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Meet the teenagers who crashed Keir Starmer’s speech

“They put us on the stage and were like, ‘Clap at the appropriate time!’ ”

By Anoosh Chakelian

Two teenagers interrupted Keir Starmer‘s set-piece speech on education at a college in Kent yesterday (6 July) to protest against Labour diluting its pledge to spend £28bn a year on a green transition.

Unfurling a red banner on stage reading “No more U-turns – Green New Deal!”, they demanded a “green new deal now”, and accused the Labour leader of ignoring invitations to meet their campaign group, Green New Deal Rising.

Sophie Coningham, 18, who finished her A-levels two weeks ago and was not a pupil at the college in Gillingham, stepped forward and asked Starmer which side the Labour Party was on. “We are on the side of economic growth,” he replied. As she and Dieudonné Bila, her fellow protester, continued talking over Starmer, he asked them not to “drown out” the people who came to listen to his speech, and repeatedly said that his “last speech” had been about green policy.

Coningham, from Tooting in south London, told me that she had come along to protest in the audience with other young climate activists. She and Bila were ushered on to the stage, mistaken by the speech organisers for young Starmer supporters. They wanted a backdrop of young people for the announcement of Labour’s education policies.

“It’s quite funny, they just assumed we were Young Labour,” she told me over the phone. She hid the banner in the back of her trousers. “They put us on the stage and were like, ‘Clap at the appropriate time!’ I thought it was a good opportunity.”

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Coningham felt that “Labour don’t take us seriously as a demographic” and that Starmer “wasn’t particularly interested” in what she and her fellow protesters had to say. “He was a little bit shell-shocked,” she said. She was also disappointed that his only response so far has been to tweet that he wouldn’t “be shouted down or distracted” from his education mission.

One of Starmer’s plans, ironically, is for public speaking lessons in schools. “Well here I am, showing it,” Coningham said.

[See also: Labour promises a green energy revolution – but does it know how to make it happen?]

Green New Deal Rising is a group of 16-35-year-old activists who do a line in confronting politicians about climate and economic justice. It is focusing its attention on Labour, asking the party to “be bold”. The activists want the party’s manifesto to include greater public ownership of energy infrastructure, wealth taxes on the richest 1 per cent, permanent windfall taxes on fossil fuel companies, and a mass transition to green jobs.

In contrast, Labour has recently said that its plan to spend £28bn a year on green investment will be met by the mid-point of the next parliament, rather than immediately as it had initially said. And it has clarified its commitment to block all new oil and gas projects, saying it would honour licences granted between now and the next election (which is likely to include Rosebank, the UK’s largest undeveloped oil field).

Green New Deal Rising is planning sit-outs at key Labour MPs’ constituency offices before the party’s conference in autumn, to insist the MPs meet campaigners to discuss the manifesto.

Coningham felt Starmer’s response that he had spoken about his green mission the previous week “betrays a misunderstanding of what this is about. It’s about trying to reformulate our whole economy, our entire system to be based around solving the climate crisis.”

Coningham was briefly a Labour member from the age of 14 to 15, but has “never really felt like it’s a place for young people”, a feeling that has intensified lately. “It seems like the energy is gone. There is lots of talk about hope and opportunity, but with narrow, stale policies that are being reworked and watered down.”

Nevertheless, she said her protest was a “vote of confidence” in Labour as a party that can help to secure the future for her generation. “It’s a challenge to Labour to do more because we believe in them, whereas going to yell at Rishi Sunak about a green new deal would be completely pointless.”

Coningham would still vote Labour. “I don’t necessarily see the point of voting Green. Realistically, I’ve got a hell of a lot more chance of a green new deal if Labour get in.”

[See also: Labour is trying to have it both ways on the climate – will it work?]

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