Why I loathe leaders’ speeches. PS: It’s nothing personal, Nick

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Don’t tell anyone, but I’m leaving conference on Wednesday morning before our leader speaks. It’s nothing personal — I think my record’s pretty clear on supporting Nick Clegg’s leadership — but I find leaders’ speeches tiresome.

The bullet points will have been carefully briefed to the press in advance, embargoed copies of the speech will be widely circulating — by the time Nick actually gets to his feet for the traditional 40-minute peroration it’ll already feel like a repeat, even if he does ad lib a couple of scripted (and, sorry, almost certainly lame) jokes.

Add to that the compulsion of party managers to try and energise the audience through hagiographical videos and a decade-old chart hit that’s supposed to exude cool, and even a mostly-happy member like me is inclined to fold my arms in grumpy ‘yeah whatever’ obstinacy rather than leap to my feet in ecstasy to fulfil my standing ovation obligation for the watching cameras.

What would I rather see? Thanks for asking. A crisp 20-minute TED-style presentation, which would force Nick to drop the tick-box approach to leaders’ speeches — every domestic and foreign cause getting its special mention — and instead to crystallise his argument around the conference theme ‘Fairer tax in tough times’ and communicate it intelligently, urgently, authoritatively.

A backdrop graphic of specific examples of how the Lib Dems are shifting the burden of tax away from the low-paid and towards the wealthy — using real-life folk, just as the newspapers illustrate the budget next day — would make the point much more effectively than a couple of sound-bite clap-lines and re-hashed anecdotes will.

And yes, I know the leader’s speech isn’t really meant for the people in the conference hall but for the folk watching that night’s news. That’s kind of my point and why I won’t be sticking around for it. But best of luck, Nick. I know it just comes with the job.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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16 Comments

  • Simon Titley 26th Sep '12 - 10:31am

    Well said, Stephen. The leader’s speech has become a ritual and has thus been emptied of meaning.

    What is not widely appreciated is the amount of time and effort that is wasted on it. At each conference, the leader spends a large amount of time hidden away in his hotel suite, surrounded by speech writers and advisers, agonising over every dot and comma of the speech. Not the most productive use of time.

    And when you write a speech by committee, the inevitable result is a bland string of platitudes. Blair-style sentences without verbs. Lame jokes and naff graphics. All applauded wildly by a carefully choreographed stage army of multi-ethnic, multi-gender but unrepresentatively youthful supporters.

    Stephen’s prescription is broadly right. There’s only one snag, and that’s how you dig the leader’s entourage out of their mental tram lines. Good luck to anyone who can achieve that.

  • I agree totally with Stephen. And Simon.

    In fact, I think that this ‘baggage lite’ approach should have been taken to the entire Coalition from day 11 (I think they deserved a breather post-negotiation) if our party was to stand a hope in hell of surviving it.

    A narrowly-Focused barnstormer of a speech showing clearly that the Lib Dems are trying, achieving and going to try even more to do things which hold ordinary people’s head above water while the country is flooded with the brown stuff post-Labour/bankers might just grab some real attention and make people give us a chance.

    So, then, the chances of this happening are. . . . . . . . 🙁

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Sep '12 - 12:22pm

    Indeed, I hate the way these things are designed to play with one’s emotions, so that one really does feel forced in the end to join in with the applause and standing ovation, because in the end we are all in this together, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want the party to win, and I sort of agree with what’s been said but, but, but .. there is no room for buts, it looks churlish to applaud weakly, let alone sit one one’s hands. And that was in the time when we had leaders I could agree with more (anyone who points out that I seem to have been on the verge of walking out due to disagreement with the leader for all the 34 years I’ve been a member of the party, please note the meaning and significance of the word “more” here).

  • Richard Dean 26th Sep '12 - 12:30pm

    Who knows, Stephen, perhaps the speech will contain a new bark — or even a bite? Hopefuly at least a bit of byte or two (sound)!

  • And then he surprised us by delivering something content-rich. Agree with you about the trappings though

  • to ‘want the party to win’ and then write to a national newspaper that our Leader is a ‘calamity’ is highly bizarre and must emanate from a confused mind,(MH). Clegg is our Leader, he is human and therefore not perfect(and you can’t suit everyone anyway, however brilliant you may be), but he is our only Leader and by dint of democratic process he was and still is, the best person available for the job. As members we should get behind the man, yes be a critical friend, but friends don’t sling mud at each-other in public.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Sep '12 - 2:39pm

    peter

    to ‘want the party to win’ and then write to a national newspaper that our Leader is a ‘calamity’ is highly bizarre and must emanate from a confused mind,(MH).

    So, we should all keep quiet and let our leader drive the party to ruin by making mistake after mistake after mistake?

    I’m sorry peter, but I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats, not the Nick Clegg Fan Club. To me, unquestioning loyalty to The Leader is an attribute of political parties whose basic philosophy is the opposite of liberalism. As is arguing by insult rather than by rational comment.

    I think we have reached the point where if we are to survive we need to remind the general public that the party is more than Nick Clegg, I think Nick Clegg needs to realise this as well – that is, he should try listening more to experienced people in the party, and not just to people from outside who, to be quite frank, are often fairly clueless on how it works. I’ve given over 30 years of my life to this party and thousands of pounds of my own money, and I hate to see it being destroyed – as it is – by inept leadership. I think the point has been reached where it might be of some value in getting people to support us despite rather than because of Mr Clegg.

