28 September 2009

If Mandelson has to struggle to win applause, what are the Labour party faithful saying?

In discussing Nick Clegg’s leader’s speech at the Liberal Democrat conference a few days ago, I touched on the concept of a 'noticeable absence':

“a simple but important concept in conversation analysis. It refers to instances where conversationalists notice that something that had been expected to be (or should have been) said is missing – e.g. if you don’t say ‘hello’ in response to someone who’s just said ‘hello’ to you."

Although speeches obviously differ in various interesting ways from conversation, 'absences' can be 'noticeable' there, as, for example, when audiences don’t applaud when they might have been expected to have done (e.g. after the speaker has just used one of the main rhetorical techniques that trigger applause).

Quite often, speakers not only notice when this happens, but implicitly acknowledge the absence of a response by using a 'last resort' technique, that's been referred to as ‘pursuing’ or going ‘in ‘pursuit’ of applause.

An neat example of this happened in the 1987 election, when Neil Kinnock produced used a three-part list to describe the Labour Party's manifesto as ‘cool, tough and unsinkable’. In the absence of instant applause, he went in pursuit with “That’s our manifesto that we launched today”, whereupon the audience started clapping.


There were several more examples of 'noticeable absences' and 'pursuits' in the excerpt from Peter Mandelson’s speech to the Labour Party conference that was shown on the BBC website earlier today (HERE or at the bottom of the page).

The first absence came after he’d just used an alliterative three-part list and a contrast between Labour and the Conservatives – to which he responded with a pursuit - “That’s what we’ve got to do” - that eventually got the applause under way.

After that, there were four more contrasts in succession, none of which (surprisingly) managed to prompt any applause at all – which only came after Mandelson had used another ‘pursuit’ as a last resort: “That’s the choice for the British people at the next general election.”


Although it may be of technical interest to note that the Labour Party audience were withholding applause at places were it should have happened, it’s arguably of greater political interest to inspect the content (rather than the rhetorical structure) of the messages that came before each of these noticeable absences. These were:

  1. the leadership of Gordon Brown
  2. the party is in the progressive centre of British politics
  3. the party knows it will have to meet global changes
  4. the shallowness of David Cameron

Taken together, it’s difficult not to conclude that the Labour party loyalists at the conference are less than enthusiastic when it comes to ‘showing their approval in the usual manner’ for Gordon Brown (1 and 4), being positioned in the centre of British politics (2) or being willing to change to meet global events (3).

If I’d been one of the original architects of new Labour or a strategist aiming for electoral success next year (like Brown and Mandelson), I’d find these particular noticeable absences, coupled with the need to use ‘pursuits’ to get any applause at all, more than a little worrying.

You can see what you think by reading the transcript below whilst watching the video clip on the BBC website or at the bottom of the page.


We need to fight back. Of course we do.

But to do so successfully it is up to us to explain – with confidence, and with clarity and conviction – what the choice is between us and the Conservatives.

No applause.

Pursuit: That’s what we’ve got to do.


(A) The choice between a Conservative party – the choice between a Conservative party whose judgements on the credit crunch were wrong,

(B) or a party providing leadership (points at Gordon Brown) in the toughest of times.

No applause (for Gordon Brown?).

(A) A choice between a party A choice between a party that lurches to the right the second it sees a chance of doing so,

(B) or our party that is resolutely anchored in the progressive centre of British politics.

No applause (for being in the centre?).

(A) A choice between a party that does not understand the new world we live in or even what has happened in the last year,

(B) or a Labour Party that knows the world has changed and we that we have to change with it.

No applause (for the Labour Party?).

That’s the choice, conference, and I tell you too

(A) experience and change with Gordon’s leadership

(B) or the shallowness of David Cameron.

No applause (for criticism of Cameron?).

Pursuit: That’s the choice for the British people at the next general election




dreamingspire said...

I can't help wondering why they don't just tell the audience to go home and only come back again when they want to support this Labour government.
Just now I have been reading Kerry McCarthy's blog (albeit hasn't yet got today's conference report on it), and there is nothing about politics in its reports about Brighton. These people are supposed to be running the country.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to transcribe the speech - it makes it easier to follow the clip and see how the devices work (or not).


Max Atkinson said...

Chantal - Glad to heary ou find the transcriptions helpful. Luckily, it's easier done these days than when I started 30 years ago, when you had to do it yourself.
Now all you have to do is download the text from the internet and correct it (and, interestingly, corrections are always needed).

Dom said...

Just seen Mandelson's speech on youtube (I know, behind the times) so came here to see what you thought about it - and I think, for once, you've gone astray.

All of the lines you quote are terrible applause lines. They have the list/contrast, but they all tail off at the end. Like a joke's punchline, the important word needs to be at the end - both in terms of content and stress - and on that, Mandelson fails, so didn't get the applause.

Do you agree?