Artillery Row Sketch

This calls for Action Keir

Was all that glitters gold at the Labour Party Conference?

Keir Starmer had been on the stage less than a minute when the protester joined him. We had been treated before his arrival to a video introducing us to Action Keir. Action Keir can kick a football! Action Keir can walk with purpose! He can pull a pint, shake a hand, nod his head meaningfully! Action Keir has been to Ukraine! See Action Keir with Justin Trudeau! Doesn’t he look every inch the world leader?

And here was Action Keir before us!

And here was Action Keir before us! The crowd was ecstatic. Starmer has only done this twice before. The first time he had to face down hecklers furious at his treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, while commentators told him he was failing at his job, and members of the Shadow Cabinet jostled to position themselves as his successor. Last year he was moving to exploit the Conservative mess, but was still a stiff speaker, addressing a crowd that wasn’t sure if it could dare to believe things were really going its way. 

This year, well. Off the stage the chat is of how big the majority will be. Will those Red Wall seats all flip back? And what will happen in the home counties, the places that never liked Brexit? Might Rishi Sunak, trying to straddle both, instead fall between the stools? Whether by accident or design, Starmer is looking like a winner. So the crowd was on its feet for him from the start. 

And then a young man walked onto the stage. For a moment, he seemed to be a technician, moving briskly to fix a problem with a microphone before getting out of shot. Starmer, looking the other way, didn’t seem to have noticed the man until he moved behind him, sprinkled glitter over his head and put his arm around him. The Labour leader tried to push him away, and the protestor shouted something about democracy. We couldn’t hear what. 

Finally, after an age, security also made its way to the stage. There’s no polite way of saying that you wouldn’t want your life to depend on Starmer’s protection detail. The response was more Brooklyn 99 than In The Line Of Fire.

What great matter, we wondered as the protestor was dragged from the room, was this about? A demand that Labour support Hamas? Was the shower of glitter a call for the reinstatement of St Jeremy? A demand for more wind farms? It was, we would learn later to our disbelief, part of a campaign for proportional representation. 

The activist was apparently from the Continuity Electoral Reform Society, or possibly the Provisional Liberal Democrats. His paramilitary commanders, claiming responsibility, announced, with delightful self-importance, that they had sent the Labour Party an ultimatum weeks earlier. Presumably it is still languishing in the spam folder, and so we may never know whether they favour the Single Transferrable Vote or the d’Hondt system. Whichever it is, Britain will have to brace itself for a long and terrifying campaign of voting system discussion, occasionally interrupted by glitter.

For Starmer the interruption worked so well that some of us suspected it was a false flag operation from the Tony Blair Institute. He tried to brush away the glitter, then took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. “If he thinks that bothers me, he doesn’t know me,” he said, and the crowd went wild. “Protest or power? That’s why we changed our party.” As a response it could only have been improved if he’d finished with “who else wants some?” Action Keir, it turns out, can also handle protest.  

The Labour leader would deliver the rest of the speech with sparkles in his hair and on his shoulders, like a sort of glittery dandruff. It didn’t detract from the message.

It was the best conference speech he’s given, and the best delivered. It benefitted, too, from a comparison to last week’s effort from Rishi Sunak. Both men avoided some tricky subjects. The prime minister steered clear of housing and social care. The Labour leader barely mentioned immigration. What Starmer did have was a coherent case to make: the Conservatives have failed in government, Labour is ready to clean up the mess. 

What, he asked, was the Conservative legacy? “Where is their minimum wage? Where is their Sure Start?” The answer, of course, is Brexit, but we hear precious little praise for that even from the government these days. 

Fixing Britain would be hard, he said. “There’s no magic wand here. A decade of national renewal, that’s what it will take.” A decade! It took us a moment to take it in. Less than four years ago it looked like Labour might not get into power much before 2030. Now Starmer was launching his campaign for a second term in office. 

He would fight the election, he said, on economic stability, rolling his tanks across Sunak’s lawn and into his living room. It would be a bitter battle with a Conservative Party “that is prepared to scorch the earth just to get at us. Wherever you think the line is, they’ve already got plans to cross it.”

He had plenty of good lines. The Conservatives were “the shallow men and women of Westminster”, Labour would run “a reforming state, not a cheque-book state”. He was going to “bulldoze through” the planning system. 

“There will be resistance from people who say ‘No, we don’t want Britain’s future here,’” he said, putting marvellously implausible lines in the mouths of his opponents. “My message to them is this: ‘A future must be built.’” His audience loved it. In the press area at the back, we found whole sections of the speech were drowned out by applause.  

And then he was finished, and Action Keir wiped the glitter from his hands, hugged his wife, and headed off the stage, ready to deck anyone who had ideas about electoral reform.

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