Jeremy Corbyn detractors have been criticising the Labour leader’s early speeches for not being conciliatory enough, and for rambling. They would do better to focus on his ideas
Remember that great speech Ed Miliband once gave?
The really inspiring one, that time where he not only lifted the spirits of committed Labour Party activists but also reached out to the whole country, convincing millions of British people that a bright and appealing future lay just around the corner, ours for the taking under a Labour government?
You know, that barnstormer of a speech, one of those rare moments when human rhetoric rises to meet a momentous occasion; when hard-nosed political journalists were momentarily awed, and even cynical television pundits choked up. Surely you must remember?
No? Neither can I. Because it never happened. And yet corners of the British press are currently in the process of excoriating Jeremy Corbyn for failing to wow them with a good enough speech, having won the Labour leadership contest only days ago.
Corbyn’s victory speech was high-handed, amateurish, rambling, unstructured and not conciliatory enough, according to the verdict of various pundits. Matthew D’Ancona was particularly unimpressed with the strategic aspect:
Corbyn seemed determined to hurl himself into precisely the bear-trap dug by his enemies. His first act as leader, he declared, would be to go to a demonstration. He railed against the media. He bowed to the might of the unions. He heaped praise on Ed Miliband, far beyond the requirements of courtesy. By the end he seemed to be planning a global revolution, as if he had been wheeled that very morning on a trolley from Speakers’ Corner.
Fraser Nelson also felt that the speech was a strategic error:
In Miliband’s acceptance speech, he had the wit to play down the role that the trades unions had played in his victory. Corbyn boasted about it, in a rambling speech which thanked them by name: the RMT, the FBU – even the Socialist Education Association and Socialist Health Association. I hadn’t heard of either of the last two until today. I suspect, now, we’ll be hearing a lot more about socialist organisations that we had thought closed down in the 1980s. It’s a brave new world.
The Spectator was slightly kinder about Corbyn’s second attempt at a speech, this time delivered to the TUC conference, but only because the new Labour leader did what politicians are now expected to do all the time, and coined a flashy new phrase – ‘poverty deniers’:
Jeremy Corbyn has delivered the second speech of his leadership at the TUC conference in Brighton this afternoon and it was a slight improvement on the first. The idiosyncratic address Corbyn gave after winning the Labour leadership contest was long-winded and repetitive. His TUC address shared some of these characteristics but it was a little bit more polished — in particular, the section where he slammed David Cameron and George Osborne for being ‘poverty deniers’
Indeed, of all the main newspapers, only the Guardian seemed to have anything nice to say, though even their praise was wrapped in an insult:
Amateurish, rambling, unpolished and at times even a touch eccentric – Jeremy Corbyn’s first proper speech as Labour leader was actually a little bit superb.
There’s a paradox about Corbyn; he is not known for his oratory, and it would be surprising if many people could remember a single soundbite, or YouTube-type clip, that he said during the Labour leadership contest (or ever – unless you include the ones the Tories keep dredging up). And yet people flock to hear him. Only Nicola Sturgeon, George Galloway or Nigel Farage come close in terms of being able to fill a hall, which means this summer he has a right to say he has become one of the great speakers of our time.
Everyone seems to be weighing in on Jeremy Corbyn’s speech-giving prowess, most people finding it lacking. They accuse Corbyn of rambling too much, of being incoherent and uninspiring. To which I can only say: where were you when nearly every other British politician gave a speech over the past quarter century?
When the political commentariat say that Jeremy Corbyn’s early speeches were disappointing, what they really mean is that they were not – and did not attempt to be – a conventional political speech, a puffed-up piece of second-rate oratory constructed by third-rate speechwriters and delivered with a forced and affected passion totally out of proportion to the dull and uninspiring subject matter.
Think Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was embarrassing because it didn’t fit the mould of a typical Labour leader’s speech? Perhaps you’d rather hear the likes of this again, from the recently departed Ed Miliband:
And when you’re done toasting the memory of what a “proper” Labour leader sounds like, please be so kind as to explain to the rest of us exactly what great idea Miliband was attempting to convey with this typically meaningless word cloud of focus group-tested platitudes. Because it remains a mystery to most of the country.
