech like tone, pacing, and imagery, you also have to address all the issues so that nobody feels left out. Hardest of all, you also have to formulate and articulate a ‘big argument’ for why you are doing everything you are doing.

Rhetorically, he is improving. All persuasive language must appeal to one of the five senses, and the easiest way to do it is by painting pictures for the listener. This was something lacking from many of his previous speeches, but he’s getting better at it.

A year ago he’d have just talked about the rioters and the clean-up in abstract terms; this time he talked about “the young people with the brooms.

On welfare, he talked about:

“The single mum working as a dinner lady who loses help with her childcare.”

And rather than trotting out the tired phrase about the NHS being ‘free at the point of use,’ he talked about how nobody asked him for his credit card at the door.

The central issue of the Parliament, of course, is the government’s economic plan to cut the deficit. This is tricky rhetorical territory, because to connect, a speech has to evoke an emotional reaction. Economic language – words like ‘governmnent spending’, ‘deficit’ and ‘interest rates’ don’t. It’s also tricky because the economic arguments are complicated, but a party leaders’ speech has to make them simple.

The speech solved this problem in the right way: by reaching for one of the most important tools in the speechwriter’s toolbox: an analogy. He compared paying down the deficit to paying off your credit card. He argued that the Tories want to pay it off as fast as possible, while Labour are the only party to see that you can’t pay it down as fast as possible if you’ve lost your job.

This was a good effort: it more or less matches the situation, everyone can relate to it, and it is an analogy which presents Labour’s stance – calling for slower repayments until you’re safely back in work – as common sense.

But it fell short in one vital way. It made the government’s plan look better than it is. It’s not just that this is a bad time to pay down the deficit as fast as possible. It’s that doing so actually puts more people out of work. Whether it’s by sacking people, cancelling contracts, or ending productive stimuli. That’s something which the credit card analogy doesn’t capture.

I’d have recommended a patient-doctor analogy. The patient – our ailing economy – spent the last financial year on the life support of government spending. The private sector wasn’t growing enough on its own. Labour believes that the problem is that the patient can’t yet survive by itself, so wants to nurse it back to health.

Whereas Osborne thinks that the problem is that the patient is on life support, so his solution is to yank the life support of public spending out of its arm, and of course, the economy weakens. Where Labour would nurse the patient back to health and reduce public spending once it is back on its feet, this government thinks that cutting spending as fast as possible will get the economy back on its feet by itself.

Sadly, history suggests otherwise (pdf). The lesson from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, and Sweden in the eighties and Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US in the nineties is that the more money the government takes out of an economy, the more the economy shrinks. The credit card analogy was good, but an analogy which reflected how the government is actively harming the economy would have been better.

Ed’s speechwriting team still need to improve his speeches’ pacing and emotional shape. This speech had one tenor. Urgent. Imploring. Entreating. Short sentences. Like someone who’s a bit hacked off. For fifty minutes. In the same way that getting an email written all in capital letters turns you off, listening to someone speak for forty minutes in only one register also turns us off.

He should take the tone down sometimes for some descriptive passages. The passage which cried out for this was the autobiographical part. Part of winning the right to be heard by the electorate is letting voters get to know you. “What’s my story?” he asked at one point.

Perhaps a more confident speechwriter would have taken some time at that point to take down the pace and woo us by painting some verbal pictures, to actually tell us a story.

But instead we got this:

“My parents fled the Nazis. They came to Britain. They embraced its values. Outsiders. Who built a life for us. So this is who I am.”

That’s a missed opportunity for a beautiful passage.

The next level up from that is tying your story into your message. That’s difficult, but done well, it lends a speech a unifying theme which gives it much more power. He hinted at that with the idea that he comes from a family of outsiders, which is why he wants to break the ‘closed circles’ of Britain, which is a good start. He should have developed it by illustrating his family’s belief that their outsider status wouldn’t stop them from integrating into some of the closed circles of British society.

Did Miliband Senior ever believe, in his furniture moving days, that any son of his could become the leader of the Labour party? Did a navy recruiting officer ever tell him that the proud British navy could do without refugee European Jews?

We’re into the realm of autobiography here, but it shows why a politician who has taken the time out to mould their life story into an eloquent argument for their core beliefs approaches big set-piece speeches like this with a considerable advantage.

Finally, the speech also succeeded in that it had a big overarching argument: that the system has failed because for decades this country has failed to distinguish between the companies who create wealth and those which destroy it. The strength of this argument is that it taps into the public sense that after a crash in which so many businesses which exist to create wealth managed to destroy so much of it, the government can’t carry on treating all business the same.

This is long overdue. I used to cringe whenever Labour talked about ‘business,’ – a term that lumps together the trader of toxic mortgage-backed securities which he doesn’t really understand with greengrocer, or Alessio Rastani with Richard Dyson. Lumping all business together discouraged Labour supporters from thinking about what any given business actually does.

When Labour people criticised the wealth-destroying activities of rogue traders by calling them ‘business,’ they alienated all small business owners, or for that matter supermarket checkout workers or security guards or immigrants, or anyone, like me, who has ever aspired to start a business. That’s a lot of potential votes. The failure to make the distinction between productive and unproductive business has harmed Labour, just as it has harmed the British economy.

The disadvantage of Ed’s big argument, of course, is that it invokes the idea of Ed Balls picking his way through the 4.5 million-odd list of companies registered at Companies House, and declaring some ‘good’ and others ‘bad’. That’s an own goal. Having governments treat companies differently on an individual basis invites cronyism, corruption, uncertainty, and makes a country a dismal place to do business. Ask Argentina.

He should have argued that the tax system should incentivise not wealth-creating companies, but wealth-creating behaviour. Perhaps he could have mentioned long-termism, transparency, and decent training in this section. At least, the details should have been available in a separate document; the party conference speech is not the place for them.

But all in all, there will always be room for improvement, but it was a good speech. It spoke to the public and the party. It contained a big argument. It painted pictures. It used analogies to make tricky arguments. In short, it was better than many of his previous speeches. Let’s hope they continue to improve.

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21 Responses to “Slowly but surely, Ed’s speeches are getting better”

  1. Huw Evans

    Slowly but surely, @Ed_Miliband’s speeches are getting better: writes @AsherDresner #Lab11 #LabConf

  2. Alex Braithwaite

    Slowly but surely, @Ed_Miliband’s speeches are getting better: writes @AsherDresner #Lab11 #LabConf

  3. The Wealth Squad

    Slowly but surely, Ed's speeches are getting better: Finally, the speech also succeeded in that it had a big ove…

  4. Political Planet

    Slowly but surely, Ed’s speeches are getting better: Asher Drasner analyses Ed Miliband’s Labour party conferenc…

  5. Robert CP

    Slowly but surely, @Ed_Miliband’s speeches are getting better: writes @AsherDresner #Lab11 #LabConf

  6. Robert the crip

    But forgive me what happens if that mother whom makes school dinners gets the sack, will she get another job, if not will she when asking for a council house get one, because she is not working. A solider who lost his legs one arm has been looking for work for a year cannot find one, gets told your work shy scrounger mate.

    Miliband told us about Thatcher and how he thinks she is right, so he was looking backwards, he then told us New labour got things right, well done mate but looking backwards again, he looked forward and his problem are the New Jews of Britain, the sick the disabled those who are out of work and those who look around for work and find nothing.

    When Miliband was picked up on this he fell back on his own past my parents were immigrants, yes well you were not mate, and now your a posh bloke who has never really had a job, never had to join a Union or fight for decent wages. Your the problem mate you and a lot within the Labour party.

    Right now mate your new labour only your calling it Newer labour.

  7. Anon E Mouse

    “Slowly but surely, Ed’s speeches are getting better”

    Based on what evidence?

    Surely not that weird anti business speech from the conference. Stop messing about and get David Miliband to step up and take over – you did it with Britain’s most unpopular leader in history Gordon Brown.

    Get rid of Ed Miliband NOW or stay in opposition….

  8. Robert the crip

    Jesus David Miliband has an even posher voice and all he will offer is my mate Blair, Labours trying to seek a way forward by again looking back to Thatcher. If David walked into the seat now you’d be unable to tell the difference, it would be Thatcher was right Tony is Jesus, but we did not know it, and lets get on with New labour, it’s gone it will not return Labour has about four or five terms now to pull out a new idea.

    According to Flint now Labour on the up with thousands of new Councillors and people angry at energy companies we were before under new labour, you did sod all, and now the big word is aspiration not education it’s aspiration.

  9. Anon E Mouse

    Robert the crip – I agree on David Miliband having an even posher voice but with the deputy leader being the countess toff, Harriet Harman the most privileged MP in the commons I don’t think it matters.

    Labour has not been a party of the working classes for a long long time.

    The fact is that Labour are completely hopeless without a winner like Tony Blair and David Miliband would offer that whereas Ed Miliband offers nothing but opposition.

