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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The most brutal speech I ever heard

We need more great oratory in Westminster, not less

Image: The New European

It was good to see Labour commit to the teaching of oracy – speaking clearly and confidently – when Keir Starmer made what is doubtless one of many pre-election school visits recently.

Now let’s turn to oratory – skill or eloquence in public speaking – and think of this question… what recent parliamentary speech or speaker has made a lasting impression on you?

Back when I was covering parliament for the Mirror, there were plenty of MPs who, when their names came up with a little “bong” on the Commons annunciator, would inspire politicians and journalists to scurry into the chamber. Not just the big beasts like Thatcher, Heseltine and Powell, Kinnock, Healey, and Benn, but backbenchers aplenty, too.

Today’s MPs will argue that the problem is that today’s media don’t cover politics as they used to, and are only interested in drama and division, scandal and personality, not real debate. And they have a point. Equally, 24/7 news and social media have changed the lens through which the country views parliament and the broader political debate. However, I think they underestimate the power of good oratory – as opposed to good tactical posturing and point-scoring – in shaping debate and winning support.

The issue came up when Rory Stewart and I did a live Rest Is Politics show in Edinburgh, and were asked to choose our favourite parliamentary speech. I went for one you can Google as “John Smith and the man with the non-Midas touch”, when the former Labour leader tore into then prime minister John Major. It was brutal. But because it was funny, even the Tories behind Major had to sit there smiling, with the heavy realisation falling on them that what Smith was saying was true. 

That was June 1993, and within a year, Smith was dead from a heart attack, a big moment in my life because it led to me leaving journalism to work for his successor, and more importantly a big moment in the life of the nation, as the man widely expected to be the next prime minister was gone, and Tony Blair filled that gap.

I had chosen the speech before I knew that John’s widow, Elizabeth, and other members of the family were in the Usher Hall audience, and got a touching message from her afterwards. It was also good to hear from his daughter, Catherine, who with her mum and former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale are the driving forces of the John Smith Centre, that there will be a host of major events around the 30th anniversary of his death next year. The centre, based in Glasgow University, aims to promote the values of public service in which John believed, and active participation in practical politics.

Rory Stewart also chose a speech by a Labour politician, namely then foreign secretary Hilary Benn, in the debate on whether to mount air strikes against Syria after Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2015. It was all the more dramatic and powerful because behind him was Jeremy Corbyn, the leader clearly uncomfortable with every word falling from his colleague’s lips. 

As ministers and shadow ministers toil on draft upon draft of their speeches for the upcoming party conferences, they could do worse than watch the Smith and Benn speeches. Smith’s killer weapon was wit. Benn’s was utter conviction. Put the two together, add a bit of oracy and good wordsmithery, and you have a winning formula for skill and eloquence in public speaking. Aka oratory. We need more of it, not less.

How many housing ministers do you think we have had since David Cameron became PM? Fifteen. Yes, 15 in 13 years. If ever you needed a stat to summarise the utter dysfunctionality of the Tory omnishambles, surely that is it. 

The longest serving was the first, Grant Shapps, who managed to stay in the job for over two years. He has since then had nine different ministerial positions, five in the past year.

Number 15 is Rachel Maclean. The journalist Lewis Goodall was interviewing her onstage at the National Housing Federation conference in Birmingham’s splendid International Conference Centre, where I was waiting to go on after her. 

Goodall gave her a reasonably tough time over the government’s housing record, but then threw her what in the trade we call a “full toss”. He asked her how the housing crisis would be different in six years’ time “if you win the election and have another term?”

Continuing with the cricket analogy, Maclean looked like Jimmy Anderson had just bowled the ball of his life and her middle stump had been sent flying. The audience started to chuckle as people sensed her struggling to compute the idea that someone was asking her to imagine a Conservative win in the next election.

Mindset is so important in a campaign. As things stand, the Tories must convince themselves they can win, and Labour need to convince themselves they can lose. And if that sounds odd, the Tories need to get some confidence, or they will sink; Labour need to crack down on the slightest hint of complacency, and do every single thing, big and small, to turn a by-now generally accepted likelihood to win small, into the reality of winning big.

I had a wonderful hour in Freshford primary school, a few miles from Bath, where I was bombarded with questions, views and ideas from children who frankly seemed to have a better understanding of the challenges facing the world than a lot of their betters and elders.

We had a series of votes to decide what were the most important issues, and climate change won by a landslide. More importantly, they had a good sense of what the issues were, and of some of the ways we might address them. Renewables. Carbon capture. Fossil fuel transition. Plastics at sea. Species loss. Air quality and asthma. 

I’m not sure the nine-year-old me would have known anything like as much about whatever the big challenges were back in my primary school days.

Freshford is a fairly affluent area – Jacob Rees-Mogg territory – but they also had an understanding that we needed to do more to help poor people, both at home and abroad. 

One of the children asked me if I supported lowering the voting age, and I said yes, from 18 to 16, at which point a hand shot up, and a boy of nine said, “why not five? Then everyone would feel they were part of it, and be more interested”. His classmates laughed at the idea. But my God, if every primary school child was like these guys, it’s not as daft an idea as it sounds.

Oh yes, and of course, as with most sensible people these days, the vote to go back into the EU was landslide territory. And I didn’t even tell them what I thought before the vote!

As a teenager watching a Burnley game, I once loudly lambasted goalkeeper Alan Stevenson after his mistake led to a goal against us. “Do you mind?” said the woman next to me after a while, “that is my son.”

I thought of Mrs Stevenson a lot when I went on to become the target of hate and bile myself, which used to upset my mum a lot more than it did me. And I thought of her again when footballer Harry Maguire’s mother, Zoe, took to social media to condemn the treatment by football fans of her son. It is mob bullying, pure and simple, and Harry’s mum is right: it should stop.

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