Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Leader’s speech: holding our breath

Let’s get things straight. This is not a make-or-break speech (very few are, as John Rentoul recently pointed out). Only a small number of people, apart from the political media and the usual political anoraks, may even pay this speech much attention, for reasons which are, to be fair, not Ed’s fault at all.

To wit: we are a quarter-way through a now-stable electoral cycle, all three main leaders and the government look secure. Labour are highly unlikely to form a government before 2015 and quite conceivably not even then. Many journalists, in the unusual situation of coalition, perceive that the Lib Dems are providing as much of an opposition function within government as Labour are without it, and often pay more attention to their words (as they are more likely to have a direct effect on outcomes) than those of Labour.

Oh, and there’s the little thing of a major European and world economic crisis occupying the news bulletins.

So, what is the real significance of this speech? First, it’s Ed’s first “proper” conference speech as leader – it’s clear that last year’s didn’t count, being all of two days after his election as leader, except as a thank you and a rough statement of intent – and this time people will expect him to set out his stall. Second, and more importantly, as Paul Richards points out over at Progress, the issue overshadowing this conference is that not just Europe’s economy, but the world’s economy, is looking distinctly vulnerable. So everything will be viewed through that prism and it is important to be wise to that.

Hence, the trick is balance: to focus it on the modest-sounding but important business which needs to be carried out in opposition, in this case (a) party reform and (b) getting some new policies together, without sounding like we’re holding some kind of myopic wonk-fest while the world is on fire. And then to hold it all together with some unifying vision which will inspire the delegates. A tall order, you might say.

What’s the easy thing to do with this speech? To repeat the trick which was necessary last year but is no longer; to go long on the vision and short on practicality. To say things people will want to hear. To say that our current difficulties are the fault of bankers and the super-rich. That there is a malaise in our “broken” society, to appropriate Cameron’s word. Or to imply that government is responsible for changing, as in this Guardian interview, for the ethical nature of said society. To lead, as conference trailer pieces are indicating it may, on “vested interests” (cue – as, in another room, deals are done with three union leaders – the faint tinkling of stones raining down on a glass house). Crowd duly pleased.

What’s the hard thing to do with this speech? To be practical. To be prescriptive. Acknowledge that most of what’s happening, from job losses to cuts to riots, is down to a global crisis, which at this point is mostly out of our hands. And that, whatever happens, there is unlikely to be much money for Labour to spend in the foreseeable future, and that we will need to adjust our whole ethos to that new reality, as Hopi Sen very coherently argues. To say that the party organisation cannot renew itself to the extent of making it ready for government unless it makes some dramatic changes: then announce them. To reveal some basic lines – drill-down detail not required – of policy. Strategic policy, that is, not merely tactical headline-grabbers. Crowd a bit more uneasy, to say the least.

Finally, in a Leader’s Speech there is also an opportunity to surprise. For conference nerds, you will all know that there is always one surprise; something controversial, which the conference wasn’t expecting and which is slipped in while everyone’s excited (the textbook example being 1994’s Clause Four rewrite moment). Normally it is to nudge the party in the direction of the electorate on some key issue. There is then usually then a bit of grumbling, followed by grumpy acceptance and most people go home happy. It does not make a good speech in itself. But we will know something about what the future historic view of the speech will be if this element either nudges the party in the other direction, away from the electorate and back towards its comfort zone; is merely unambitious; or is missing altogether.

So, while the speech is likely to change little in the perception of the public or the media, it will tell us, the party faithful, something rather important.

It’s simple, yet vital: where exactly are we headed? Rightly or wrongly, the conference speech has long been the cornerstone which defines direction of travel and headlines on policy. The party has glimpsed bits and pieces here and there, in interviews and sound-bites. But everyone is patiently awaiting that definition.

And that’s because they have a legitimate concern, of course: that if we have not started to articulate a clear direction of travel with broad electoral appeal after one year, it encourages the real fear that we will not be able to articulate one after two, three or four years either.

We can’t hold our breath much longer. We’ll burst.


  1. You are right to quote Hopi Sen, he is a bit of a genius. As for Miliband, can anyone outside of ZaNuLabout REALLY see him as leader? Finally, Tarquin St Giles. As he eloquently put it "At present the UK are offered 3 shades of blue with the Liberals as most left wing".

  2. You think that's a blue speech? It's probably the most left-wing conference speech we've seen in 20 years. With the possible exception of pre-Clegg Lib Dems, but they don't really count. I mean *serious* parties.


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