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  1. Election 2024
  2. UK Politics
1 July 2020updated 17 Jan 2024 7:06am

Does it matter if a political speech is good or not?

Yes! No. Perhaps.

By Stephen Bush

Does it matter that Boris Johnson’s speech yesterday wasn’t very good? By any objective standard it lacked a clear theme, and set out neither a particularly coherent vision, nor a map to turn the grand vision Michael Gove laid out at the weekend into a clear policy programme.

But how important is that, really? One of Jeremy Corbyn’s close allies once complained to me that too many political journalists see their job as theatre criticism: to focus on the quality of the delivery of a speech rather than its content. The political scientist Will Jennings complained yesterday that speeches are secondary: what matters is delivery.

A speech’s quality obviously matters because of the second-order effects it has on media coverage. But a speech doesn’t have to be good overall to do this – it just needs to clip well for the news bulletins. Nonetheless, while I think the focus on a speech’s delivery – that is, the literal manner in which it is expressed – is often a bit of a red herring, underlying rhetorical incoherence is almost always an expression of wider strategic or policy incoherence.

To take Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017-19 phase: in speeches and debates, Corbyn and his allies would drift between defending their project as a common-sense, fairly ordinary return to the social democratic mainstream of European politics, and a radical reimagining of the state that went well beyond orthodox social democracy. Some of Corbyn’s critics felt this was a deliberate bait-and-switch, but it actually betrayed a deeper unresolved tension within the project. That contributed to the incoherence of the 2019 manifesto and platform, and would, I suspect, have been a continuing point of tension and incoherence in a Corbyn-led government. This was in marked contrast to the 2015-17 phase, particularly Corbyn’s 2016-7 period, when there was near-unanimity around strategy and approach in the leader’s inner circle.

Coherence isn’t a prerequisite to winning and holding power, of course. In 2015, David Cameron, Nicola Sturgeon, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all had perfectly coherent pitches and platforms. Sturgeon won a landslide victory, while Clegg went down to landslide defeat, and Cameron defeated Miliband handily. The Conservative election pitch in 2019 was not particularly coherent but it was electorally successful (though its political success is as yet unproven).

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The biggest area of incoherence in Johnson’s speech is broadly: is this a new government or not? We saw that in the word-salad over austerity in 2010-15, which Johnson simultaneously rejected and defended, before arguing against the continuation of the furlough scheme on explicitly austerian lines.

And the biggest area of incoherence in government policy is, similarly, over the extent to which this is a new administration. We see that with many aspects of policy, not least education.

One of the most underappreciated public policy successes in England over the past two decades has been a significant increase in the quality of schooling: both in terms of how the United Kingdom itself assesses school performance, and, perhaps more importantly, in as far as international benchmarks are concerned. The UK has climbed the Organisation for Economic Cooperation’s Programme for International Student Assessment rankings as well, making significant improvements in the teaching of literacy and maths. (It has trod water as far as its international ranking on science teaching is concerned, of which, more below.)

While there is an open argument about whether we should speak of two eras of school reforms (that of New Labour from 1999-2007 and of Michael Gove from 2010-14) or simply of a long era of school reform from 1999 to 2014, with comparatively minor changes of emphasis, for our purposes it doesn’t matter. You can believe that the improvement in schooling is down to changes under Labour, changes under Gove, changes made in both eras, or that actually the structural changes were largely unimportant and that what really mattered were the long-term increases in teachers’ pay in the 1990s and 2000s, which improved the quality of the teaching profession and of school leadership.

All that matters for the purpose of this piece is the simple fact that schooling in England is significantly better, on average, in 2020 than it was in 2010, and was better, on average, in 2010 than it was in 2000. This improvement is particularly significant in cities and there is a real problem of so-called stuck schools – that is, schools that have continued to have poor grades and pupil outcomes despite repeated policy interventions – in towns and villages. But on the whole across England a pupil today is, on average, far better educated than they were 20 years ago.

Yet this fact is an orphan: it rarely intrudes on government policy discussions about supposed grade inflation in higher education, nor does it really have much impact on conversations about what the government wants to improve.

It’s not the only factor we should weigh against the idea that the increasing improvement in degree qualifications is about grade inflation (that the past 20 years have also seen a great deal of focus on improving teaching in universities means we should at the least be open to the idea that improvements in primary and secondary education have been accompanied by concomitant improvements in the provision of higher education), but it is, at the least, worth considering.

I suspect that the failure to produce very many electricians, plumbers and skilled traders in the UK is, far from being separate from the failure to produce as many high-quality science and engineering graduates compared to the mathematics and the arts, inextricably linked, and any policy intervention that successfully increased the number of young people becoming skilled traders would likely see an increase in the number of people studying for science and engineering degrees. But it’s difficult to achieve that progress if you don’t have a serious intellectual position around the government that has come before you – and the rhetorical confusion at the heart of Johnson’s speech is one that plays out across government policy.

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