For leaders of the opposition, first impressions count. It is for this reason that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour conference speech next Tuesday may be the most important he ever gives. As Ed Miliband’s former pollster James Morris wrote of the leadership candidates on The Staggers in August: “Define themselves in the right way from the start and they have a fighting chance of being Prime Minister in 2020. But, as Ed Miliband discovered, if they get off on the wrong foot it may never be possible to convince the public to think again.”
Having traditionally read his addresses from paper, Corbyn has started using an autocue for the first time. As he told ITV News this afternoon: “I have done a lot of public meetings in my life. Indeed I spoke at 100 events during this leadership campaign and I’ve spoken at very many huge public events over the years.
A speech to the Labour party conference is slightly different because at one level you’re appealing to your own party and trying to give a message and direction to your own party and at the other you’re trying to deal with political debate and appeal to wider national and international audience. I have to say I have never used an autocue in my life before. It’s an interesting challenge. I have tried it out. It’s interesting.”
Should Corbyn use on autocue on Tuesday – and he may choose not to – he will avoid the danger of forgetting lines of his speech, as he did in his recent TUC address (when his assertion that the Tories still viewed the trade unions as “the enemy within” was omitted) and as Miliband did last year. It is Neale Coleman, Corbyn’s director of policy and rebuttal, who has written the first draft of the speech. The Oxford-educated classicist was poached by the Labour leader from Boris Johnson’s team having previously worked for Ken Livingstone. The test of Corbyn’s speech will be whether he can speak to the country, rather than merely the hall, and whether he has a policy newsworthy enough to avoid the inevitable splits defining the conference.
Now listen to George discussing Labour party conference on the NS podcast: