Keir Starmer’s Speech – Labour’s Best Thing Since Stale Bread

Yves here. Wowsers. It’s one thing to see the putative but really not workers’ party in the US, the Democrats, happily don neoliberal clothing because TV ad costs. The Democrats at least can fall back on the excuse of a two-party system.

From Clive, who attended the Labour conference, via e-mail:

Too knackered to do anything sensible by way of reportage as just got back and getting out of Brighton is a ‘mare at the best of times as is the M25 in the rush hour but conference is over and all I can say is it wasn’t overall as bad as it could have been, but only because when you know you’re at rock bottom hope torments you that the only way is up. So I’ll have to settle for a brain-dump, with apologies.

Now we know: Keir Starmer won’t generate a surge of support | Aditya Chakrabortty | The Guardian is probably the most accurate and objective summary I’ve come across. Starmer is setting himself up, unrepentantly, as the heir to Blair….

The £15 minimum wage defeat was the bitterest pill to swallow. The Corbyn faction made compromise proposals behind the scenes, I’m told £12.50 was bartered down to with £15 being an aspiration. Throw in a “over the lifetime of a Labour government” (so we’d be talking up to 8 or 9 years away) and likely incremental rises just through keeping the minimum wage in line with average earnings grown would have almost got you to that. Rumours are that Johnson will make it £10 by the next election anyway. So the refusal by Starmer’s clique to not only go to £15 but to reject any promises to increase the minimum wage was just direction-of-travel setting. That direction being, of course, “pro business”.

All in all, even despite Starmer’s protestations about electability being everything, we’re a party that still much prefers agitating and opposing rather than any prospect of power. My lingering sense from the Conference is that it’s all just so much more fun. You can tell yourself how very, very clever you are (a perennial fault of us lefties), indulge yourself in make-believe while declaring yourself the most rational people because, after all we’re clever, aren’t we? You don’t have to answer any questions you don’t like, you can memory-hole entire episodes from your priors and pet your hobby horses. Governing makes this a lot harder, if not impossible. It’ll take, I reckon, another electoral defeat, possibly two, before there’s any chance of a wakeup call being heeded.

David’s response:

Why am I always reminded of Satan in Paradise Lost?
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

I think we tend to forget how absorbing, and for some people fulfilling, the internal politics of any organisation can be. I’ve known people in organisations in various countries whose lives were utterly consumed with power struggles and ideological clashes to the exclusion of everything else. And that’s just in universities. The fact is that you can have a good career as a senior Labour Party apparatchik without ever having to dirty your hands with power. It’s all there in any political party: publicity, fame of a sort, your mug on TV, relative VIP status, alliances, treason, revenge, blackmail, power struggles, money for consultancy, a book or two …. I mean, why sully your hands with power? Takes the enjoyment out of politics.

The fact is that historically the Left has never really wanted power. The exceptions (from Lenin to Mitterrand) not only wanted it, they knew what to do with it. At least you could say that Blair and Clinton were interested in power, even if they hijacked otherwise innocent and harmless parties. Starmer just doesn’t seem to be interested in anything very much. Even John Crace seems to have gone off him.

PlutoniumKun points out that the Left does not have to be a bunch of wanking losers:

I hate to keep banging on the drum, but the European left needs to study Sinn Fein. They are the model of how a left wing party should focus on one thing only – power. In the early 1980’s they could barely muster about 3% of the vote in the Republic and maybe 10% at most in Northern Ireland. As a party, they are probably even more split internally on left/right, woke/traditional groups, but they never let that get in the way of relentlessly growing their vote share in every election north and south of the border.

It helps that they know their enemies – they hate the ‘internationalist’ left as much as the right, and they are helped by being focused on a nationalist agenda. But they have pretty much vanquished all their enemies/rivals on the left and have taken huge chunks out of their centrist/nationalist alternatives (Fianna Fail in the Republic and the SDLP in the north).

