Saturday, October 08, 2005

Speech Or Newsnight?

Matthew Parris says:

'The Conservative Party and the news media, in concert, decided that a single performance amid the mildewed and peeling former glories of the Blackpool Winter Gardens must be the acid 21st-century test of a leadership candidate’s virtue.

We wanted candidates to learn their speeches by heart if they could. We forced them to perform in front of us, to make jokes, to move, amuse and engage us. Then we counted how long we clapped them for.

Five men went into that strange, ancient contest with their relative strengths more or less agreed by the bookmakers — and came out of it with the odds in every case radically reassessed. And all on the basis of public oratory. What a delightfully odd way to choose a leader.'

He's right. With years of hard graft ahead, picking a leader on the basis of trial by platform speech is plain daft.

Long before 11.40am on Wednesday we all knew platform speeches were not DD's strongpoint. And, as we've said before, he actually did a perfectly fine job.

But the contest had by then been reduced down to this single dimension- perform or die.

Naturally, in the sweaty atmosphere of Blackpool, conspiracy theories were easy to find. Clearly the Cameron media people had been busy briefing their mates that DD's speech was make or break. So the BBC's Nick Robinson popped up even as Davis was still taking his standing ovation to tell viewers it wasn't good enough.

But, you know, we can't blame DC's team for that. They did an excellent job, and all credit to them. After all, the political media are a branch of showbiz, and they naturally want stars.

Another theory had it that the dark forces of Howard/Maode/Monbiot only stretched out the contest this long so that DD could be put at precisely this disadvantage against Conference crowd pleaser DC. But then again, under the original H/M/M leadership plan, members wouldn't have counted anyway, so why bother?

Much more interesting is the question of that Newsnight focus group, with Frank Luntz. They showed a group of voters- all of whom reckoned they would consider voting Tory- videos of the five leadership candidates, and got them to register their responses. The result was that DC went off the top of the chart. "Wow," gasped Luntz, "that's the best segment I have ever tested in politics!!"

There's no doubt this had a significant impact at the Conference, because it was shown on the Monday evening, just before any of the candidates spoke. As it happens, Mrs T and I were just getting into our jim-jams (not for us those life-threatening all-nighters at the Imperial), and she said "there you are- what have I been telling you?"

But take another look at that piece. The clip of DC which excites such a positive response is his admittedly brilliant launch speech from last week: relaxed, word perfect, open lecternless staging. In contrast, Ken is shown on an old-fashioned stage hectoring us about how great he is. And DD is shown delivering serious- but dull- comments on dealing with terrorism, and his ippr speech- heavy on policy, short on style, and poorly lit to boot.

Biased? Well, you must judge for yourself. Not difficult I suggest.

For those that don't know, Luntz is the highly controversial American Republican pollster who invented Luntzspeak. The basic idea is that language is very important, and by choosing the right words, politicians can win over voters without going through the tiresome business of actually meeting their policy demands. For example, he advises:

"Women consistently respond to the phrase 'for the children' regardless of the context. From balancing the budget to welfare reform, 'for the children' scores highest of all arguments offered. Therefore, rather than creating a 'Compassion Agenda,' Republicans need to create a communication framework that involves children ... ."

Get the idea? Sound familiar at all?

Anyway, this guy was running the Newsnight focus group. It was a masterclass in the black arts, as he edged those poor voters away from what you or I might see as non-Luntzian candidates (ie those who are wedded too firmly to actual policy substance), and towards...well, the sorcerer's apprentice.

But maybe that's just me. As Mrs T keeps saying...most people just don't care about all that policy stuff.


PS On further reflection, maybe DD should get him on board pronto. Or has he already been hired by someone else?
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