Labour heckling shows party is moving on, say Starmer allies

Leader receives supportive applause from conference crowd for response to interruptions during speech

Keir Starmer was heckled repeatedly by angry Labour activists throughout his conference speech, threatening to derail the setpiece – but his advisers said the interruptions had been anticipated and served to show the party and its leader’s new direction.

Activists waved red cards at Starmer and interrupted his pledges on fair pay with repeated demands for a £15 minimum wage, while criticisms from other members in the hall ranged from the Labour’s Brexit policy to demands to free Julian Assange.

Starmer challenged hecklers at points throughout the speech, asking whether the audience preferred “shouting slogans or changing lives”, to supportive applause, and he joked that he was used to being heckled on Wednesdays at prime minister’s questions. “It doesn’t bother me then, it doesn’t bother me now,” he said.

The Labour leader had prepped some quips with his speechwriter Phil Collins, including the line about PMQs, but had been advised to try to think on his feet in order to deal with the unexpected. His jibe about slogans was entirely ad-libbed, one source claimed.

His spokesperson was bullish about the impressions the heckles would convey. “I think it’s been clear that there have been people during the course of this week who haven’t accepted the change that Keir is wanting to bring to the Labour party so that we can bring change to the country,” he said.

“That was borne out in the hall today where you saw a small number of people who chose to act in a way that they did. But you also saw very clearly that it didn’t knock Keir Starmer off his stride at all: if anything, I think he showed the perfect response to it.”

Shadow cabinet ministers also dismissed the interruptions as irrelevant or even helpful. Interruptions were booed or shouted down by the audience in the hall, who gave Starmer multiple standing ovations, including when he listed the achievements of the Tony Blair government and declared “we are patriots”.

“I think it did help,” said the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy. “Everything this week has been about Labour in power, returning to government, and those who were heckling looked isolated. We are moving on. The standing ovation for Labour’s record in government and when Keir said we are patriots was a huge moment.”

Some of the protest had been coordinated and dozens held up red cards and chanted for a minimum wage rise, the issue that led to the resignation of Andy McDonald as shadow employment secretary on Monday.

Many of those who took part in the coordinated action were younger activists who had joined the party during the Corbyn years. But the heckling also came from spontaneous anger or from other wings of the party – one older activist held up a banner urging “No Purge”, a reference to the expulsion of Labour members linked to the antisemitism row.

Another shouted “Where’s Peter Mandelson?”. The former Labour cabinet minister has been doing the rounds in Brighton, though Starmer’s allies emphatically denied he had any involvement with the speech.

Momentum, the grassroots leftwing group that has been Starmer’s most vocal critic, kept the protests at arms length but had also quietly underlined the need to challenge the party leader on policy, such as the minimum wage, rather than sing “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”.

But in a sign of how spontaneous some of the heckles were, the speech was interrupted in its opening moments by those chants.

Though Starmer looked relaxed through the interruptions and tended to carry the mood of the hall, hecklers also responded to some open goals. When he spoke about the 2019 election defeat, one shouted “it was your Brexit policy”. Another responded to his claim not to be a career politician with “pull the other one”.

But there were also moments were heckles felt ill-advised. One interrupted a sombre moment where Starmer recalled his visits to his disabled mother in hospital, prompting others in the hall to respond angrily to the hecklers.

There were even times when Starmer carried with him the most vocal of his critics. When he made a reference to his father being a toolmaker and joked that the same could be said for Boris Johnson’s dad, the line drew smiles and some applause, even from a group of members holding red cards.


Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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