Ken Livingstone is pretty good.

For the May ’12 Auracle newsletter I went looking through speeches made at the Labour Party Conference in autumn 2011. 

Why are parliamentarians so much weaker at public speaking than they used to be? Is it because I’m getting old? My theory is that the party system makes it less necessary for them actually to go out and engage with the electorate. Open primaries would help.

It took me only about 90 frustrated seconds to switch off Harriet Harman, because if in a couple of hours I can stop people needing to refer to a script at all, why does the deputy leader of the Labour Party need to be buried in hers? It’s pathetic!  For the same reason I meted out similar treatment to Ed Balls. Yes, I know the theory is that ministers need to make so many speeches that they have to have scripts much of the time; but these are not ministers. They’re out of office so that pressure is reduced. What is more this conference occurs just once a year so surely it warrants a little more effort.

And then, still scanning that Conference, I found myself watching Ken Livingstone

I quickly spotted manifold symptoms of nervous Hump at the beginning. I always say that everyone experiences The Hump and is never rid of it; but I also say that experienced speakers get better at disguising it. Livingstone disguises less well than I’d expect: he muffs a word in the first few seconds; his speaking rhythm is all to pot; he adjusts his stance unnecessarily; &c. It takes about 30 seconds for him to settle, but it’s worth waiting for.

As always I stress that it’s beyond my self-appointed brief to comment on what the message is, or to point out that later revelations cast a fresh colour on certain assertions. I didn’t do that to Al Gore and I shall not do it here (paralipsis? Perhaps just a touch). I shall restrict my comments to how this is delivered. My verdict, in a word, brilliantly. His eyes never leave his audience. His gaze swings back and forth a little metronomically, but in a calm unhurried fashion. He’s not using Perspex autocue screens. Is he using screens at the back of the auditorium? I can’t make up my mind!  Sometimes I think so. There’s a tiny indication at 3:09 when a descending cadence, “…leading Tory in Britain…” suggests that he thought wrongly that he’d ended a sentence. And periodically there are other kindred indicators of the material being read as distinct from being spoken spontaneously. But you do have to follow very closely to spot them – so closely that other times I decide that I am wrong.  He is very good at this.

I have declared often enough that politicians have audiences that are generally less tough than business people, and it shows in their frequently being surprisingly disappointing as speakers. Ken Livingstone is an exception on both counts.  He has habitually courted controversy and the tough audiences that are attendant upon that.  He has also – perhaps as a consequence – become a very adroit speaker. If I went to an event to hear a past trainee, and heard a speech delivered as well as this, I’d be well pleased.  It is no surprise that the London Mayoral elections became so captivating.  I’ll be having a look at his opponent very soon.

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