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They heckled him, and well they might. He knew they would, and so they did. They’re angry, and they’re right to be angry.
When members of his own party started to try and shout him down, Keir Starmer turned to a little handful of pre-prepared gags. One was about the speech happening at noon on a Wednesday, the usual time of PMQs, so he’s used to being heckled and it doesn’t bother him. But the bit that struck the loudest chord was when he didn’t have to respond at all.
There’s two things to say, really, about the hecklers. The first is that they saved their loudest, most passionate anger for the part of the speech where Keir Starmer was speaking about his dying mother. He didn’t need to shut them up at that point. The room did it for him.
The other is that the centre piece of their “protest” was to hold up A4 sheets of red card, which the room had to work out were meant to be, quite literally, “red cards”, through which to send Starmer off. Is it churlish to point out that, when the party’s banner is a red flag, a large piece of red paper is not the most striking act of civil disobedience you can come up with? Also, you know, why not try cutting these bits of card down to size a little bit, so that they might even slightly resemble a red card?
The speech was almost an hour-and-a-half long. So it’s not merely that they launched their attack at the single most rancid moment to do so. It’s also that they don’t appear capable of operating a pair of scissors. These are Starmer’s enemies within. The chances are, on this evidence, that he might just be able to handle it.
The flashes of anger got dimmer as time went on, quite literally. At one point, someone shouted “Free Julian Assange”. Not to be outdone, on the other side of the room, a cry of “Where’s Peter Mandelson?” went up.
About 10 minutes after this point, the party’s new leader was going through the many of the achievements of the last Labour government, and the hall was on its feet, clapping its own great deeds, rather than criticising them. At one point, there was even applause for Nato. This is a party very clearly under new management.
A word on that, then. The settled wisdom on Labour Party conference 2021 is that they’ve spent it fighting among themselves instead of pointing out that, you know, there’s no petrol, there’s not much food and no one’s going to be able to afford to have a hot shower all winter. Hundreds of TV cameras came down to Brighton to see them and they declined to look into any of them and mention any of it. Which is true, and it’s true that, were the shoe on the other foot, the Conservatives would have done things rather differently, grinding Labour’s nose into the very public dirt.
But, you know, infighting matters. Anyone who’s been in Brighton this week, listening to Richard Burgon and Lloyd Russell-Moyle and the rest of them knows it. If you’ve heard John McDonnell tell a packed tent of people, “We fight for position at every opportunity”, then you know that the infighting matters because the civil war is never going to resolve itself.
There won’t be any unity. There can’t be. They’ve got nothing in common. The fact that other parties, like the Socialist Workers Party, routinely hang around wherever Corbyn and co go is a clear sign that these people shouldn’t really be in the Labour Party at all, but they know it’s too grand a prize to give up on (and that’s certainly their right, too.)
While any sane person would see the last five years as a disaster, and a profound humiliation, they are emboldened by them. They see the Corbyn leadership as an advert for the possible, for how close they came. That they lost by miles doesn’t come into it.
On Tuesday night, at the Socialist Campaign Group rally in a circus tent, appropriately enough, the new, very young and very socialist MP, Nadia Whittome, urged the gathered masses not to quit the party, because “they want you to quit”. Jeremy and Diane didn’t quit during the Blair years, she explained. “If they had then the Corbyn leadership wouldn’t have happened, the 2017 and 2019 manifestos wouldn’t have happened.”
That they got nowhere at all just doesn’t bother them. Corbyn was the headline act, and he told cheery anecdotes about the old days, about Tony Benn, and especially about Dennis Skinner. They go on lionising Dennis Skinner, yet don’t care a toss that they really did manage to lose him his seat, once the very safest Labour seat in the country, that he held, personally, for fully 49 years.
These people have spent all week making the same angry point. That the country’s in disarray, the worst government of all time, and all Keir can do is go on about party rule changes, about the electoral college, boring, narrow, beltway stuff.
But they’re going endlessly on about it because they’re angry about it, and they’re angry about it because they know it matters, because they’re trying to take back control of the Labour Party and he’s making sure they can’t.
This general view, that if you can’t get ahead of the Tories during your own party conference, when they’re as bad as they are, then you’ve got no hope. But what Keir Starmer had to say about the fuel crisis of 2021 is going to have precisely zero bearing on the general election of 2024.
Fighting your battles in the correct order is important, and Keir Starmer is a far better politician than they give him credit for.
As I have occasionally pointed out before, he stood by Corbyn’s side for five years and is untainted by having done so. Other people, who had clear designs on being where Starmer now is, felt that they had to take a stand and then, via 19 new parties with 22 new names, and eventually the Liberal Democrats, accidentally left politics altogether.
Naturally, the path ahead isn’t clear. He knows the Tories are coming after Labour voters, with promises of cash, and “levelling up” and all the rest of it. He called Boris Johnson, a “trivial man, a show pony with nothing left to show, a trickster who’s performed his one trick”. And he’s right. This is precisely what Boris Johnson is, but Boris Johnson knows it too, which is why, all his career, he’s delegated the hard work to others. It won’t be Boris Johnson who comes good on levelling up, because Boris Johnson has already given that job to Michael Gove, who is a far more serious, far more formidable and more capable operator. On Monday afternoon, at a fringe event, Andy Burnham even said so himself.
So the way ahead is at least clear. To show up Johnson, and show that there is a credible alternative. There’s not much by way of evidence to be found that the plan will work, but it’s still the right plan and there isn’t another one.
Labour is a serious party again, and at this point, that matters far more than anything it might have to say about petrol.