“Normally this time on a Wednesday it’s the Tories who are heckling me. It doesn’t bother me then – and it doesn’t bother me now,” he joked as other members of the audience told the hecklers to “shut up”.
A small group of Sir Keir’s critics held up red cards and shouted “£15” at various points during the speech — a reference to the Labour leader’s refusal to back a £15 minimum wage earlier this week.
Another heckler chose to direct their anger at Sir Keir’s Brexit policy during his tenure in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, while others opted to shout “boring”, or ask the Labour leader: “Where’s Peter Mandelson?”.
Forced to raise his voice over the hecklers, Sir Keir told members: “Shouting slogans or changing lives, conference?”.
He also told his detractors in the hall “you can chant all day,” before going on to claim he had used the conference to “get our own house in order”.
Carole Vincent, one of those in the hall that heckled Sir Keir during his speech, told journalists it was an “absolute disgrace” the Labour leadership was not supporting a £15 minimum wage — an issue that became a flashpoint during the conference after the resignation of Andy McDonald from the shadow cabinet.
Speaking after Sir Keir’s speech, she said she expected him to face a leadership challenge at “some point”, and went on: “He had ignored — and this conference has ignored — people that have been standing up and asking him to guarantee the 15 per cent rise for the NHS, a £15 minimum wage.”
She added: “I probably will be expelled and that’s sad because I work bloody hard for this party.”
During his speech, Sir Keir thanked party members and loyal Labour voters for “saving this party from obliteration,” he said: “My job as leader is not just to say thank you to the voters who stayed with us – it is to understand and persuade the voters who rejected us.”
In a pointed message to his critics on the left, Starmer added: “That’s why it has been so important to get our own house in order this week and we have done that … So, let’s get totally serious about this – we can win the next general election.”
One Labour member could be heard trying to interrupt Starmer as he finished speaking about the death of his mother. Other delegates held up red pieces of paper at the beginning of his speech to show they were giving Starmer’s leadership “the red card”.
Speaking after the speech, Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary said he thought the heckling was “underwhelming”, adding: “You see, the thing is, Keir, I thought, demonstrated a razor-sharp with in dealing with them.
“He reminded me of John Smith, in the way he dealt with rather foolish hecklers in the Commons, from the Tory hecklers. If you are going to heckle, you better ensure that the principal on the stage hasn’t got a heavy comeback. And he did. He put those very squawkers in their place”.
A Labour spokesman later said it was not unexpected that critics heckled Sir Keir, adding the fact a “number of people” had red pieces of paper to hold up to oppose the leadership may have suggested the hecklers were organised. But he added: “Obviously there was clearly a view that there could be those who would want to express an opinion in the speech.”
Labour’s low-pay policy has been at major bone of contention at the conference, with Mr McDonald quitting as shadow employment rights secretary after being told to argue against a national minimum wage of £15 per hour. A 2019 photo of Starmer campaigning next to McDonald’s workers fighting for £15 minimum wage went viral, as left-winger activists accused him of going back on previous support for the hike.
A group of MPs from the party’s left bloc used a fringe rally in Brighton on Tuesday evening to attack the leader, with Zarah Sultana accusing Sir Keir of “waging war on the left”. In scathing remarks, Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP said: “It has been a goddamn awful conference with a goddamn awful leadership.”
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