Irony, repetition, metaphor: Corbyn speaks

Words, words, words: Jeremy Corbyn used the term ‘people’ 80 times during yesterday’s speech.

Jeremy Corbyn’s first address to the Labour Party conference in Brighton was eagerly awaited. Rhetoric is an ancient art — so how did this speech stand up?

Queues began at 10:45. By 13:00 they stretched right to the entrance of the Brighton Centre. The event everyone was waiting for did not begin until 14:22 — but when Jeremy Corbyn walked on stage for his first speech to the Labour Party conference, he received a standing ovation without even opening his mouth.

Since he was first elected, the unconventional new leader has been subjected to endless scrutiny over his friendly tone, ‘radical’ politics, and unpolished appearance. Yesterday he had the chance to define himself to the party he leads — and around 45 million voters.

‘Straight talking, honest politics’ claimed the large pink banner above his head. Did his speech live up to its claim?

Corbyn opened with a classic rhetorical device: irony. ‘Hardly anything of any importance at all has happened to me’, he said of his first two weeks as leader. He went on to make a series of jokes about the various ways the media has ‘taken a bit of an interest’ in him. It was a clever move — the self-deprecating style not only made his audience laugh, but presented a stark contrast to the ‘scary’ image painted of him in the press.

He went on to define his vision for a ‘kinder, more caring’ politics, adjectives which were repeated several times throughout his speech. He used repetition again when twisting the Conservatives’ warnings that Labour is a ‘threat to national security’. Six times in a row, he asked ‘where’s the security...?’ for examples of vulnerable British citizens affected by Conservative policies.

And style? He used rather memorable metaphors while praising the activists and young people getting involved in politics: they are ‘fizzing with ideas’ he said, and needed space to ‘explode’ into the joy of a new society.

He finished with a long-standing linguistic device: a personal address to the audience. ‘You don’t have to take what you’re given,’ he told them, a short refrain which immediately made headlines.

Of course, good speeches are nothing if they are poorly delivered. Corbyn is well known for his sincere but amiable tone, and this was his first speech to be read from an autocue. Some lines were stumbled over — but most agreed that he retained his ‘authentic’ style.

Speech bubble

Why have speeches remained so popular for 4,000 years? At academic lectures, concerts, and launch events for the latest iPhone, words and images appear on screens to enhance the experience and illustrate points more clearly. It’s time politics caught up, say some.

But others argue that this would not be genuine. Without flashy lights or special effects, our focus is all on the speaker. If the ideas are compelling and well articulated, it makes for a far greater performance.

You Decide

  1. Was Corbyn’s first speech any good?
  2. Is ‘authenticity’ the most important quality for a politician?


  1. Write a short 300-word speech to the Labour party conference, using at least three rhetorical devices.
  2. Analyse the text of Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Fight them on the beaches’ speech from 1940 (there is a link under Become An Expert). What linguistic techniques can you spot?

Some People Say...

“Speeches can’t change anything.”

What do you think?

Q & A

They’re just words.
That’s true — and it’s amazing how powerful they can be. The language used by politicians can inspire votes, explain away mistakes, or create policies which change the world. When Tony Blair told parliament in 2003 that ‘this is not the time to falter,’ he launched a war in Iraq which would define both Britain and the Middle East for the following decade. It is important that voters — and future voters — have the skills to analyse — and evaluate — the words of their leaders.
Was the speech good?
Everyone will have their own opinion. He received rapturous applause in the hall, and more than one standing ovation. But some commentators have been more sceptical, accusing him of ‘preaching to the converted’ and using all his usual arguments without any real substance.

Word Watch

Brighton Centre
A conference venue on Brighton’s seafront which this year is home to the annual Labour party conference.
The art of persuasive speaking or writing. Classical Roman rhetoric includes the dispositio, or arrangement, of the arguments for maximum effect; the elocutio, or style, of their expression; and the actio, or delivery of the speech.
A literary device expressing the opposite of the intended meaning, for humour or emphasis. Sarcasm is one of its most commonly used forms.
Newspapers, in particular, have largely been derogatory of Corbyn’s leadership so far. Criticism ranges from his not singing the national anthem, to the actions of his ‘evil’ great-great grandfather, allegedly the master of a workhouse. Corbyn has repeatedly condemned the media since his election.
Describing one thing as another — Corbyn’s supporters do not make a fizzing noise whenever they have an idea, and thankfully they are in no danger of exploding.
4,000 years
The first recorded example of rhetoric was from the Sumerian princess Enheduanna in around 2250 BC.


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