They do it partly by thinking long term – their own leader was poached from FF as a student – they saw her potential and deliberately recruited her. They have no problem with shoving media friendly (usually female and blonde) faces over local activists if needed to win seats. They have no embarrassment about waving the national flag. They revel in the hatred from the Dublin and Belfast mainstream media and establishment and make no attempt whatever to court them. They focus relentlessly on populist issues such as housing and health. They never let a desire for consistency or ‘messaging’ get in the way of what is needed to win a vote. They use the European Parliament and the NI process as a means to develop relationships in the US and Europe to undermine any attempt by the mainstream to marginalise them (it’s hard to marginalise a party which can arrange photoshoots with Bill Clinton and Obama).

There is every chance that in 3 years they will be the largest party following elections north and south of the border. I can’t think of any other example around the world of a political party winning elections in two entirely separate national jurisdictions with two different electoral systems. Given that both the north and south are only marginally urban societies with a very large conservative rural population that is a pretty impressive achievement, especially when you compare it to the pathetic performance of the left in most of Europe.

We’re about to see in the US if mere progressives (albeit young ones who also have generational differences in priorities from party elders) have the cojones to tell the leadership that the usual bait and switching of the Left is no longer on.

By Caroline Molloy, editor of openDemocracy UK and OurNHS, a journalist and speaker. She has written extensively on politics, public services and the welfare state, and has a particular interest in public services and technology. Originally published at openDemocracy

Keir Starmer’s long-awaited, first in-person speech to Labour’s annual conference was predictably dull: a history lesson focused on the industrial revolution and the Blair government, while skipping silently over everything from Clement Atlee to Jeremy Corbyn.

In terms of policy, there was a pledge to spend more on young people’s mental health – without mentioning the widespread privatisation of that service, which currently sees almost half of its NHS funding being funnelled into private health companies.

There was also a vow to “give our young people the tools of the future” in terms of “digital” and “life” skills. Briefings ahead of the speech suggested that, on this, what Starmer had in mind was training young people to understand their credit scores, their private pension savings, and the contracts their landlords ask them to sign.

So, Keir’s big offer? A Labour government that will teach you to better navigate the choppy waters of capitalism, while paying another company to soothe your worries when the stress becomes overwhelming.

“All we have to do is to learn to adapt,” he said, while labouring a long analogy about his father’s factory and the need to “re-tool” ourselves.

Young people want more. Far from embracing their destiny as simply “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”, as Liz Truss, now the foreign secretary, memorably described them in 2018, they want the certainty and security of publicly owned services. Polls routinely show that – just as much as their parents and grandparents – young people support public ownership of everything from buses to energy and water to health services.

According to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, these aren’t “bread and butter issues”.

But tell that to the young person seeing their hope and security eroded by the daily grind of what Reeves calls “everyday economics”. They aren’t wanting “jam on it”, as my mother would say. They’re just sick of theirprivatised bus service jacking up fares and cutting services they rely on to get to college, work or play. Despairing of being unable to afford their own place, given sky-high, privatised utility bills and private rents. Fed up with being paid poverty wages by privatised care companies and call centres, which duck even the minimal adult minimum wage requirements by hiring the young. Stressed by having to compete everywhere – in endless tests, in their online ‘brand’ – in a desperate attempt to win a decent opportunity in a country where, after nearly four decades of privatisation, everything is a marketplace.

And only the privileged can turn to their families for help, with many parents facing the same issues as their children.

No wonder young people are miserable – and that’s before you even get to the impact of global threats such as the pandemic, climate change, right-wing-funded culture wars, and the way Brexit has ended chances of social mobility.

Starmer is quite right to zoom in on mental health – but despite his promises to prioritise prevention, his speech suggests that, in reality, he’ll treat symptoms, not causes.

A pledge for more money to fund support in schools to access treatment more promptly through local “mental health hubs” will be welcomed by mental health charities. But Starmer said nothing of the fact that young people’s mental health is in the state it’s in, in part because in recent years it’s been the most heavily privatised section of our NHS. Currently, 44% of NHS spending in this area goes to the private sector, rising to 97% of all NHS spending when it comes to the most troubled young people. And there have been numerous horror stories about the results.