If Ed Miliband’s speeches were “professional” while Jeremy Corbyn’s are “amateurish”, then the pros need to go away and have a long think about why someone with the exact opposite skillset to theirs managed to pack town halls and large public meeting venues up and down the land during the Labour leadership election, while the three practitioners of professional machine politics were left in the dust.
I’m sorry, but given the choice between listening to Jeremy Corbyn talk quite conversationally about his slightly loopy left-wing ideas and having to endure another second of someone like Ed Miliband trying to look sincere while telling me how “passionate” they are, I’ll pick JC every time. Every time.
I would love the art of real political speechmaking to stage a comeback in British politics, and be inspired by the likes of FDR’s Fear Itself speech, LBJ’s Great Society, JFK’s We Choose To Go To The Moon or even Thatcher’s The Lady’s Not For Turning.
Give me Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural (the “better angels of our nature“) over any British party conference speech ever written. But the return of great political speechwriting is highly unlikely, not least because the issues we have debated in our centrist, consensual age have generally been so small and irrelevant to the public that they would not inspire good prose even if there were anyone left with skill enough to write it.
So give me a slightly rambling but honest speech by a sincere politician over any of the overwrought, faux-inspiring modern mixtapes of buzzwords, soundbites and platitudes crafted with only the TV news editor in mind, any day of the week. And shame on our media for dumbly applauding hundreds of thoroughly pedestrian speeches by thoroughly forgettable politicians over the years, pronouncing them “solid” and “good” when they were no such thing.
I’m tired of seeing intellectually and rhetorically lifeless speeches by major British politicians written up by the Westminster press as though Ed Miliband’s twenty-seventh personal relaunch was somehow in the same league as Ronald Reagan telling Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”, or the Junior Minister for Diversity in Television Soap Operas being praised for delivering their remarks while roaming around without a lectern and managing not to fall down.
At this point, it surely has not escaped the attention of even the most incompetent politician that to get rave reviews for your big set-piece speech, all that is required is to deliver it while roaming around the stage and speaking without notes. Oh, and remembering to mention the deficit when the occasion demands.
There are plenty of serious issues where it is quite legitimate to criticise Jeremy Corbyn: his Big Government agenda, disturbing foreign and defence policies, and the fumbling start to his leadership of the Labour Party, which included a chaotic and unedifying shadow cabinet selection process.
For disappointed Labour centrists, they now have the hard task of proving their continued relevance ahead of them. And for those of us on the political Right, we have been presented with a gold-plated opportunity to engage with a real, unrepentant ideological opponent, and take on this misguided socialist dogma in a high-profile and potentially lasting way. Both sides have better things to do than focus so much on criticising Jeremy Corbyn’s speech-giving abilities that they inadvertently highlight the extent to which they are all about style over substance themselves.
Besides which, neither side can really afford to waste time or credibility complaining that Corbyn is not spending the first few days of his fledgling leadership giving the same kind of traditional, set-piece speech that did Ed Miliband so much good when he was leading Labour back to victory in — oh, right.
If Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has taught us anything, it is that voters – or at least a motivated subset of them – place extraordinarily high value in a politician willing to communicate sincere ideas in a straightforward, non-manufactured way, free of all the focus group-tested soundbites or the other inanities of modern British politics.
And the press ought to be wary too, when it comes to their coverage of Corbyn’s leadership. Because if the public really are finally starting to tire of bland, identikit politicians, what is to say that they will not also tire of – and circumvent – the bland, identikit political commentary which haughtily dismisses the new and the different, and criticises someone for the high crime of failing to adopt the same styles and conventions as Every Other Politician?
Is there no room left in British politics for variety of temperament and style?
Is there no TV news pundit capable of passing informed opinion on a political speech if it is not divided up into bite-sized chunks designed to go viral on social media (here’s looking at you, Mhairi Black)?
Can Britain really countenance no departure at all from the mould of the modern, television and internet age politician, perfectly manicured and good with a soundbite, pre-wired and configured to deliver measured doses of policy and inspiration in 140 characters or less?
Like Jeremy Corbyn or loathe him, agree with his policies or advocate the exact opposite, let’s focus on the substance, and stop getting so hung up on the fact that Labour’s new leader is refusing to play to his weaknesses by speaking like a second-rate, pound store Ed Miliband.
Jeremy Corbyn has ideological and personal weaknesses enough. But his failure to play the part of Political Speech Bot 3000 is not one of them.