Ah, that speech. Yes, you know the one I mean.
Conference speeches are, for the most part, irrelevant, particularly for opposition parties. Occasionally they can define a moment – Neil Kinnock challenging Militant in Liverpool, perhaps, the teenage William Hague on the crest of the Thatcherite cultural revolution – and act as a catalyst for change. But they barely live long enough in the mind of the nation to register a reaction.
Indeed, I would hazard a guess that politicians talking about either the greatness of their achievements or the grandeur of their vision, which is what most speeches boil down to, are among the most disliked and distrusted aspects of political life out there in the apolitical world. After all, you don’t have to be a cynic to smell the snake oil.
The worst thing about Ed’s effort last week was probably the quality of the writing, although it’s a close-fought contest. You kept wanting to flinch, to duck and swerve like a trusted friend on a Dick Cheney duck hunt, as each clunking mishapen hunk of beaten English broke off from the mothership and spun erratically off into space. Ed does know that bargain primarily means something cheap these days, right? You know, reduced to clear and all that? And circles are by definition closed, otherwise they’re not, you know, circles? And: “this is who I am. The heritage of the outsider. The vantage point of the insider.”Eh? And: “Computer says no”? Really? Ed, weren’t you the one who spoke human? What happened? You sound like you’ve no idea what you’re talking about, no experience of call centres or customer care lines. Could that possibly be true?
And then there was the periodic sound of squealing tyres as Ed wrenched his poor speech this way and that to hit various target subjects. Rupert Murdoch. Check. Milly Dowler. Check. Our fine men and women in Afghanistan. Check. Our fine men and women in the police. Check. The riots. Check.
And then there was this: “Labour. Think about that word. The party of work.”
Has anyone ever delivered as patronising a line to any political audience beyond the age of, say, 11? Only someone to whom labour is what someone else does, who thinks in abstractions, would dare suggest that delegates to the party conference might be unaware of the coincidence. He might just as well have said: “Working classes. Think about it. Working. That’s right! If you think hard enough you’ll notice that the phrase tells you how society defines you. Pretty clever, eh? Of course, I read PPE at Oxford, so I spotted it almost immediately.”The great union leaders of old must be spinning in their graves, even the ones who aren’t dead.
I gather from Bagehot, meanwhile, that Team Miliband considered his speech to the 2011 Labour party conference to hold a mirror up to the British people and show how their values were Ed’s values, and – ergo, one assumes – his solutions were their solutions.
But to the extent that he defined his values, they were platitudes in search of applause. He drew them so widely as to render them meaningless. Indeed, the speech generally was packed with loose definitions, broadly applied. It was a recipe for confusion. And guess what followed? Worse, because it betrayed a lack of clarity in the thought that underpinned it, the speech offered the Labour party’s many enemies an open goal, since it allowed them both to imbue the speech with any malignant inference they wished – while also deriding the naivety and woolliness of the thinking. It left me wondering if Miliband can distinguish between sentiment and strategy.