Why Do Some Leaders Resonate?

Is style over substance affecting how we choose our national leaders?

Some of our leading party figures are able to communicate a clear message, whilst others have more trouble breaking through. Boris Johnson, Michael Portillo, David Cameron, Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson, Vince Cable, Tim Farron, Alex Salmond, George Galloway, and Nigel Farage – to name but a few – are able to communicate a strong message to the electorate because they have
certain rhetorical and oratorical abilities which others appear to lack.

ID-100100312An absence of oratorical abilities (delivery of a speech) prevents the rhetoric (content of a speech) from being communicated. For example, Tony Blair was able to advance Labour’s social democratic message because he fully embraced rhetorical techniques, whilst Ed Miliband is far less consistent. Iain Duncan Smith lost his position as Conservative leader because of his inability to communicate a message to the Conservative faithful, whilst David Cameron communicated a more convincing narrative of modernisation and reform. Both Nigel Farage and George Galloway, as ant-establishment communicators, are able to appeal to a disgruntled section of the electorate because their message is clear and precise. As leading figures, both men articulate a specific message be that opposition to the EU or anti-war respectively. Communication, therefore, is vitally important if any leading communicator is to succeed, yet the question remains, how do they do it?

There are three rhetorical devices which classical rhetoricians and orators utilised. These are ethos (credibility/character), pathos (emotional reaction), and logos (logic of argument). Such techniques are often interdependent with each other, however they can be analysed in isolation.

Moreover, some communicators may use more of one technique than another. Galloway, for example, grows his credibility with his audience by ‘buying in’ to the character he has developed for himself. Namely, he believes he is standing up to his own ‘axis of evil’ comprised of the US, UK, and Europe whilst defending the ‘innocent Middle Eastern theocracies’ from invasion and western exploitation. To convey this character, his rhetoric is delivered in a highly emotive fashion, which always feeds into this black and white narrative. He uses every speech as an opportunity to reinforce this message, regardless of the needs of the arena. Ethos and pathos are the only devices he tends to use because those are all he needs to make an impact with his chosen audience. It is important to also bear in mind that those who do not comprise his audience are also part of his ‘axis of evil’, which in terms of British politics are all those both within and outside of Respect who do not agree with him.

Within the Conservative and Labour Parties, leading figures develop their communication skills through conflict. This is a particular issue facing the Labour Party. Given New Labour appeared highly united, opportunities for leading figures to become household names were few. This is why the party appears lacking at this point, because the Third Way and the Blairite model was very dominant.

As leader, Ed Miliband’s communication skills have not had the same opportunities to be tested as had been the case with AneurinBritain's political leaders leave Westminster Abbey, in central London Bevan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, and Tony Benn. Through ideological warfare, they were able to find their oratorical skills. Granted Miliband’s rhetoric is broadly social democratic, but the lack of significant ideological debate has prevented modern Labour figures to communicate that message effectively. Indeed, the Conservatives have the ‘mods vs rockers’ debate in which leading Tories can refine their skills. This has, in part, led the electorate away from the Labour Party and more towards the newer parties. Although it must be acknowledged that Miliband’s One Nation speech was highly effective, but this was because it drew from his background, gave a solid philosophy, and connected it to the social democratic values of the party. To do that, it used ethos, pathos, and logos. Subsequently, however, the impact has started the decline, mostly because the conference is his key arena where he can emotionally connect with his audience whilst the Commons tends to play against him.


Nigel Farage and UKIP have been able to find their voice by standing in opposition to the Conservative Party and, to a reduced extent, Labour. By doing so, Farage has refined his communication skills by combatting such communicators as Cameron. This has given him a significant platform, opening the broader party up to attracting former Thatcherite voters. It is worth noting that they more traditional Etonian voter will be more inclined to vote for Cameron, whilst the middle class Tories would look more favourably towards Farage. In terms of the classical devices, Farage combines the three devices. His character as a plucky Brit, his credibility as an increasingly winning leader, his emotive message vis-à-vis Britain standing up to Europe, and the logic of his message rooted in arguments revolving around sovereignty and affordability each give his message a very high impact potential. Added to that his oratory is very much performance based, giving him a winning communicative approach.

By being more aware of such communicative techniques, a leading figure can garner a higher degree of impact with the electorate. A strong communicator can enliven their audience, they can attract support. Inversely, a weak communicator will be more likely to lose the attention of their audience, and with it become something of a political and intellectual insignificance. There is, of course, much
more to be said on this subject, which can be taken forward in both academic and political outlets.

Dr Andrew S Crines is a political scientist at the University of Huddersfield, researching political communication


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