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‘Level up PM? you can’t even fill up,’ says Keir Starmer in Labour conference speech

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Sir Keir Starmer has brushed aside the Corbyn era and turned his fire on Boris Johnson as Britain reels from a petrol crisis, declaring: “Level up? You can’t even fill up”.

In his first big conference speech, the Labour leader also unveiled his vision to “make this nation anew” as he sought to shed the view among some voters that his party is “unpatriotic or irresponsible”.

Having taken on the Labour Left in bitter skirmishes in recent days and “got our own house in order”, he told delegates at the party’s annual rally in Brighton: “Let’s get totally serious about this. We can win the next election.”

In a highly personal speech, with numerous references to his family and a very emotional passage on seeing his mother fighting for her life in hospital, he stressed his leadership would be based on “work, care, equality and security” as he sought to seize the moment to introduce himself to millions more voters.

But with the UK in the grip of a petrol crisis, and some people sleeping in their cars waiting to fill up, Sir Keir told delegates: “Let me tackle the issue of the day head on. If you go outside and walk along the sea front, it won’t be long before you come to a petrol station which has no fuel. Level up? You can’t even fill up,” he added, in a jibe at Mr Johnson.

Sir Keir walked on to Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now. He told delegates: “When I was at school, I had music lessons with FatBoy Slim. I can’t promise that for everyone. Not even in Brighton.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer is joined by his wife Victoria after giving his speech (AFP via Getty Images)
Labour leader Keir Starmer is joined by his wife Victoria after giving his speech (AFP via Getty Images)

Amid widespread expectations among Labour MPs of a general election in spring 2023, Sir Keir added: “We have a fuel crisis, a pay crisis, a goods crisis and a cost of living crisis all at the same time ... Prime Minister, either get a grip or get out of the way and let us clear up this mess.” The Labour leader sought to address criticism that he lacks the inspiration and toughness to lead the party.

Throughout the first half of his speech, Sir Keir had to deal with a series of hecklers and interruptions with one woman refusing to be silenced despite calls from others in the crowd to be quiet and sit down.

Shortly after walking on stage the Labour leader was confronted with one delegate chanting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”.

But following later interruptions questioning his stance on Brexit and calls to introduce a £15 per hour minimum wage, Sir Keir hit back at his critics saying: “It’s usually the Tories heckling me at this time on a Wednesday..it doesn’t bother me.”

When one woman persistently tried to interrupt following an emotional, personal passage about the NHS and his mother, Sir Keir responded with “Shouting slogans or changing lives, Conference?”.

A delegate heckles Labour party leader, Sir Keir Starmer delivers his speech (Getty Images)
A delegate heckles Labour party leader, Sir Keir Starmer delivers his speech (Getty Images)

Family

He highlighted how his upbringing as the son of a tool factory worker and a nurse had shaped his political values.

“My dad was a tool maker in a factory,” Sir Keir said. “He gave me a deep respect for the dignity of work. So when I hear that this country is creating so many low-paid jobs and when I tell you that good work and fair growth will be the priority for a Labour government, I haven’t learnt this in some political seminar. I learnt it round the kitchen table.”

He also told delegates about his mother’s battle with Still’s disease, a form of arthritis which restricts mobility, recalling a time when he visited her in hospital to find four nurses “keeping her alive”.

“I remember going into the intensive care unit one day, as I often did mum’s bed was a riot of tubes and temperature devices. I could sense the urgency in the conversation of the four nurses on my mum’s bed. I knew without being told that they were keeping her alive. I can hardly convey to you the emotion of seeing your mum in that condition.”

Corbyn

Sir Keir did not mention his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn by name but there was veiled criticism of his leadership.

“To the voters who thought we were unpatriotic or irresponsible, or that we looked down on them, I make this simple but powerful pledge,” he said. “We will never under my leadership go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government. It will not take another election defeat for the Labour Party to become an alternative government in which you can trust.”

He also declared that “Labour is the party of Nato, the party of international alliances”.

London Mayor, Sadiq Khan listens during the speech (Getty Images)
London Mayor, Sadiq Khan listens during the speech (Getty Images)

Policies

The speech was light on new policies but laid out a vision of a Labour government. With echoes of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech, he vowed to make Britain “a world leader” in new technologies, with a target to invest a minimum of three per cent of GDP on science and research.

On taxation, he stressed three principles: the greater part of the burden should not fall on working people, the balance between smaller and larger businesses should be “fair”, and ensuring “value for money”.

Just weeks after the Government announced plans to raise £12 billion a year to pay for the health service and social care, he said the NHS “needs more money”, adding that a Labour government will “always fund the NHS properly”.

He pledged to recruit 8,500 more mental health professional to support one million more people every year.

Crime

Sir Keir said Labour would fast track rape and serious sexual assault cases and toughen sentences for rapists, stalkers and domestic abusers.

Sir Keir was set to draw on his previous experience leading the Crown Prosecution Service as he vowed to “strengthen legal protections” for victims.

Speaking on the same day former Met Police officer Wayne Couzens was being sentenced for the murder of Sarah Everard, he made reference to some of the violent cases he worked on which had affected him during his time at the CPS and the “shocking” statistic that 98 per cent of reported rapes do not end in a criminal charge.

He described how “humbling” it had been meeting the parents of nurse Jane Clough, 26, who was stabbed to death in 2010 by her ex-partner while he was on bail, and the “courage and resilience” of Baroness Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered in a racist attack.

“I honestly don’t know how I would cope if anything happened to one of my children,” he said. “Under my leadership the fight against crime will always be a Labour issue. We won’t walk around the problem. We’ll fix it.”

Schools

He promised “the most ambitious school improvement plan in a generation”, vowing to recruit thousands of new teachers and to reform schools watchdog Ofsted. He also pledged to introduce a Clean Air Act and a net zero test for all Government activity.

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