SO, DID YOU watch Ed Miliband’s “brilliant speech” [sic] this week? Just kidding. This is, of course, a trick question, because unless you are a paid employee of the Labour Party – and even then - the answer is almost certainly “no, don’t be so fucking ridiculous”.
To make me watch Ed Miliband’s conference speech, you’d have had to strap me into a chair, eyelids clamped open Clockwork Orange-fashion, and padded the room with quilts and cushions to muffle my screams. I can guarantee you that during his speech, the volume of calls to dental clinics skyrocketed as people spontaneously remembered that root canal they’d been putting off for months, suddenly thinking that maybe having a drill tunnelling through soft tissue and nerve endings in their face wouldn’t be so bad after all.
That goes for the people in the conference hall, too: they saw, sure, and they heard, undoubtedly, but did they watch and listen? Not bloody likely. You could see Harriet Harman wondering if she’d left the gas on, Ivan Lewis texting someone – I wonder who? - and even Ed’s wife had a glazed, vacant look on her face, almost as if she was thinking, in common with everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere, that she’d picked the wrong brother.
Yet we were assured by those who did watch it – mostly, let it be said, from the Guardian and the BBC, since few others could be bothered – that it was a triumph. A confident restatement of Labour principles, a gauntlet thrown down to the Tories, a reassertion of Ed’s “values”, and so forth. Expectations had been lowered so far, of course, that the press would have called it an epoch-defining address even if his trousers had fallen down halfway through, but this level of adulation for such an essential superfluous politician was surprising, even from the leftist media.
So anyway, after all this hoopla and masturbatory excitement, I reluctantly went and found the transcript of the speech on a website. There, freed from the horrifying onus of watching it delivered on live TV by the voice of a lobotomised Dalek, I read. I read the moving tale of his mother, saved from the Nazis by the kindness of strangers. I read some effective attacks on the incompetence of the government which, coming from a minister in Gordon Brown’s administration, certainly takes some chutzpah. There was even a gag about dinosaurs and predators that made me laugh out loud. Bloody hell, I thought, this is quite a good speech.
But as I kept reading, a dawning realisation grew on me, one that I’ve seen replicated in dozens of political speeches in recent years. This guy, I realised, has fuck all to say. No, it’s more than that: this guy is actively avoiding saying anything. Miliband’s speech was all buzzwords, soundbites, platitudes and bromides. A better education for your children! An NHS we can be proud of! Your apple pie tastier! Your cock harder! On and on it went, over seven thousand words of pure, unfiltered bullshit. The forced, unconvincing chumminess. The crowd-pleasing attacks on unearned wealth from a millionaire who’s never had a proper job in his life. The interminable repetition of the phrase “One Nation”, which must surely have been for a bet. By the end, I wanted to tear my eyes out as surely as if I’d watched it live.
This has been going on for decades, of course. Some of the most celebrated conference speakers have always been ham actors. Of the millions of words Michael Heseltine spoke from Brighton to Blackpool, all anyone remembers is him hopping up and down like a twat in 1995. Tony Blair pioneered the verbless speech, but our current crop of leaders have reached the apogee of political communication: the contentless speech. It doesn’t matter – it literally doesn’t matter – any more what he said; all that matters is how it is spun afterwards. We leave it to our journalists to condense an hour of verbiage into a three minute news package, complete with summary and analysis, because most of us have better things to do with our time than listen to Ed Miliband speaking in the middle of the afternoon.
On one level, it’s good news that speeches can still matter. Words still have the power to move us, and so they should. But it’s depressing that it’s the wrong things about these speeches that matter, and depressing that we allow them to. An adult man, whose job is to bullshit people for a living, gave a speech without notes, and the media treats him like he’s just run a marathon round the summit of Everest. If this is how easily we are satisfied, then no wonder the country’s fucked.
And it’s dangerous, too. There is fascinating research from the 2004 US Presidential debates which shows that audience perceptions of the winners of those debates were shaped almost entirely by the post-debate analysis from the talking heads after Bush and Kerry had left the stage. Unless we actually sit through the speech, in other words, we don’t know – we can’t know – what Miliband said, whether he was convincing, whether this might, actually, be the guy to lead the country after the next election. We have to rely on others to tell us. The only way we can find out for ourselves is to sit through the bloody speeches after all.
If we aspire to better from those who would presume to govern us, we have to demand better, and not simply accept what is served up to us. As long as people will accept crap, as the TV host Dick Cavett once put it, it will be financially profitable to dispense it.
Which, I suppose, is why next year I will force myself to sit through his speech, even if it kills me. Although, now you mention it, it’s high time I visited a dentist…