Ed Miliband continues to have trouble getting his message across, and he knows it. In the wake of a poor conference speech and a 2011 beset with difficulties he attempted to stop the rot by appointing a new chief-of-staff and speechwriter.
However, on the evidence of last week’s speech on the economy, things are going from bad to worse. It was billed as the relaunch speech that wasn’t a relaunch, which is just as well as it appears to have sunk without trace.
My fellow speechwriter, and friend, Max Atkinson questioned whether it was even accurate to describe Miliband’s address as a speech at all. Commenting on Twitter, Max wrote, “speeches like @Ed_Miliband’s today aren’t so much political speeches as lectures”. He went on to tweet, “speeches to non-partisan audiences (e.g. Miliband now) generate no applause and come across as very, very dull…”
Max’s observations get to the heart of the matter: speeches and lectures are very different creatures, and a speech that lectures its audience is invariably a bad speech. The problem is, that like many leaders on the left, Miliband’s speeches are infected by what I call the Enlightenment fallacy: a blind faith in the power of reason – and evidence – to affect people’s beliefs.
Miliband would do well to read Drew Westen’s insightful book on of the role of emotion in politics, ‘The Political Brain’. Westen makes the counterintuitive point that, in the first of the presidential debates with George W. Bush, Al Gore shot himself in the foot by using (accurate) facts and figures in an effort to undermine his opponent’s credibility. Bush’s riposte was simple and devastating, “Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math.”
Even now, if you view the debate from an Enlightenment perspective, Bush comes over as an affable, if somewhat dim, Average Joe, who is way out of his depth when it comes a grasp of the facts and figures of policy. So why is it that, despite Gore giving Bush a beating on all the rational arguments, this debate marked the beginning of a decisive shift of public opinion in favour of Bush?
The answer is that Bush’s persona helped him win the emotional argument. Despite being a scion of one of the US’s most privileged families, Bush succeeded in playing the role of an ordinary guy who understands, and sympathises with, the trials and tribulations of other ordinary guys who struggle each day to do the best for themselves and their families.
By comparison, Gore came over as a remote, privileged, East Coast intellectual who was more concerned with numbers than people. Bush was a regular guy you’d be happy to have a beer with; Gore, on the other hand, appeared to be part human, part calculator. Miliband’s advisers would do well to recall this debate next time they’re tempted to post a story about Ed being able to solve a Rubik’s Cube in one minute 20 seconds.