    Every Labour activist know’s that’s true even without the polls which prove the point but for reasons known only to them they will stick with him and keep deluding themselves.

    It’s why I love this site and the likes of Shamik Das, Leon Wolfson, Ben Fox, Kevin Meagher etc make my day and if only I could be a fly on the wall at the next election as Labour suffers another massive defeat!

  10. David Shipley

    Getting better? If you ignore the bonkers ‘good businesses and bad businesses’ argument he came out with. Nothing I saw or heard indicated to me that Labour are serious about winning in 2015.

  11. Natan Doron

    Excellent analysis of @Ed_Miliband conference speech by professional speechwriter @asherdresner for @leftfootfwd

  12. Liberanos

    Ed’s appalling delivery would not be acceptable,even with a solid, well-considered argument. With the lack of it,not to mention the ominous,profoundly retrograde,lefty-tinged glow surrounding it, the speech was a disaster for any party member hoping for a decent shot at power in the next election.

    The party chose David. But the unions elected Ed. I hope they’re happy.

  13. scandalousbill


    You say:

    “Surely not that weird anti business speech from the conference.”

    Now considering the fact that you maintain, “Labour has not been a party of the working classes for a long long time”, how can you look at examples like the extortionist interest rates charged by Payday Loans or and view them as anything but actions of predatory capitalists? Was the OFT action against PPI misspelling simply a leftist bureaucratic interference with the entrepreneurial spirit of fine British Banks? There are many examples that would justify Ed Miliband’s notion and I would say that action needs to be taken to offset the harm caused by such exploitations.

  14. scandalousbill


    should read mis-selling


  15. Mark Jenner

    I hope Team Ed read this!

  16. Dave Citizen

    I’m just glad Labour has got someone who is prepared to venture into a reasoned rather than purely tactical debate.

    The politics of populism, though undoubtedly tempting for the career minded politician, is not what we need at the moment. Difficult times lie ahead and powerful vested interests know what’s at stake for them. Even the most naive of airheads realises that such interests seek closer control of popular opinion during times of change. Anon – if you think your interests are well aligned with these people’s, then bully for you. If not, then please tell me who you think is better placed to protect your interests – I’m genuinely interested to know!

    Robert – I’m interested in your criticism of Ed. To my ears he’s the first mainstream Leader in a long long time to talk about what to me are the key issues for social justice and prosperity – extreme inequality and the lack of democratic control of our FM capitalist economy. While I would be much more radical myself, I think ED does get it on building a democratic and prosperous society to replace the corrupt, elite manipulated and inefficient dog’s dinner we have now.

  17. Robert the crip

    The wonga loans and the others of course were around under labour, in fact my local CLP wrote to Labour about it the response they had was zero. Yes of course these people are making money off the poor, but then again Labour did sod all to stop it

  18. Robert the crip

    So lets see Ed comment off Camera we are told yet with a camera following him, They want to know if we are to the left or to the right says Balls smiling at the camera which of course nobody sees, replay from Ed ya we are in the middle laughter camera stops of course it’s the BBC and they walk off set, talk about put up.

    Later on Ed is asked about welfare reforms and he says of course welfare must change , because well because of the Banking crises, hold on your welfare reforms started in 1997 not when the banking crises started or did we miss something.

    Now we see Miliband looking back to Thatcher telling us Thatcher was right on Union reforms, she was right on spending, was she, but why look back why not tell it as if you were going to do it, then after his kick at Blair , he says Blair was right as well, so what is so different between Ed and Kinnock, not a lot really bother are heading out the door one because he is old and the other because he has no ideas.

  19. Anon E Mouse

    scandalousbill – You are indeed right about certain companies behaviour but are missing my point.

    It wouldn’t matter if Ed Miliband could turn seawater into gold – no one would buy it off him because he’s simply unelectable. His personality is just too weird. He looks like a public schoolboy in his blazer not a potential world leader.

    I know it. You know it. The PLP know it. The Labour Party members know it. The polls show it. Everyone reading this knows it. He only leads because of the Union dinosaur votes and unless Labour ditch him now they will be trashed at the next election.

    Which is what I said about Gordon Brown and I was right then as well….

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  21. Martin H-E

    Did you buy your MA on the internet? The sick patient analogy that you suggest is a ridiculous idea. I’ll tell you for why; it has been used before. Do you know who used it? I’ll save you looking it up on Wikipedia or wherever you source your ignorance from and tell you; it was Margaret Thatcher. ‘Left wing intellectuals’ aren’t what they used to be.

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