Starmer did rightly say that the future of the NHS couldn’t “just be about more money”. Was he going to acknowledge the need to stem the billions leaking out to the private sector? No – instead he enthused about how health would be “remade” by a “bewildering” array of robots and virtual reality. “I could talk about this all day,” he said, sounding in reality about as tech-savvy as Boris Johnson in his infamous UN technology speech about how “your mattress will monitor your nightmares”.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    The UK is heading into a very difficult winter with major supply shortages of fuel and many types of food. Any mass political party that can’t win against the Tories in those circumstances does not deserve to exist. And yet, it seems that this is entirely the situation with Labour

    1. Andrew

      Yes, there’s plenty of chickens coming home to roost in Old Blighty at the moment. Winter of discontent 2.0 coming up fast. The Labour Party is a joke these days. Bland centrism isn’t going to get out the vote. As Lambert would say, you can’t beat something with nothing.

      1. No it was not, apparently

        Indeed, that’s why a “nothing” belonging to the Tory party was placed to run Labour.

        After **it hits the fan, having the oppo defenestrated will be key.

    2. .Tom

      The party made a big theater of exterminating a popular movement that was making progress. I don’t think they are shy about being comfortable losers.

  2. No it was not, apparently

    Win against the Tories?

    Hmm,… I thought Starmer was a Tory?

    Sort of like Bill, Hill, and Barry who are Republicans.

    (Oh, sorry, forgot about Joe for a moment. :)

  3. paul

    Blair Starmer QC is not the future, just a hankering for the unendurable present.

    If you believe in a ruling class, they have picked all the winners, the flunkey class that happily profess that,through medical procedure, the bone of adam is all .

    From north britain (copyright gordon brown, MP for kirkaldy before the seat was lost to a unionist party called the SNP) .

  4. SOMK

    On Sinn Féin, there are certain dynamics in Irish politics that would be hard to replicate in other European countries. You have two large centre right parties dating from the civil war, one (Fianna Fáil) operating on a Peronist model (appealing to small farmers, urban workers, etc. whilst being quasi republican), the other (Fine Gael) your more generic conservative pro business kind (serving comprador class business types, accountants, solicitors, et al quasi pro-unionist), Fianna Fáil the Peronist one was arguably one of the most successful parties in Europe until the 2008 crash which they thoroughly owned, Fine Gael then came in taking Labour into coalition, Labour at the time had their biggest share of the vote and were very robust in their rhetoric “it’s Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”. Unlike Fianna Fáil, who aimed their cuts relatively evenly, Fine Gael were rampant in attacking services that mostly affected the least well off, including services for travellers (an ethnic community in Ireland and the UK with an average life expectancy twenty-thirty years behind the ‘settled’ community), rape crisis centres, etc.

    Both the main parties share of the vote were under existential threat, however such are the dynamics that in going into coalition it is often the coalition partner that is punished at the polls. However both main parties have refused to go into government with Sinn Féin full stop, which means that unlike other small parties, such as Labour or the greens, Sinn Féin were untainted, they have also shown a real eye for talent, the main Sinn Féin politicians are streets ahead of their equivalents in either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, for example their spokesman on housing Eoin O’Broin, has written an excellent book on the matter. The type of person who goes into either party as a young person tends to be wealthy and fairly insulated, the current generation of youngish FGer’s in particularly seem extremely culturally removed from their peers.

    Ireland operates on a PR system, so you get coalition governments very often, but given that the normal pattern is for the coalition partner to “take the hit” at the polls this has meant that both parties were relatively bullet proof until now, most polling shows people under 50 now turning away from FF and FG in their droves, this is despite the media being very anti-Sinn Féin in general (it’s been pointed out that asking Sinn Féin politicians to be accountable for IRA actions in the seventies is the equivalent of asking a politicians from the 70’s what they got up to during the civil war, which of course never happened.

