Vince Cable’s speech at the Lib Dem party conference seemed chaotic and anti-market, where his Labour predecessors might have positioned themselves more skilfully at a mid-point between business and detractors of the free market.


First, let me hold up my hands and say

Vince Cable speaks to the Lib Dem party conference

1. I know this train of thought has little or nothing to do with climate change, but it interested me to explore some rhetoric as part of a wider project of thinking about communications.

2. My understanding of party political speeches is limited to what I read in the papers, and doubtless major conference speeches are carefully tailored to many different audiences and speechwriters do not just knock out anything they think sounds good and there are many layers there I can’t begin to fathom. So by all means take my thoughts with a pinch of salt.


In watching Vince Cable’s speech today to the Liberal Democrat party conference and the subsequent news coverage I found myself asking WWBD? – what would Blair do? The Business Secretary and high-profile Lib Dem coalition member’s staff leaked phrases which appeared on the Guardian website last night including his intention to “shine a harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour” and “Let me be quite clear…the government’s agenda is not one of laissez-faire. Markets are often irrational or rigged”. These turns of phrases suggested an aggressively anti-business and anti-market approach that made the headlines but was nothing like the detail of the speech itself, which at one point explicitly agreed with Adam Smith.

Blair: Still in many ways the yardstick for political public speaking. He and his team earned the reputation "sultans of spin"

Buried as I am in the former Prime Minister’s autobiography, my impression is that the new Labour project in general and Blair in particular, always seemed to have a knack for stating their own mid-point between two positions. Most clearly this came from their positioning between the far left of Old Labour and the hard right of the Tories, but also time and again on other issues. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” springs to mind, but a quick flick through the internet shows me “An Age of Achievement is within our grasp – but it depends on an Ethic of Education” from Blair’s 1996 Ruskin speech. Both of these deliberate sound bites take a straightforward statement and modify it with a balancing statement to show the two strands of ideas being reconciled.

Rethinking capitalism

Cable similarly presented two ideas in his speech and vaguely sought to reconcile them. But the soundbites were unequivocal and the reality of the speech seemingly fudged. He argued at one point “we need successful business” but followed up that statement with two paragraphs of strong anti-capitalist rhetoric. He later returned to the need to drive growth in a section on where it would come from and has protested elsewhere that he is resolutely not as anti-business as the main soundbites from his speech suggest, but the overall impression was of schizophrenia rather than reconciliation of two conflicting perspectives into, if I may use the phrase, a third way.

My impression is that Cable, following much of the current climate of opinion is looking for a new model for capitalism, a popular topic following the banking crash and disillusionment with market economics. I can give you no better evidence of this wider sense of a public discussion moving that way than the recent New Statesman article on the recent wave of books on this topic. His suspicion of large-scale corporate takeovers, his chastisement of banks while also explicitly intending to rely on them to fuel recovery and his rhetoric in today’s speech of reining in capitalism to create “a level playing field for small business” suggest he favours state invention as a means of managing and aiding market capitalism. It is as if he divides his ideas into encouraging “good” aspirational, competitive, hard-working business and “bad” greedy, oversized and powerful business. If this state-enabled capitalism is his key message – and that’s a big “if” – it is not coming across.

Toby Ziegler, the fictional White House Director of Communications and principle speechwriter on TV series "The West Wing". Hero and inspiration to many fans

Your blogger’s failed Toby Ziegler moment

I thought I’d try my hand at writing a New Labouresque soundbite to this effect and see if I have a future as a West-Wing style political operator. This has gone absolutely nowhere, but here are my attempts:

Markets must be allowed liberty, but not licence” – not clear enough.

The wild horses of markets power our economy, but should not be allowed to stampede through the town” – ridiculous flowery metaphor.

A friend to business, an enemy to business gone bad” – “business gone bad” sounds absurd, vaguely like a zombie movie.

We must chart a middle course between the rock of too much government management, stifling innovation and restricting growth, and the hard place of markets raging out of control and damaging that same growth” – tortuous attempt to fit an idea round a cliché.

Lessons for climate change communication

Perhaps nothing too clear-cut, but there is no doubt that there are examples of polarisation in climate change debates to be overcome, not only the rethinking of climate sceptics following the storm of “climategate” but also the need to reconcile adaptation and mitigation, market approaches and bottom-up approaches, technological development and behaviour change and climate change with peak oil and sustainability. Much as New Labour tried to hold onto the support of both the old left and the centre-left middle class, so climate change policy and rhetoric may need to drag together nature-loving conservationists and hard-nosed economists.

Food for thought.