Party conference – the seven types of leader’s speech we remember
This autumn, conferences give political parties and their leaders an opportunity to set the political weather. No more so than in the set-piece speeches leaders make to their party members, which double as an appeal to the outside world. Some become iconic – others disappear without a trace. But to become ones we remember, that get noticed outside of the political bubble, I suggest there are seven types of speech:
David Cameron’s 2005 Party Conference speech received a rapturous response from supporters, leading to the backing of more than 100 MPs in the contest to succeed Michael Howard as leader. Coming from behind, Cameron’s no-notes, confident display was the typical example of a launch (although perhaps not technically a leader’s speech.) The content is less memorable than the delivery but provides an example of how rhetoric can provide the launch for a leader in the public consciousness.
What every party leader wants – an epoch-framing conference speech that echoes across the ages. Something that defines a leader’s vision as an ‘ism’ and their acolytes (for they have plenty) as ‘ites’. Often, it takes a while to judge, as the speech itself must transfer into action – poetry into prose.
A exponent of her worldview and the revolution to come came in Margaret Thatcher’s first leader’s speech in 1975. Entitled ‘Let me give you my vision’, the speech did just that, with freedom as a cornerstone of what was to become Thatcherism.
Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech in 1963 is probably the closest we get to what a Wilsonian worldview was. Modern, technocratic, outward-looking and a redefinition of Labour. As Wilson remarked, his was to "replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat” – and became emblematic of the 1960s themselves.
Usually at the beginning of a term in office, or just before. The speech where a leader sets out a memorable offer to the electorate. A key example is Tony Blair’s infamous ‘education, education, education’ conference speech in 1996 where his party’s three priorities in coming into power were rammed home.
Less precise but no less memorable, John Major’s 1993 ‘back to basics’ mantra was the closest articulation of what his government was about after his party’s surprise electoral win the previous year. A mood, a focus, often a set of clear policy priorities, but not quite the era-defining speech of those above.
The fight (Part I: the party)
A defining, positive vision for what you want to do is the leader’s ideal, but quite often you may end up with a fight within your party – as a prelude to power, or perhaps instead of. Framed to show change from what went before, these can represent real divisions and bring forth clear vitriol.
The best example, and perhaps the best speech seen at a party conference, is Neil Kinnock’s 1985 attack on Liverpool’s Militant tendency. Raw, uncompromising, dramatic and an example of an orator at the peak of his powers (understandable to see why Joe Biden is a fan), this was a fight for the party. Ultimately though, while the party changed, the speech did not lead to the electoral victory Kinnock so desperately craved.
A decade later, Tony Blair’s first conference speech aimed to be a confrontation with the party to show the electorate it had changed (planned changes to the obscure Clause IV of the party’s constitution, which committed the party to public ownership). Less of a dramatic fight, but a significant first step in Blair’s drive to modernise the Labour Party and then the country. And a re-run of another Labour Leader, Hugh Gaiskell, and his aborted effort to do the same following his party conference speech back in 1959.
The fight (Part II: retaining the crown)
Politics is obtaining and retaining power. And when leadership is under threat from within (the leader of the other party is a given) action must be taken. Perhaps Gordon Brown’s most memorable speech came in 2008. Faced by the youthful but inexperienced David Cameron, Brown’s line “I’m all in favour of apprenticeships. But this is no time for a novice” was double-edged. Directed at David Cameron yes, but also at David Miliband, the foreign secretary and pretender to the crown.
As a party leader often has several Party Conference speeches to make in opposition before the prospect of entering Downing Street, there is often one known for a focus on their back story. In 2021, Keir Starmer focused heavily on his background, and in particular his father’s occupation as a toolmaker. Less able to focus on any financial hardships of his own, David Cameron in 2006 drew attention to his heartfelt struggles in getting NHS treatment for his disabled son and being “so often in the hands of the NHS”.
A back story humanises. It is easy to criticise an ill-thought-through policy, or rhetoric that misses the mark. Harder to deride a story that connects. Politicians need this to forge a path to electoral success – a human story, an element of frailty, but above all something that shows leadership qualities and resilience to overcome. A story that shows why they can ultimately lead a nation.
Last, the leader’s speech as a collapse or a death knell to their time as leader. Theresa May’s 2017 conference speech – in which a coughing fit, a collapsing backdrop and a prank P45 showed to the public so clearly that things at the top were not going well. Although more than a year before the first no-confidence vote in her leadership, her authority never recovered. In 2003, Iain Duncan-Smith’s leadership died more quickly when instead of a chance to turn up the volume, his party mercilessly unplugged. A leader not even allowed to face the electorate.
Party conference speeches are of course meant to do many things – to enrage, to encourage, to move, to inspire. In reality, they become a marker or perhaps fade away completely.
Whatever next month has in store, the chance to add to the lexicon of conference speeches, and to potentially define our era, is endlessly fascinating for followers of British politics.