    We need to avoid conflating two things – although Mr Clegg is employing the tactic of conflating them – support for the Coalition and support for the current leader. Also we need to distinguish (which Mr Clegg and his closest supporters again do not) between support for the Coalition in terms of accepting it correctly reflects the democratic wishes of the people as expressed in the general election (and confirmed in the 2011 referendum), and “support” meaning one thinks it is the best government there could possibly be right now regardless of the constraints of the balance of Parliament. I believe we are losing the support of people who used to vote for us and people who would potentially vote for us because that distinction has not been properly made – and I believe the fault here lies with Mr Clegg and his closest advisors who seem deliberately to have wanted to blur the distinction. If it was not deliberate, then it was incompetent. I withdrew from campaigning activity for the party, while retaining membership, after the campaign director for London (sorry, I forget exact name and title) accused me of being insulting when I expressed my dissatisfaction with the strategic direction of the party which he was promoting in an email asking me to give assistance in the mayoral elections. I don’t want to be in a party where internal criticism is not allowed, I do not think such a party deserves to call itself “liberal”. I also do think it is both “complacent” and “incompetent” when the reaction of a campaign director to a long-term helper who is expressing a bit of unhappiness with the current direction is to throw at that helper more of precisely the propaganda lines to which he is objecting, and then to tell he is being so rude by using the words “complacent” and “incompetent” that his further contribution is not welcome. There is a crucial local by-election coming up near where I live – our party is defending the seats, our candidate is a friend with whom I worked closely when I lived there. Thanks to the behaviour of that campaign director, I shall not be contributing any of my time or money to that by-election. Do you think that campaign director behaved in a way that was either competent or avoiding complacency? This attitude which is not just “my party, right or wrong” but “my leader, right or wrong – and he must be right as he’s my leader” is wrecking our party, and is against all I have ever stood for as a liberal.

    On the particular policy in question, on which I wrote a letter to the Metro newspaper, which it kindly published, after it had headlined Mr Clegg’s release of that policy, well the same point I made in my letter has been made by every economist that has commented on it – I think I have now counted 5 press commentators who are respected people in the economics field making the same point. To be frank again, I was embarrassed to see such economic illiteracy coming from our leader. It was particularly embarrassing to see this comment coming from our leader after I had been involved in some serious and useful discussion in the consultative session at the party conference on this very topic, where no-one had proposed the policy which our leader suddenly announced – and it was that proposal rather than anything discussed by the wider party which hit the headlines. I really think our Dear Leader ought at least to have consulted widely within the party before coming out with what he did. Our party has been damaged by it, because the experts have quite rightly pointed out just how mistaken it is. So I hope in fact that I might have salvaged the party’s reputation a little by making public the fact that what Mr Clegg said was not agreed party policy and was in conflict with what the party more widely had just been discussing.

    I shall leave it to others to tell me whether or not what I have written here is the mark of a “confused mind”.

  • Peter Watson 27th Sep '12 - 6:31pm

    @peter and @Matthew
    My curiosity is piqued, and sorry if I am re-opening old wounds, but what article and what policy?

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Sep '12 - 11:14pm

    See the following link:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19693723

    As has been said by many who have looked at this idea, it benefits only the children of the wealthy who have enough in pensions funds to be able finance mortgages in this way. By causing yet more money to be thrown into the housing market it will have the net effect of pushing house prices up even further. So it will make it HARDER for most young people to buy housing, not easier as Clegg claimed. This really is quite basic economics. It goes all that was said at conference about closing the gap between rich and poor.

    So far as I am aware, the policy has never had any discussion within the party, it was just released by Clegg in some interviews. But because it was Clegg, it was instantly written up as “Liberal Democrat policy” and stole the headlines from what the party more widely was discussing in its conference at that time.

    The release of this policy and Clegg’s claims about it suggested he just assumed all young people had parents or grandparents with this sort of money to spare in their pension funds, and also he was ignorant of the economic rule that the more money you throw into a market, the more prices in it rise. When I read it in the newspaper, I actually banged my head against the wall in frustration at just how what this all said about Clegg – out-of-touch, and clueless.

  • Peter Watson 27th Sep '12 - 11:45pm

    Oh, that policy. I think I posted a snotty comment elsewhere on this site dismissing the idea as I first heard it reported. I had no idea that it was just Clegg floating something, and your comments and the report you’ve linked to convince me that my initial scepticism was well-founded. But I am reassured that risking my pension to support high house prices for my kids is not really the Lib Dems big new idea.

  • “There is a crucial local by-election coming up near where I live – our party is defending the seats, our candidate is a friend with whom I worked closely when I lived there. Thanks to the behaviour of that campaign director, I shall not be contributing any of my time or money to that by-election. Do you think that campaign director behaved in a way that was either competent or avoiding complacency?”

    No idea – but I don’t think your aiming your vengeance at the right person 🙂

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Sep '12 - 8:20pm

    Peter Watson

    I had no idea that it was just Clegg floating something, and your comments and the report you’ve linked to convince me that my initial scepticism was well-founded.

    Thank you, I think that illustrates very well my point. I was actually VERY sorry to see several MPs whom I had hitherto admired coming out and speaking in favour of this silly idea. I suspect they felt they had to – but to those I mean, you know who you are, and sorry but you have lost much of the respect I had for you by what you did here.

    I very much regret the way that commentators and most people not involved in politics these days seem just to have accepted the Leninist model of politics as the norm, and so routinely suppose that if the Leader says it, then it’s party policy.

    Clegg has very much damaged our party by coming out with this – almost all commentators have rightly dismissed it, and those with even basic grounding in economics can see it would actually achieve the opposite of what Clegg said it would. So how come when the student tuition fees policy is being held up as an example of why democracy within a political party is a bad thing, this excellent example of why … (word omitted as it will probably mean this article does not get through) in a political party is a bad thing has been let go?

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