The Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘ramble’ as to ‘talk or write at length in a confused or inconsequential way’. If asked to define Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the Labour Party conference last week, it might very well come up with the same answer. However, the speech did make one thing clear: The biggest deficit in British politics no longer refers to the budget, but to the political divide between Jeremy Corbyn and the British public.
The speech started very well. The opening passage focused on apocalyptical predictions if he were to win the leadership election, including his apparent welcoming of an asteroid to wipe out humanity. He told jokes with ease and his relaxed style was warm and genuine. Nevertheless, The rest of the speech was poorly written and confused. Corbyn switched between a dizzying number of topics with no discernable link. Blink and you missed austerity, blink again and you missed human rights. It is tempting to say it had a poor structure, but that assumes it had one at all. One person who thought the speech not worthy was Ed Miliband, for whom part of it was originally written for in 2011. It was shelved in favour of his ‘Predators Vs Producers’ speech, which was also universally panned.
Corbyn’s difficulty in using the autocue ensured a clunky delivery. Applause lines written in were routinely ignored and he stuttered over a number of lines. On several points, passion was confused with volume. In response to criticism of his performance, supporters will point to his authenticity. This is not good enough, command and lucidity of language are powerful tools for a politician, helping them to communicate and persuade. A message of hope must still be a coherent message.
The established cliché about a leader’s conference speech is that the leader must not just appeal to the hall, but to the public at home as well. Last Tuesday, Corbyn spoke to his supporters – not the wider party and certainly not the public. A lot of the speech was bogged down in internal party democratic structures. He claimed ‘real people debating real issues’ would define his Labour party. Real people debate real issues already, but those issues are immigration and the economy not Saudi Arabian prison policy. If he spoke to the country at all, it was to say one thing: your concerns are not my concerns.
One memorable line came when the Arsenal supporting leader compared Labour to a football club. He mocked the media for calling it a crisis when a team gains a hundred thousand new fans and sells out of season tickets, referring to the party’s rise in membership and packed public meetings. It was clever and went down well in the hall. But to complete the analogy, Labour’s answer to Steve McClaren is pledging the team to debate the offside rule for the remainder of the match, while the other team line up for a free kick. Spending time debating things such as nuclear weapons might excite the conference, but it only has niche appeal in the country. Labour’s narrow offer cost them the last election. This speech aspired to make it narrower still for 2020.
Jeremy Corbyn’s address to the Labour Party conference will have invigorated his core support and the Conservative party equally. If the prospectus outlined in this speech is put to the British people, this ‘new politics’ Labour party will suffer the same old defeats.