Over the years I have listened to or read countless speeches--some good, many poor and others downright tedious. I remember being told many years ago that the essence of a ‘good’ speech is that it should have a beginning—where you outline what you’re going to say—a middle—where you say it—and an ending—where you sum up what you say. I was also told that a good speech should have a clear theme—or ‘narrative’ in today’s parlance—and should make no more than three points. Another rule of speech-making that I am reminded of is that if you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it…there’s no point in making a pointless speech. And finally, length of time speaking is no guarantee of a good speech…Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered in a few minutes and is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of public oratory while the two hour oration by Edward Everett that preceded it is now largely forgotten.
Yesterday's speech by Jeremy Corbyn was, if these suggestions are valid, was far from being a good speech. It went on too long…55 minutes. It had no clear theme apart from persistent calls for a ‘kinder’ new form of politics, whatever that means: ‘a different Britain, a better Britain, a more equal, more decent Britain’. It lacked real substance…perhaps not surprising as he has only been leader for a few weeks. As a result it was more a ramble through aspirations, past personal commitments and principles that spoke to his already committed audience in the conference hall but had precious little to say to convince those outside the hall who he needs to convince that Labour really does have an alternative political strategy. Unsurprisingly, it went down well with his supporters and has been roundly criticised by commentators and the press. For me, it was a bit like a really nice uncle sitting me down and giving me a talk about what politics should be about. But perhaps that’s the whole point of the Corbyn discussion.
You may find many of the things Jeremy is saying appealing. As an email I received from him this morning said: ‘are [you] fed up with the inequality, the injustice, the unnecessary poverty – and if you are too, I say this: join us. Join us and help strengthen this movement. Join us, and help us beat the Tories in 2020.’ It’s difficult to disagree with this unless you think that inequality, injustice and poverty are a necessary part of our modern society. It’s a bit like saying ‘let those of you without sin throw the first stone’ and there’s no doubting the sincerity or, as the media would have it, ‘authenticity’ of his message. By allowing a free vote on further intervention in Syria, something that appears now to be ‘policy’, he is acting on his long-held principle of reasoned opposition or, if you’re a cynic, recognising that Labour MPs would defy a party whip on the issue. But, I think that today he has made a major tactical blunder. Although it will appeal to his supporters and is perfectly in line with his own opinion that Trident should not be replaced, ruling out that he would not use Britain’s nuclear weapons if he was Prime Minister lays him open to the charge that a Corbyn government would be a threat to Britain’s national security. This is something on which he now has no room for equivocation and will lay him open from now until 2020 to the charge that he is prepared to leave the country’s defences seriously weakened. Speaking for himself is one thing but speaking for the nation is something different and Jeremy has yet to make that transition.