Ed Milliband almost let me down this week. The reason for this had nothing to do with the contents of his speech, but everything to do with the fact that it seemed to come as a surprise to every journalist and political commentator wheeled out to talk about it afterwards.
Until his speech I’d been getting wound up to the point of blogging about how nothing in politics comes as a surprise any more. Every speech, be it to a conference or Parliament, is preceeded by a news story beginning with the words ‘in a speech today x is expected to say...’
If you haven’t noticed this just google the words ‘expected to say that’and over several pages you’ll find a dazzling array of examples including‘Danny Alexander is expected to say “Fair taxes in tough times means everyone playing by the same rule book,’ ‘ Yvette Cooper is expected to say: "Look at the Libor scandal that emerged this summer. It is a multibillion pound fraud,’ and ‘George Osborne is expected to say that he’s never ate a pasty in his life, but did once have a sausage roll and understands the dietary issues that face the working class.’
All of a sudden, Milliband appeared to have bucked the trend, and I lost the chance to moan, but then I came across this on the ITN website “In a highly personal keynote speech to the Labour conference, Mr Miliband will draw on his own memories of attending a comprehensive school in north London, and speak of classmates failed by the education system because they were not suited to academic exams and university.” Normal service was resumed.
Why this irritates me so much is that it’s another example of a world where people are so impatient that they can’t wait for an event itself, and everything has to be trailed in advance. For example, unlike any other person ever to sing a Bond theme, Adele cannot wait until the official announcement, she has to tweet about it to a world who also don’t want to wait four days till something that we all knew anyway is finally made public. Newspapers do the same. The Guardian a few weeks ago had at least two ‘stories’ that were little more than teasers for interviews elsewhere in the paper. One was with JK Rowling, and the other was, once again, Danny Alexander. Is there such a lack of real stories that papers have to make quotes from their own interviews into separate articles? Just take some pages out rather than repeat the same thing twice.
This trend for sneak previews began with TV, and the same nervous executives with attention deficit disorders that decided we couldn’t be trusted to tune in on two seperate weeks for a mini-series, we had to watch on consecutive nights in case we lost all interest and forgot about it. They then decided that even if a programme was on the next night, we might still not tune in if we didn’t have some idea about what was coming, and as a result they gave us the twenty-second glimpse of the next episode that is meant to give us a scene that we’ll be eagerly waiting for, but actually destroys any of the suspense by showing us the hero will still be alive, and the villain will strike again.
I can only assume that political advisers believe they have to satisfy the same level of impatience and imagined anticipation when it comes to political speeches, but political conferences are not rock gigs. Do they imagine a whole conference, or nation, full of people sitting through a 90 minute long speech waiting for the words ‘Look at the Libor scandal’ to emerge, just as they would wait for the opening bars of Mr Brightside to tell them their favourite song is on the way at a Killers gig, or for the lights to focus on the guitarist at a rock gig to tell them this is the long solo and it’s time to go to the bar?
It doesn’t happen, and, with the exception of the power and style of delivery that Milliband managed on Tuesday, it just means there are no real surprises coming from the party conferences or any other political speech. Maybe it’s ‘focus group’ politics taken to its logical end with every announcement tested in advance for consumer satisfaction, so that any unpopular ones can be quickly replaced with a sanitised family-friendly ending. I seem to remember that this was what happened with David Cameron at last year’s Tory party conference, where a controversial part of his speech was trailed and quickly altered after it was clear that it was not popular. I tried to google this to find out what the announcement was, but googling ‘David Cameron u-turn announcement’ produced more results than ‘expected to say that,’ and discovering this was where I decided to end this post.
In my next post, I’m expected to say a lot more rubbish about anything that is getting on my nerves. Bet that’s got your attention.