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Right Keir, right now

Illustration: Grace Eliz for Research Professional News

Political sketch from the Labour Party conference

Not since Bette Midler has anyone had an unhappier time on a beach. It is not until it is all over that you realise you would rather watch Ms Midler’s lachrymose 1988 shore-bound melodrama on a loop than spend another day at the Labour Party conference.

Today saw Keir Starmer make his first speech as a superspreader in front of a live studio audience. The pressure was on the Labour leader to pull off a barn-Starming speech that would reset his party after five days of infighting.

It was one of the more memorable final day set-pieces from a Labour Party conference, mostly as a result of the heckling from members of the audience, who were feeling the effects of long Corbyn. Some held up red pieces of paper in what was supposed to be a “give Starmer the red card” protest, but given the colours of the home team, that gesture was rather lost in the room.

Random heckles included “Free Julian Assange”—it wasn’t clear if they wanted to hire Sir Keir for the defence team—and “No purge”, which may have been a cry for help from someone who had too much bacon at their hotel breakfast buffet all week.

The heckles of a minority were drowned out by the orchestrated applause of the vast majority. Starmer even had a rehearsed put-down—“shouting slogans or changing lives?”—which, when you use it twice in five minutes, becomes a slogan itself.

The continuity Corbyn barrackers may have thought they were making a stand. Rather, they just reminded everyone of why Labour had lost the 2019 election so badly and why Starmer was doing so much to cheese the hecklers off in a passive-aggressive way in the hope that they leave the party of their own accord.

No small talk

Events in the hall showed that Labour still has a case of the rumbling Trots. Starmer’s people will probably think that’s ok as a one-off televised showdown, but in Liverpool next year we can all expect endless background checks on anyone applying for a pass to the conference hall.

One heckler asked “Where’s Peter Mandelson?” I could have told them that the chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University was staying around the corner at the Hotel du Vin, where you can enjoy two gin and tonics for £29—or two hours’ work on the minimum wage of £15 that other interrupters were calling for.

As the speech wore on, the catcalls died down, perhaps because the hecklers realised with admiration that the oration was nearly as long as a Fidel Castro speech. It went on and on. It was almost as if, having missed out on the 2020 conference, Starmer read out last year’s speech as well.

At one point, it looked as if the whole thing would beat his circumlocution personal best of 14,000 words. Starmer told one heckler that he hadn’t learned his politics “in a political seminar”, but clearly, he was still fond of the lecture format—and he didn’t even have slides.

In one of several long episodic passages, Starmer went down a rabbit hole talking about the wonders of science and technology, during which he called for an industrial strategy and committed Labour to achieving a goal of spending 3 per cent of GDP on R&D. At the same time, he pointed to an investment league table of 170 nations, in which Britain comes a miserable 150th, rendering that 3 per cent target entirely unattainable this side of the 2050s.

Starmer also made a defence of arts teaching in schools, calling for a “curriculum for tomorrow”, which seemed to involve playing team sports, musical instruments and computer games. Starmer said that, at school, he’d had music lessons with Fatboy Slim.

Apparently, they took violin lessons together. But are either of them still playing the violin now? The case against arts funding rests, m’lud.

Sussex downs

Starmer spent the first two hours of his speech—or perhaps it just seemed that way—talking about his life story. It was particularly counterproductive for the dissenters to heckle him while he was talking about his mother dying in an intensive care unit.

The Labour leader ticked the box of referencing that he was the first in his family to go to university, but after that, despite the heft and length of the speech, there was no further reference to higher education. There was mention of giving school leavers “the skills for work and the skills for life” and he talked frequently of “skill” in work rather than “skills”.

That signals a divergence from Conservative obsessions with the lack of tradesmen now that so many Eastern Europeans have sensibly returned to countries with adequate amounts of food in the supermarkets and petrol in the forecourts. The Tories have a lot to say about higher education, from free speech on campus to narrowing participation.

In contrast, at least for today and most of this week, Labour seemed not to want to talk about universities. In Starmer’s well-constructed, folksy narrative of what a Labour Britain could be—kind of like an episode of Call the Midwife written by Ed Miliband—there is no room to mention the Marmite topic of universities.

Does it mean that, under a Starmer government, universities would be allowed to retreat into the background of civic life as public institutions, serenely ticking away? For some, that would be a welcome relief after years on the front pages every time Brighton and Woke Albion came to town.

Before today, Starmer had been doing his best to come across as a competent technocrat; instead, to many he presented here as the dad who keeps the PTA meetings dragging on because he wants to talk about the rota for mowing the playing field. Will today’s muscular tussle with the residual Corbyn fans change that opinion?

Can Starmer reinvent himself as a maverick lawyer who is as mad as hell and ain’t gonna take it anymore? Starmer DA could run for several series on Netflix—we’ll all need something to watch when we are locked down again this autumn.

Starmer would like to be constantly on our TV screens with great approval ratings, a bit like a soft-left Chris Sutton. “Be more Chris Sutton” would be good advice to Sir Keir at a time when the Labour Party increasingly resembles a radio phone-in about a last-minute refereeing error in a London derby.

As with his time in the Scottish Premier League, Sutton’s media success is based upon being the tallest poppy in a field of mediocrity. Sir Keir’s attempts to play the big man up front have, up until now, left him looking like his favourite team’s cult anti-hero, Marouane Chamakh, who was universally known by Arsenal fans as “the plank” because every time an opportunity was served up to him, it would just bounce off him.

On the fringe

Outside the conference centre, former Brexit shouty man Steve Bray has returned to bark that “Brexit isn’t working” and “Britain has a Labour shortage”, which are two better lines than anything heard on stage from a shadow minister. Perhaps Bray was there to present a one-man show at the Komedia called “I told you so, but you weren’t listening”.

Presumably, he came by train rather than car given there are no petrol stations open between Brighton and London. The only people here who were hiking their price more than the forecourts were the Brighton hoteliers.

At least they had the excuse of making up for lost time during the pandemic. You would think that the Labour front bench might have shown the same urgency but, similar to the Corbyn years, Starmer’s first in-person conference was characterised by the absence of senior figures from the world of higher education and research.

For Labour and universities, it is a chicken and egg situation. Is no one here because Labour has nothing to say about universities or has Labour nothing to say about universities because no one is here?

If a Labour university policy drops at conference and no one’s around to hear it, does it really exist? Shadow education secretary Kate Green’s only mention of higher education in her platform speech was that lecturers had done a great job during the pandemic, and she said she knew this from visiting universities—which is more than many lecturers did, given that all the campuses were closed to students.

A final shout out must go to the Institute of Physics, which heroically manned a stall in the remotest part of the exhibitors’ section. Perhaps Keir Starmer’s new-found fascination with AI, medical robotics and digital engineering—“The range of possibilities is bewildering, I could talk about it all day,” he told the conference—came from a chat and the purchase of a woolly gonk from the IoP stall.

Martin McQuillan is HE editor at Research Professional News