Nick Clegg’s speech delivers on all fronts

by Stephen Tall on March 14, 2010

If Nick Clegg sounded a little hoarse from a sore throat throughout his leader’s speech to the Birmingham spring conference then it’s not surprising: he has been omnipresent in the media this week, winning the Lib Dems more coverage than I can remember outside of an election campaign.

The first responsibility of any Lib Dem leader’s speech is to forget that he is talking to the party faithful in the conference hall – they will vote for the party regardless – and to pitch directly to the wider public watching the speech live or on news bulletins.

The second responsibility of any Lib Dem leader’s speech is to remember that he is talking to the party faithful in the conference hall – and that he needs to fire them up for the election contest to come because it is their hard work which will deliver results.

So how did Nick’s speech measure up against those two responsibilities?

Well, the broadcast media coverage has been extensive, with Nick’s speech leading both BBC News 24 and Sky News. That in itself is a big success.

Just as importantly, though the media cannot (seemingly) avoid banging on about a hung parliament, Nick’s passages on the Lib Dems’ policy priorities are also being reported, in addition to some of his coruscating criticism of the Tories (“the world’s first offshore political party”) and Labour (their election slogan is “like advertising a second trip on the Titanic”).

A Lib Dem leader is at a disadvantage when addressing conference: Labour and Tory leaders can throw in new stuff, take a few risks, as its not their only time guaranteed some news coverage. For Nick, the challenge was clear: start the process of repeating the Lib Dems’ four election campaign priorities until not only we members can recite them by heart, but so that members of the public are aware of them, too. Nick is learning the discipline of repeating key messages time and time again (I’m deliberately avoiding the phrase ad nauseum). With fewer than eight weeks til polling day, this was no time for new initiatives, and this was a calculatedly policy-driven speech.

What did Lib Dem conference-goers make of it? The insta-response is overwhelmingly positive – here are a handful of this afternoon’s #ldconf tweets:

  • JasonJHunter Well, I’m back online after a FANTASTIC #ldconf Nick was a SUPERSTAR today – and if anyone had any doubts about his leadership – Think AGAIN
  • MShapland Now leaving #LDconf Clegg proved that only the Lib Dems can deliver change that works for you: its game time!
  • CllrDaisyBenson I have never felt this much passion from Clegg. Everyone has to see this speech #ldconf (via @chriswiggin)
  • sarabedford Leaving #ldconf feeling uplifted and ready for the campaign. Excellent, passionate speech from @nick_clegg.
  • annaarrowsmith Nick Clegg’s speech was excellent, excellent, excellent!!! I’m all stirred up to start my campaign in Gravesham…

Finally, a word about the party’s general election slogan, Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain. The slogan (and the logo) has had its fair share of critics, within and beyond the party, for being an over-wordy, composite mish-mash.

Yet what was clear today from Nick’s speech was two things. As my LDV co-editor Mark Pack tweeted straight afterwards, “V passionate speech from @nick_clegg at #ldconf – and party slogan works well as repeated refrain through speech”.

And just as important as the slogan’s narrative is the way it asserts the Lib Dems’ equidistant independence from both Labour (whose slogan is fairness) and the Tories (whose slogan is change). As Nick said in one of his concluding passages:

Vote Lib Dem get change.

Vote Lib Dem get fairness.

A vote for the Liberal Democrats is not a vote for anyone else. It is your guarantee of real change that works for you.

A vote for the Liberal Democrats is a bold commitment to hope and opportunity. It’s a vote that says: I want government to be honest and open. I want a green economy. I want fairer taxes. I want a fairer future for my children and for all our children.

This was a passionate speech from Nick. Perhaps more significantly for the party’s prospects at the general election, this was also a professional and disciplined speech.