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29 September 2021

Why Keir Starmer believes that the heckles during his Labour conference speech were “helpful”

The Labour leader’s team argue that the taunts sent a clear message: Keir Starmer is not Jeremy Corbyn and the party has changed.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer has delivered his first in-person conference speech as Labour leader but it was a battle, at times, to get it out. Divisions within the party were on full display from the moment Starmer began to speak, when a woman from the balcony began singing: “Oh Jeremy Corbyn, oh Jeremy Corbyn”, until she was escorted out by security.

Members loyal to the former Labour leader – mainly from the left of the party, who are frustrated by the recent party rule changes, and action over anti-Semitism that included the expulsion of Corbyn – made themselves heard throughout the speech, despite being a small minority in a room otherwise enthusiastic in its support of Starmer. 

As the Labour leader referred to the party’s 2019 general election defeat and pledged to regain the trust of voters that the party lost, he was heckled with the cry, “it was your Brexit policy”. At several points, hecklers shouted “£15 minimum wage!” which was a reference to the reason cited by Andy McDonald for his resignation from the shadow cabinet on 27 September. McDonald claimed that Starmer’s team had instructed him not to argue for the minimum wage at that level. (The £15 figure refers to the current campaign in the US for a $15 minimum wage but it is not Labour Party policy and significantly higher than the minimum wage pledged in the 2019 manifesto under Corbyn). McDonald’s resignation has become a lightning rod within Labour for the left’s broader frustrations with Starmer.

The Labour leader began by ignoring the heckles but after one quipped that he is normally being “heckled by Tories at this time on a Wednesday, and that doesn’t bother me”. There was a brief moment later when the heckles threatened seriously to disrupt the Labour leader’s ability to deliver his speech and Starmer declared: “slogans, or changing lives, conference?” to enthusiastic applause as those hecklers were also removed.

As the speech went on, Starmer was able to deliver his address broadly uninterrupted and announced policies championed by many on the left, including a Green New Deal, another coinage borrowed from the US left. 

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Polling consistently indicates majority support for Starmer among the Labour membership. But the obstacles he faced while delivering his speech were an uncomfortable reminder that, despite campaigning on a promise to unite the Labour Party, its new leader doesn’t have everyone behind him. This hasn’t stopped him passing the rule changes he wanted at this conference, although it made for some uncomfortable moments during a rare opportunity to speak directly to the country about what the Labour Party under his leadership stands for.

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As they left the conference hall, however, those close to the Labour leader said the heckles had been “helpful”. While it doesn’t project the united Labour party that Keir Starmer promised, they think it sends a different, useful message to the country: that Keir Starmer is not Jeremy Corbyn, and Labour has changed.