Ed Miliband: trying to re-connect
Ed Miliband’s first response to the Ukip victory in the European parliament elections will be to go to Thurrock, scene of one of Ukip’s major council advances, where they deprived Labour of control of the council. And that in a marginal parliamentary seat Labour should, on paper, win easily from the Tories in 2015. The Labour leader will repeat carefully crafted “lines to take” which will be targeted at the demographic that drifted off from Labour on Thursday – or in some cases charged out and slammed the door.
He will probably go through the theatre of speaking without notes. But he’ll be speaking words carefully learnt and words that have probably kept him and his advisers agonising over the last few days and burning the midnight oil. And that, perhaps, is part of the problem.
His mentor, Gordon Brown, has some claim to having pioneered the short TV sound-bite in this country. At a time when the Labour party was trying to escape from years of mixed messages and indiscipline, and convince voters it could be trusted to run the country, Gordon Brown and the New Labour team insisted on strict adherence to the line. “Interviews” with Gordon Brown were nothing of the sort, particularly as shadow chancellor and chancellor. He would repeat the same answer no matter what you asked until you couldn’t endure it any longer and gave up. You can see here how Ed Miliband learnt from the master. And, of course, Ed Miliband is not the only one, and Labour not the only party, to rehearse its focus-grouped lines and try to stick to them.
But the established parties face a political insurgent in Nigel Farage who speaks fluent pub. I’m not sure he always did. Look at this 1997 clip and you see a younger, rather brittle Farage. But whether he learnt his style or it developed naturally as his confidence grew – it connects.
Yesterday, Mr Farage’s language was peppered with a lot of combative demotic. He was introduced as the man who’d given the established parties “a bloody nose”, he boasted that he led an “army”, he mocked his opponents with what sounded like cruel relish. Candidates to run the nation and unite it can’t engage in that sort of stuff. But they can’t use language that sends people to sleep either.
Like Boris Johnson, Ken Clarke and few others in politics, Nigel Farage’s language breaks the code, the managerial speak that infects politics. All three of these politicians could be accused of being broad brush politicians who don’t concern themselves with the detail. And detail matters. We insist our elected leaders command detail.
But we listen to them. Boris Johnson enjoys using language creatively. Ken Clarke and Nigel Farage refuse to be hemmed in by the “line to take.” All three of them don’t know exactly where their sentences are going to end so we listen to the tightrope walk just as we listen to conversation. The hermetically sealed sound-bite laden with focus-grouped phrases is unnatural, unyielding and un-engaging. It has become a barrier to communication.
Ed Miliband has the added disadvantage, which should be relatively easy to clean up, of unnecessary verbiage. He says “what I believe is,” and “this is what I believe” a lot. Nigel Farage doesn’t have to. It is, in pub speak, bleeding obvious what he believes to anyone who has been listening.
It’s not all about language. But language can help or hinder your case. In the end, if he can’t change the way he speaks, Ed Miliband may have to start pushing others in his party who can in front of the camera. We’ll see how Ed Miliband does in Thurrock around 2pm.
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