What should a political speech try to achieve?

Implicit in my critique of Tim Farron’s William Beveridge Memorial Lecture is that to say a speech only contained what the audience likes to hear isn’t always a compliment.

Certainly, there are times when it can be; in the Liberal Democrat context, speeches at the party’s conference rallies are a good example of that. There are times when rather more of it in speeches would be welcome too. Malcolm Bruce’s session at the party’s recent Local Government Conference comes to mind on that.

But just as on some occasions it is a compliment, so too it should be taken as a criticism on others. Jonathan Calder (whose own take on the speech is well worth a read) put it well in 2011:

Time for Tim Farron to make an unpopular speech
Anyone can sound good arguing a popular case: the real test is making a speech that a lot of people are going to disagree with. Which brings us to Tim Farron…

My impression of Tim is that he is very good at saying things people agree with. So in Cumbria he is against second homes and in favour of farming subsidies and Kendal mint cake. And he is just as good at convincing party audiences that he is on their side too…

[But] now that Tim Farron is being spoken of as a possible party leader, he needs to risk the odd unpopular speech. Someone in that class cannot always be telling people what they want to hear.

Quite. Tim Farron may have been wise to play safe and mostly politely side-step my question in Saturday’s bloggers’ interview as to whether he felt there were any issues where he had work to do to persuade colleagues in the party to agree with him.

But leaders can’t always just say what other people already agree with. There’s a reason why in the party’s Parliamentary candidate approval process those who say ‘nothing’ in answer to the question ‘which current party policies do you disagree with?’ often get the closest questions.

Nor can a leader of more than a band of one never say anything their followers disagree with for not all the band will agree on every single thing.

And for a party at, shall we say, rather less than the level of support needed to win a single-party majority, there’s also the minor task for a leader to say things to people outside the party which they currently disagree with too.

That’s why the effective cheerleading skill is only part of what is needed from a successful leader. I’m still in Jonathan’s queue waiting, hoping for that controversial speech.

UPDATE: Duncan Hames made this point on Twitter in response –

It’s a fair point that in that conference speech Tim Farron did get up and make a speech to ask people to vote against something which he knew a large part of the hall was intending to vote for – so he was both sticking his neck out to disagree with many people and trying to persuade people who didn’t agree with him to change his mind. And yet… it doesn’t abolish the queue I’m in because Tim’s speech on that occasion only actually disagreed on one specific and briefly mentioned, albeit important point. He agreed with most of the amendment he was ‘opposing’ and only opposed the lines on the fiscal mandate with a brief reminder of already well-established arguments. So this speech is certainly a corrective caveat to my main point, but not something that removes it completely.

Tim Farron himself has also in some Twitter discussions triggered by the post pointed to a speech he gave to the Centre for Social Justice. I’ll return to that when I’ve had a chance to read that speech.

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