    Austerity followed by the most extortionate housing crisis in Europe (Ireland has the highest rate of rent increases in Europe, but also the highest percentage of low wage workers, a small open economy with the associated living costs where the minimum wage os more comparable with much lower cost Mediterranean countries, has hit home hard and it’s starting to bite the middle classes, this Summer/Autumn has seen an unprecedented demand for student accommodation, where finally the the well-to-do are having to face the reality of the rest of the country through the experience of their children.

    You have all that in play, plus a uniquely incompetent government, who are colloquially referred to as the chaos government. You also have Brexit, which has very much made republican thinking far more prevalent and acceptable (the sheer contempt shown to Ireland by the UK has opened a lot of eyes), the prospect of a united Ireland has flushed out the West Brits in the media who seem intent on telling people Ireland ‘can’t afford’ it.

    Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald, came from Fianna Fáil and by all accounts has centre right sensibilities, which she steered Sinn Féin in the direction of the centre right with the idea of making them “more electable”, got murdered at the polls and was convinced to take a more leftist tack which has been very successful. In the last election they only ran some 40-ish candidates and nearly all of them got in (the Dáil/parliament has 160 seats in total), this may have helped too, as it means they have less dross and can effectively play government-in-waiting for the duration of the current mess (it was very noticeable how on the last election night coverage of Sinn Féin by the national broadcaster (RTÉ) became notably more sympathetic once the powers that be realised that a prospect of a Sinn Féin government is very real).

    So there is a legitimacy crisis for the established order (the Church is essentially gone as an influence in Irish society, replaced by the market) coupled with them opening a massive gap for an untainted left-leaning party to sweep in, who only look better the more they are shamelessly attacked and a uniquely acute housing crisis that has been badly/wilfully mismanaged. Plus the prospect of a United Ireland on the horizon, which is very popular with the electorate and Sinn Féin being the only party doing any serious work in that direction.

    If you compare and contrast Starmer and Mary-Lou McDonald, the former was elected as a unifying candidate and proceeded to go to war with the left from day one, tearing up the volunteer structures, draping himself in the butcher’s apron, changing the selection rules and causing people to leave the party (which had bucked the trend Peter Mair pointed to in ‘ruling the void’ of the chronic declining membership of the political party) his actions are more consistent with a spook sent in to “make sure a Corbyn never happened again” rather than someone who genuinely wants win elections for the sake of a “better Britain”. If a new manager hire of a restaurant did what Starmer has done with Labour Party, ie. actively antagonising his customers short of he’d be sacked within a week, or the place would have been bankrupt within a month.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Thats an excellent round-up.

      I would say though that a striking feature of Irish politics is that there has been almost no traction by the far right, and none of the parties have bothered much pandering to it. I think the main reason for this is that Sinn Fein has refused to fall victim to the obsessions of middle class university educated lefties and has focused on bread and butter issues that are meaningful to the majority. Or put simply, the sort of angry working class male vote that has migrated to the far right in much of Europe and the US has been successfully kept within the left wing fold by Sinn Fein. They achieved this not by pandering to racism, but just by making it clear that they put national and ‘ordinary folk’ interests at the centre of their concerns (whether this is genuine or not is a question for another day). I think that is the single biggest lesson they can give other mainstream left parties in Europe.

      I would state that the other issue that is helping them as you suggest is the out-of-touchness of much of the younger centre right. The baffled look on the face of Varadkar as he faced the hostility of his erstwhile soulmates in the Tories and Unionists told quite a story. The South Dublin middle classes with their smug anglophilia were given a cold lesson during Brexit and I think they’ve struggled to come to terms with it. That John Bruton has become a figure of ridicule says a lot.

