Barndoor Strategy’s Roger Evans turns his expert eye to each of this year’s party conference speeches.
Jo Swinson – Speech to the 2019 Lib Dem Conference
I rather like Jo Swinson. She seems to be the sort of person you could trust to look after the cat whilst you head off to Portugal for a week. You could return confident that your treasured pet would be in good health and wouldn’t have run off. Indeed, if she was following current Lib Dem Parliamentary tactics she might have taken in a few strays as well.
This was her first speech to the conference as Leader but she had to follow in the bootsteps of political giants like Guy Verhofstadt and Chuka Umunna – so how did she get on?
The speech lasted for just over 40 minutes. We know that the optimum length of any speech is 20 minutes and anything longer is an ordeal for the audience but longer performances are expected at party conferences. It does create a dilemma for the speaker who has to keep the audience alert long after the twenty minute deadline has passed. Varying your tone, pace and having a structure can help.
Jo started by paying tribute to Ed Davey who she defeated in the leadership race then to previous leaders Tim Farron and Vince Cable. She led the applause herself which is a very good idea at the start of a speech to such a big audience. Large crowds have a frustrating inertia so you need to get them used to clapping and laughing at jokes right from the start. This is hard work initially but it pays off later.
She also paid tribute to the late Paddy Ashdown, managing the emotional change of pace well.
She talked about the ‘Shared endeavour to make politics bold, fearless and determined’ and celebrated the election of their MEPs, their 7 new MPs and over 700 new councillors. She asked new members to stand up or raise their hands – a risky move with some audiences but a conference audience responds well to this sort of involvement.
Having warmed them up effectively, she opined that the Tired Old Parties Have Failed. This is where she stated that there was ‘No limit to my ambition for my party or my country’ and added she was ‘Your candidate to be Prime Minister’, gaining lengthy and sustained applause. Good lines that subsequently made the right headlines.
She quoted a letter from Olivia, aged 14, who was worried about the effects of Brexit on younger people and had joined the Lib Dems to campaign against it.
‘We Must Stop Brexit’ she stated, promising that ‘A Lib Dem Majority Government will Revoke Article 50 on Day One’ to loud applause. This is a careful choice of words, leaving the way open for a more probable minority government or coalition to set this controversial pledge aside.
Jo turned to Scotland, stating ‘I am Scottish, I am British, I am European’ in a clear bid for Scottish Remain votes. The implication is that she will fight her Scottish seat at the election rather than seeking a safer berth – good for her.
She talked about her visit to the Northern Ireland Border then addressed the risks of Brexit including delays to medical supplies, loss of car manufacturing jobs and the Yellowhammer report.
Turning her attention to Boris she stated that he ‘lacks commitment’ which got a laugh from the audience. At 20 minutes in this was the first attempt at humour and there would be no more laughs – the Lib Dems take themselves seriously.
‘Being a woman isn’t a weakness – as he’s about to find out’ she declared, to very loud and enthusiastic applause.
She then turned her fire on Corbyn, condemning his record on the EU and claiming he is ‘Brexit by Nature’ to more applause.
Moving on from Brexit, Jo talked about her father and quoted great Liberals from history. Referencing their big ideas was a good way to introduce her own innovation – the Wellbeing Budget. This will set targets well beyond basic GDP to include the economy outside government and focus on wellbeing. It’s the sort of thing we used to hear from Labour under Blair.
The Climate Emergency would be tackled with a green investment bank, a climate risk register and a UK Citizens’ Climate Assembly all aiming to create a zero carbon UK.
Knife Crime would be tackled with a public health approach which was successful in Glasgow – once the ‘murder capital of Europe’ with 39 deaths in one year. There would be investment in youth services and a violence reduction unit.
Mental health also got a mention with a commitment to ring fence existing funding and a hat tip to retiring MP Norman Lamb.
With the policy statements concluded, the end was in sight. Jo recognised she didn’t have all the answers ‘We have enough Know It All Politicians’, pausing briefly for the laugh which didn’t come. Landing a joke in the middle of a serious speech is difficult as the audience don’t expect it and don’t know if they should laugh.
It was time to ‘Gather the forces of Liberalism’ and to ‘Welcome Fellow Travellers’ – a coded appeal for more MP defectors.
The Lib Dems are here to build a society for everyone – she listed them from babies to children, to youths to those with the ‘Wisdom of Years’, then added a few more groups. The list seemed endless and was quite cumbersome for a conclusion but she didn’t want to be accused of leaving anyone out – a good example of the Diversity Deficit.
At the Next Election they would fight to win a ‘Brighter Future’ she concluded to loud applause and some unexpected whistling.
Jo delivered the speech standing and without any obvious notes but the scripting was very tight and professional. She had good short lines so that she didn’t appear rushed or trip over her words. Her delivery is serious and business like, Blairite but without the messianic qualities of Blair. Middle managers will recognise and respect the style.
There was very little humour, only one joke and I suspect they agonised about putting that in as it was effectively an attack on the moral character of the Prime Minister. It felt out of place when set against her wider personal branding.
Some of her lists were quite long and that makes the content hard to remember. I always suggest that speakers use shorter lists, usually no more than three points as people naturally remember things in threes.
But a Lib Dem audience likes lists of commitments so it was all good for them and the rest of us got to see her best lines on the news. The speech worked with the crowd and it was a good, solid first outing for a new leader.