This dated, early-colour TV footage of President Lyndon B. Johnson addressing the University of Michigan’s graduating class of 1964 stands as a simple, self-evident example of a great political speech.
It’s necessary to point this out because those of us who came of age under the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or even more recently in the Lib-Con Coalition years, may well never have heard one in our lifetimes – at least not in contemporary British politics.
2014 marks fifty years since the unveiling of LBJ’s Great Society initiative, in which Johnson unveiled a sweepingly bold and progressive agenda of domestic programmes intended to combat poverty, inequality and racial injustice in America. Only two years previously, the slain president John F. Kennedy had also called upon his country to dedicate itself to a bold new purpose: landing a man on the surface of the moon and returning him safely to Earth, within the decade. Kennedy’s goal – America’s goal – was achieved on 16th July, 1969.
That’s what leaders do. As citizens of modern Western democracies we are more or less capable of handling the day-to-day business of living life – working, raising families, finding meaningful recreation – ourselves, only looking to government to provide or assist with that which ordinary human beings and families cannot do by or for themselves alone. Great, even competent political leaders understand this truth, and devote their energies to setting the big picture, steering the ship of state, even daring and accomplishing mighty things when the occasion arises.
Or at least, that’s what leaders and prospective leaders are supposed to do.
In a speech at the University of London today, the Labour Party’s ex-leader-in-waiting, Ed Miliband, attempted yet another personal relaunch, one final last-ditch effort to divert the media’s prying attention away from persistent, unaddressed concerns about his leadership ability.
Readers can judge from this short excerpt how successful Miliband was in achieving his goal:
Amazingly, the press reaction was broadly positive. The BBC’s Nick Robinson proclaims that “Ed Miliband is going nowhere“, reporting that Miliband is focused on changing the “rules of the economy” (whatever they are) so that they work better for ordinary people. The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman declared the speech “fine” though essentially workmanlike, but pointed out that it didn’t “tell us anything new about Ed Miliband”, which was supposedly the whole point of the endeavour. The Guardian was impressed, saying that Miliband’s speech “scores crucial points”, and lauded his “strikingly plain language” – though the language seems no different to other recent speeches. And Left Foot Forward reminded readers that they’re stuck with Miliband so they may as well get used to him.
Only the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges could be relied upon to give a characteristically downbeat assessment, with that paper’s lead article rightly accusing Miliband of “paranoia” for worrying about the supposed forces and special interests that are out to get him, rather than his own restive MPs.
But overall the reporting was missing something, or was at least guilty of being far too kind after sitting through such a waste of a speech. Of course our expectations of Ed Miliband’s personal performance and British political speechwriting in general are now set so low that one cannot entirely blame the press for their collective approval, but they missed a trick nonetheless. Just because Miliband looked determined and stuck out his jaw a bit more than normal doesn’t make for a good speech, let alone a bold assertion of leadership promise.
Neither does one have to study Miliband’s body language or parse his words to detect the complete lack of anything resembling a detailed, coherent, transformative vision in this latest failure to relaunch – it is enough just to see how his speech appears on the page. Here, for example, is the “section” (perhaps too flattering a word) where Miliband talks about public services:
Behold the short, stunted phrases, written with the news editor’s cropping software in mind while the poor listener’s brain isn’t given a second thought. This is nothing more than a word cloud, a jumble of phrases and platitudes deemed by a focus group to be pleasing or reassuring and then awkwardly bolted together by a computer and beamed onto a teleprompter.
Who will disagree with Ed Miliband that security is an important aspect of modern life? Who among us truly thinks that idleness rather than productivity should be rewarded? Is who we are as British citizens really a just a clinical, soulless function of our local schools and hospitals? And if this amateurish, minimalist poem of a speech actually outlined an objective of some kind – which it does not – what levers of power would Ed Miliband and a Labour government pull to move the country towards it?
We don’t know because Miliband doesn’t tell us, and Miliband doesn’t tell us because he either doesn’t know himself, or because he does know but thinks the British people won’t like the answer. Miliband’s speech wasn’t about a “Zero-Zero Britain” as he claimed in his leading soundbite, it was about a Fifty-Fifty Labour Party: 50% unsure of what it would do with power, and 50% convinced that the people would hate what’s coming if they were ever to find out.
Contrast Labour’s latest insult to the art of political speechwriting with this passage from President Johnson’s Great Society commencement address (worth quoting at length):
Note the strange feature not found in any of Miliband’s speeches, but present in Johnson’s. They’re called paragraphs. Speakers can use them to expand on ideas and develop complex themes beyond mere soundbites. Someone within the Labour Party might consider recommending them to Ed Miliband’s speechwriting team – apparently they are a lost artform at Labour HQ.
