Why Ed Miliband’s Speeches Need More Heart

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.


  1. insightful as always Martin and I’ve not read any of the books you reference – question is can a person seemingly without a personality fake empathy with their audience…
    warm wishes

  2. Ian Kaye says

    Excellent article Martin. I’m not sure if Ed has the personality to put over a speech which is not only well argued but appeals to the ordinary guy’s emotions. I’d suggest that he attends one of your courses or that you have several sessions with him one a one-to-one basis.

  3. Martin
    The enlightenment fallacy is spot on. People make choices and changes based on emotion and all that facts do is distance us from emotion. Yet in a time of converging policies and facing a political opponent who is very adept at tugging emotional strings, how does Milliband show the strength of his analysis and win a debate without resorting to dog whistle politics? Or is that what he really must embrace?

  4. Brilliant and persuasive article, Martin, and for sure you should be working directly with Ed Miliband. Neil, Ian: I don’t agree that it’s a question of personality, however. More in line with Martin’s ‘Englightenment fallacy’, perhaps, I think the problem is that Miliband isn’t fully embodying his ideas and beliefs. See the work of Francisco Varela (‘Ethical Know-How’) for an explanation of the way empathy – and ultimately, morality – come from sense-based experience, from recognising the knowledge the body holds.

  5. IAN HEALY says

    “I think the problem is that Miliband isn’t fully embodying his ideas and beliefs”. [Kay]. On the nail for me Kay…the age old problem for successive Labour Leaders; an English conspiracy against daring to be real.

  6. Chris Halls says

    Ed Milliband could make a technically brilliant speech and get praise from all the speech writing experts but he still has no ideas seperate from the Tories and their big business paymasters. He also sees no role for the people in politics and has no faith in us.

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