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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Keir Starmer speechwriter admits speech went on far too long

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Keir Starmer’s own speechwriter has admitted last week’s party conference speech lasted much too long — but insisted the audience’s rapturous applause was to blame.

Speechwriter Philip Collins, who penned Starmer’s address to the party faithful in Brighton, told POLITICO’s Westminster Insider podcast that Starmer’s 90-minute delivery “absolutely” went on for too long, and admitted some passages were “a little bit baggy” and even “boring.”

But Collins — a former chief speechwriter to Tony Blair — said he “loved” the poetry and the many highly personal sections within the speech, and added that Starmer “deserved credit” for the way he dealt with repeated heckles from the crowd.

“It would have been unprofessional not to be prepared [for hecklers],” Collins said. “[But] you can’t be sure of the nature of the intervention, or of what kind of thing would be the appropriate response. So a lot rests on the person up there on the podium. I still think [Starmer] deserves credit for handling it well, because it’s not easy.”

Collins said the crowd’s wildly positive response to Starmer’s array of pre-prepared comebacks “elongated” the speech far beyond what was planned.

“He was getting standing ovations for things that were just basically boring lines that were meant to just take you to the next stage of the speech,” Collins said. “And it got ridiculous. So I think he had 20 standing ovations or something, and clapping for all sorts of things, which really elongated the speech.

“He was delighted, because it was a real sense of the conference coming to his aid. But it did mean the momentum was a bit lost, and it then took longer to get through than you ever thought it would have done. In actual word count, it wasn’t even an especially long speech. It’s just it took so long because the theatre of it took over.”

Collins said his own favorite part of the speech was the ending, which was inspired by the Seamus Heaney poem, “Digging.”

“I really liked it because it was really unconventional,” he said. “Instead of ending on a massive rousing, barnstorming thing, it ended on a sort of diminuendo.

“We went back to the four principles which had informed [Starmer’s] life — work, care, equality and security. ‘These are the tools of my trade, and with them I’ll go to work.’ And I loved that, because I liked the return of the idea of the ‘tool,’ which had been a theme throughout.”

By contrast, Collins said some of the detailed policy discussion in Starmer’s speech had proved less successful.

“It’s always the same bits,” he said. “The policy bits are very, very difficult to bring to life. If you don’t include them, everybody will write that you have nothing to say, that you’re empty. So you do include them — in the knowledge that probably then everyone’s gonna say, ‘oh, it’s so boring when you got into all that stuff’’

“So those bits, if I’m critical, could have been tighter, could have been more compressed. I think they were a bit long, a little bit baggy.”

But he had sharp words for political journalists complaining about the 90-minute length of the address.

“All those people clapping all the time! I mean, it was obviously far too good,” Collins grinned. “And so people enjoyed it far too much. And therefore detained those poor lobby journalists for half an hour longer than they thought. My heart bleeds for them.”

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