Ed Miliband

It's political conference season, and every year the three leaders give set-piece speeches designed to wow the party faithful - and the watching media. In the second post of the series, linguist Johnny Unger analyses how Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, used rhetoric to persuade his listeners.

Miliband's speech drew on many of the usual rhetorical features, but there are some interesting differences to Clegg's performance from last week. My thanks go to my live-tweeting colleagues @VeronikaKoller, @intweed and @adpaskhughes, who pointed out many of the features listed below.

Like Clegg, Miliband includes personal stories and narratives. However, unlike Clegg, Miliband starts off with a story used for comic effect rather than to create pathos. Judging by the social media reactions, both Clegg and Miliband seem rather better at doing this convincingly than Cameron has done in previous speeches. Miliband can do (fake) self-deprecation in a way that Cameron is unable to, and Clegg is unwilling to. He was also more convincingly informal, using phrases like "mums and dads" versus Clegg's "mother and father", and speaking without notes (though this had the feel of a "well-crafted" speech). The Labour leader also went for even more audience involvement, using call-and-response, tag questions ("doesn't it?"), and almost verging on panto style at times ("Oh come on, I didn't hear you, do the Tories get it?"). This went down well in the room, and was used by the producers of the event to underline his message, by focussing on audience members as they were participating, enjoying, looking pensive, etc. The audience was also placed around and above his position on a low stage, meaning the cameras almost always showed him in front of the adoring crowd, strengthening his image as "one of the people".

Throughout the speech, Miliband comes back to the refrain "Britain can do better" in various ways - he uses it to bookend his speech, and this repetition is an attempt to make his central message very clear. Using "Britain" to stand for "some people of Britain" is another example of what is often referred to as "metonymy", where one thing stands for another, though in fact many rhetoric scholars would more specifically term this "synecdoche" (where a part stands for the whole or the whole for a part). Clegg used "no" as a rhythmic element, Miliband uses "so": "so threatening… so basic and yet so powerful, so modest and yet so hard to believe," etc.

The slogan "One Nation" has an interesting history, and this is a good example of how a particular phrase or word can take on different meanings for different audiences, what my colleague Ruth Wodak calls "calculated ambivalence". For me, as a part-Australian, the term immediately evokes a strong negative reaction because it makes me think of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party, an Australian right-wing nationalist party. And arguably, Labour uses it to attract working-class UKIP, Conservative and Labour voters who have bought into the xenophobic ideology espoused by these parties. However, the term has a much longer history in Britain, as a friend told me: it was used by Disraeli, and subsequently by various figures in the Conservative party, and was then revived in the period after WWII, and particularly used by Conservatives opposed to Thatcher's free-market ideology. So again, Miliband may be trying to appeal to Conservative voters. It may also remind some listeners of the American Pledge of Allegiance ("one nation, under God"), an association which chimes well with Miliband's refrain of "Britain is better". Finally, it has a role in the debate about Scottish Independence, though I was rather surprised to see Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont speak earlier about nationalism as a "virus" with the slogan proudly displayed behind her.

Miliband tries to cement the image of Labour in government and himself as prime minister in various ways. He uses pronouns ("my government") and modality, which is the way speakers position themselves relative to a statement. In this case, Miliband talks about what he and the next Labour government *will* do ("I'll lead a government that fights for you"), rather than what they *would* do if elected, indicating his unshakeable confidence in the likelihood of his assertion that he will be leader and Labour will be in Government in 2015.

While Miliband critiques the "divide and rule" approach of the Tories, his own speech is not devoid of the "us and them" distinctions found in many political speeches, for instance "voices of hope" vs. "voices of fear". Voices are quite an important device in this speech, appearing 17 times as a metonym or as part of various metaphors - for instance, Miliband speaks of "a country that shuts out the voices of millions". There are many other metaphors, and a particularly noticeable one is a sports metaphor to do with racing. Miliband uses the word "race" 32 times in this speech, and like Clegg's wall metaphor, uses it to create quite elaborate images, and a strong opposition between a "race to the top" (under Labour) and a "race to the bottom" under the Conservatives. There are various instances of Miliband portraying himself as down-to-earth vs. Cameron's lofty elitism, for instance through the use of the metaphor "standing up to". I particularly enjoyed his yacht metaphor ("They used to say a rising tide lifts all boats, now the rising tide just seems to lift the yachts."). Often "flood" metaphors like this are used to talk about immigration, but here it is used for social mobility (and the perceived lack of opportunity under Tory government).

Following last week's blog post about Clegg's speech, I asked some of my colleagues what they thought of this kind of analysis. Several recognised the difficulty of conducting detailed analysis in real time. I was also presented with an interesting critique of my work (N.B. in my field we tend to see critique as a good thing - it makes our work better!). Several colleagues were not particularly convinced that these rhetorical "tricks" do actually work. They felt, partly on the basis of evidence from audience reaction studies, that an informed viewership will not be persuaded so easily, and that the meanings of particular rhetorical tricks change for different audiences in different contexts. David Pask-Hughes suggested that in fact the rhetorical tricks were at least partly responsible for voter disaffection. Moreover, by the time many viewers actually watch or hear about a speech, it has been dissected, chewed, digested and spat out again by media organisations with their own agendas, and thus the original rhetorical devices are used in different ways, to support arguments the original speaker might not have been trying to make. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is worthwhile for a discourse analyst to identify linguistic features like this, especially in real-time, to give precise names to common rhetorical features, to discuss with specialists and non-specialists how they might be affected by a speech, and above all to contribute to the discussion.

Follow Johnny Unger on Twitter, where he'll be live-tweeting his analysis of David Cameron's speech next week, @johnnyunger