But more than the uplifting prose and the refreshing lack of condescension, what makes Johnson’s speech so moving is the real sense of purpose and destiny which shines through in Johnson’s words. Ardent conservatives may have disagreed vehemently with almost everything about the Great Society, and many of them did. But by calling on this sense of national history and common endeavour, by not condescending to people and by daring to suggest that the promise of America was greater than merely overcoming its current woes, Johnson was able to build a winning coalition of voters and pass civil rights legislation, Medicare, Medicaid and other edifices of American society that still exist today.
Ed Miliband has made it quite clear, for anyone who hadn’t yet got the message, that he dares to think only small things. He believes that the greatness of Britain is encapsulated and expressed by NHS waiting times, bus service reliability and foreign aid donations as a percentage of GDP. And of course these things are important in their own ways. But Miliband also sees his job as a potential future Prime Minister to ensure that we set our own personal hopes and expectations similarly low, that we base our deepest happiness and contentment on how well local public services meet their targets, and on the day-to-day benevolence of government bureaucracy.
In an age when inspiration is everywhere; when humankind can cure diseases, land spacecraft on distant asteroids and put portable computing and telecommunication devices into the pockets of all but the poorest among us, it is astounding and shameful that Ed Miliband has no new national goal, no vision of the future, no common endeavour to unite us, save some weasly words about equality that are backed up by absolutely no concrete policies – Zero Zero – that will make a blind bit of difference, save perhaps squeezing the rich a bit more.
Miliband could have used his relaunch speech to ask who among us will invent the next iPod, found the next Microsoft, build a national electric car infrastructure or cure the scourge of cancer, and then call for the British people to rise to the challenge, alongside whatever government help he deemed suitable. But instead he chose to drone on about bankers and public services, yet again. Miliband could issue no cry for us to rise to our national destiny because the world outside of government and public services is completely foreign to him, and although government is New Labour’s answer to everything, patriotism, British exceptionalism and pride in one’s country are seen as embarrassing and gauche.
That may be the majority view within the Labour Party – bold new ideas certainly seem anathema to their thinking, as this blog has discussed on multiple occasions. But hopefully it is not yet the prevailing view among the general British public. In fact, the ever-shrinking percentage of voters who are turning away from both main parties and finding common cause with UKIP or the Greens suggests that there is a real hunger for political and private-sector solutions that are more than a mere continuation of the stale old post-war consensus orthodoxy.
At the time of Labour’s flop of a party conference in Manchester this year, the 91-year-old author and RAF veteran Harry Leslie Smith spoke of how proud he had been to vote for something as new and revolutionary as the National Health Service, and that voting Labour in 1945 had felt like “grabbing destiny by the collar”. This blog concurred:
The lesson from these words, which Labour clearly failed to learn despite exploiting them for political purposes, is this: if you dare mighty things, if you identify a common problem and propose a bold political solution, people will stand up and vote for it in their millions.
There is now an opening for a political party to pick up the torch and present a new manifesto for Britain that could at least attempt to achieve the social justice we all want, not through heavy-handed state control but through the free market, uniting left and right under a shared purpose. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party ducked the challenge in Manchester this week. Who will take it up instead?
Ed Miliband had one last chance to show his leadership mettle before the 2015 general election campaign gets underway in earnest. He had one last opportunity to tell us that he has a vision for Britain that amounts to more than preserving the NHS in aspic and making the buses run on time.
But with just #6monthstowin, as Labour’s tech-savvy Twitter hashtag reminds us, Ed Miliband failed once again. He failed not by bungling his speech, which was as demonstrably idiot-proof an address as can ever be written, but because in his heart, Miliband doesn’t believe that Britain is capable of anything more than struggling along, with incremental policy fixes to make daily life a little more bearable for the masses. Ed Miliband’s progressive vision for Britain is of a meagre £8/hour minimum wage by 2020 and managed national decline, the 1970s all over again.
All of which leads back to the same gnawing question: Now that Ed Miliband has shown once again exactly how little faith he has in us, why should the British people place their faith in him when they cast their votes on 7 May, 2015?
What do you think? Are our public services “the foundation of who we are” as British citizens? Are we defined just by the NHS and universal schooling, or can we also be proud of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Tallis, Britten, Betjeman, Vaughan Williams, Lord Foster, Alexander Graham Bell and our other peerless contributions to human culture and science? And what should be our great national goals for the next 50 years? Please comment below, or using the link on the left.