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30 September 2021

Keir Starmer’s speech in numbers: how did it compare to previous leaders’?

His speech paid more attention to the climate crisis than any other Labour leader's, but less to the cost of living.

By Ben van der Merwe and Michael Goodier

Keir Starmer’s speech at the Labour Party conference in Brighton on 29 September was very unlike last year’s remote address. 

Gone were any mentions of socialism, while the number of references to business rose from two to 13. 

Mentions of words relating to patriotism rose from five to 11, while the number of references to law and order increased from 13 to 43, the highest in any Labour leader’s conference speech since 2002.

Whether the speech will have had its intended effect is another question. Jeremy Corbyn also made positive references to business in his 2016 speech, and in his 2019 speech he too avoided explicit references to socialism or comradeship.

Where Starmer’s speech did differ from his predecessors' was in relation to climate change. With COP26 approaching in Glasgow in November, this speech paid greater attention to the climate crisis than any other speech on record. The NHS also received more attention than any speech since 2014.

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Despite soaring gas prices and impending cuts to Universal Credit, the cost-of-living question received relatively little attention. Aside from Starmer’s speech last year, where the subject received just five mentions, this year’s conference placed less emphasis on the costs of living than any Labour leader’s conference speech since 2012.

A look at the stand-out topics of conference speeches gives an idea of the issues that most concerned each Labour leader during their time in the role.

Tony Blair was big on law and order, foreign affairs and national security, while Gordon Brown placed more emphasis on the NHS during his speeches. Ed Miliband focused on economic issues, and Corbyn’s time as leader was dominated by Brexit. So far, Starmer has been preoccupied by Covid-19. 

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Starmer’s speech this year also contained the first mention in a Labour leader’s conference speech of the Scottish parliament Holyrood and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Despite clocking in at around 90 minutes, Starmer’s speech isn’t the longest by a Labour leader. His 7,300-odd words put him behind Harold Wilson (who averaged 7,400 words a speech), while Ed Miliband, James Callaghan and Neil Kinnock also each gave several longer speeches.

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