Maiden Voyages - Labour Conference Edition
Tony Blair couldn’t bring himself to use the C word, though everyone expected it.
For decades you could barely move two yards at the seaside gathering of the tribes without someone shouting it at you, often with a warm smile, but for the new leader’s first conference speech, in 1994, the C word just felt wrong. “New Labour, New Britain,” the slogan said behind him, and that meant a new salutation. Blair would not call them “comrades”.
He went for “friends” instead. How very Mark Antony. Friends, workers, countrymen, lend me your votes. I come to bury failure, not to praise it. This was, he said from the start, his “vision” and he had that messianic look, the eyes gleaming and turning to the heavens, certain of his destiny.
The Politburo of grandees was still there, ranged behind him in three long rows like celebrity contestants on a rubbish game show, but it is clear on rewatching Blair’s speech that there was a fresh feel. They all look so young, so full of energy and optimism. Blair was at peak Bambi and the camera keeps picking up youthful future ministers: Gordon Brown, a soggy shirt away from being Kirkcaldy’s answer to Mr Darcy; David Blunkett, Jack Straw. Even John Prescott looked young.
Early on, Blair went back to the last change of government and mocked Mrs Thatcher’s incoming words with a call and response. “Where there was discord, is there harmony?” he asked. “Where there was error, is there truth?” The audience cried “NO!” each time. It’s always good to have audience participation. Blair was keen to emphasise that, while he was the messiah, this was a group project even if they were all dancing to his tune. A two-letter word runs through the speech: “We.” The royal we, maybe, but one that brought everyone on board. “When we make a promise, we must keep it.”
He acknowledged, though, that some had their doubts about him. “Some of you, I hear, support me simply because you think I can win,” he said, which drew a laugh. “Actually, that’s not a bad reason for supporting me.”
Not even Jeremy Corbyn’s most adoring fans can have voted for him in 2015 thinking he would win over the country. They wanted their party back. They certainly weren’t voting for someone who dealt in soundbites. The extraordinary thing about Corbyn’s first address was that it was still light outside when he finished. On and on he went, in a series of unconnected riffs, not only reading his script but also the stage directions. “Strong message here,” he said. Later on he said that “a refusal to stand up damages Britain’s standing”, but the speech fell flat. There was little in it to suggest a prime minister in waiting.
As Lord Mandelson remarked after this year’s defeat in Hartlepool, the past 11 general elections have gone “lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose”. If Keir Starmer is to break that sequence, he needs to start looking like a winner. A conference speech gives that chance. This is, his second as leader but last year’s, delivered in an empty arts centre in Doncaster as part of a virtual conference, was a dummy run. “The Tories have had as many election winners in five years as we have had in 75,” he said last year. “It’s time to get serious about winning. I didn’t come into politics to be in opposition.”
Neil Kinnock got that. In his first speech, 10 years before Blair, he reminded the comrades of the pain of election defeat and warned against amnesia. A year before he went to war with the Militant tendency in his most famous conference address, his words were more gently put yet no less pointed. There was plenty of Thatcher-bashing, red meat to the hall, but the most crucial section of an eloquent speech explained that no aspiration would be fulfilled in opposition.
“We must have power to house the homeless; we must have power to release the poor; we must have power to provide care for the sick, to refashion and extend the National Health Service,” he said. “Let us use that power to keep our promise of liberty and of peace. For that isn’t just the way to get power, it is also the way to keep power.” Some later called Kinnock “the Welsh windbag” – and wind power didn’t lead to real power – but as an orator few have matched him.
Ed Miliband also tried to talk of power. “There is nothing good about opposition,” he told his first conference in 2010. He said they needed to “learn some painful truths” about why Labour had lost power. He spoke of a fresh start, repeatedly calling himself “the new generation”. It made me think of a Pepsi advertising campaign. The nation preferred Coca-Cameron.
John Smith’s maiden conference speech as leader in 1992 was helped by coming two weeks after Black Wednesday. Phrases like “a government gripped by indecision, paralysed by fear and a Prime Minister plodding on to disaster” set a tone. He called John Major and Norman Lamont the Laurel and Hardy of politics. “Another fine mess they got us into.” The audience loved it. The problem, as Blair realised, is you need more than just saying “Tories bad”. You need to sell your own side. That is the challenge for Starmer in Brighton.
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics
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