      The one thing I’d disagree on is the competence of the current government and its impact on the polls. I don’t think there is any particular evidence that they are less competent than past governments – I actually think that (in the low bar of comparing us to our neighbours), they actually did very well with Covid and dealing with post Brexit issues. Lets not forget that the Irish economy is still a star of Europe in raw growth terms. The big error of this government, in particular with FG, is in that they made integrity the rock on which they would fall, and then showed a spectacular lack of integrity over a range of (in the bigger scheme of things) quite small issues. This will really kill them in the polls. People expect a little corruption from FF. They don’t expect it from FG. FF themselves have killed themselves by their failure to carve out a distinctive niche. They are trying to find something in the middle of Sinn Fein and FG, but that space just doesn’t really exist anymore, as between them Labour, SD and the Greens have it more or less wrapped up.

  5. Tom Stone

    There’s a point where the leadership becomes so corrupt and incompetent that things fall apart, the usual response of TPTB is violent repression and censorship.
    We seem to be well along this road in both the UK and the US.

  6. James Simpson

    I don’t regard Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party as one which didn’t want power. They worked their arses off to get in but were stymied by the lies and mendacities of Starmer and his extreme centrist ideologues, for whom the status quo of capitalism does them very well, thank you. It’s very true that the Right is far less willing to compromise, far more organised and far more politically effective than the Left. So many times I see Greens and Labour activists promote radical new programmes, ideas and legislation, only to almost gleefully water them down to please the media, the Tories and that presumed Conservative majority of the British public which I suspect is much smaller than they think. It’s time that the Left decided to go full-tilt for workers’ power in Britain and to hell with compromise. Climate change alone requires this.

    1. JBird4049

      “Extreme centrist ideologues?” Interesting description there. From the very little I understand of British politics, the Labour Party is what Americans would call the Democrats and the Republicans would call communist.

      Much as I am driven to actual despair over my country’s federal, state, and local governments’ corruption and incompetence, perhaps better said as greed and stupidity, politics on the other side of the Atlantic still seems slightly less bat-s—- crazy or reactionary, as the United States is. Not much to be please about, true, but it is there. Although the chatter over vaginas and trans rights seems a bit… extreme I’ll grant, even for this Californian’s state’s politics, but only very slightly.

    2. Alex Cox

      If Corbyn had really wanted power he would have done two things: 1. Remove the party aparachiks in London who were constantly briefing against him; and 2. Give each constituency the power to deselect their MP and, if they chose to do so, select a new one. Too many Labour MPs were parachuted in by London and deeply unpopular with the locals.

      Corbyn is a very decent man, but without getting the party behind him, which would have involved some ruthlessness, he faced too many enemies to succeed.

  7. Anonymous 2

    I see the latest opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives would squeak back in with a majority of 2 seats on the back of a popular vote a shade under 40% of the electorate.

    The UK’s real problem is that the political system is dysfunctional. Until that is fixed, I reckon nothing gets fixed.

    Labour’s opposition to PR over the last 40 years has been a disaster both for the Left and for the UK. It has allowed the forces of the Right to march the UK ever further to the right.

    1. vlade

      While that is true, Labour as it is now is entirely dysfunctional party, that seems to exists mostly to keep those who want to play the office politics in an environment where they can do relatively little damage (in theory, in practice it means the democracy is getting holed under the waterline a lot) – and I say that as someone who thought Starmer _might_ have had non-zero positive value few years back – there goes my political estimation acumen..

  8. Ven

    This whole “left don’t want power” argument is ridiculous. The left – Corbyn – was sabotaged by the centrists from the outset. We need to redefine “left’ on both sides of The Atlantic, and face the fact that the parties are all in the pay of elites and preserving the status quo. Unfortunately the left is not going to win in this system; all the cards are against it. And if “winning” means going to the centre and being sycophantic to the rich, then it is time we gave up this charade – and the cover for pretend democracy that it provides.

    1. chuck roast

      Yes, the ever infinitely malleable “left.” Words have meaning, and it appears these days that the word “left” is typically and widely used as a smear. The lazy brain response meant to mean, “You know…the a$$holes.” PK’s description of the Fenian’s political project…and it is clearly a political project…is both interesting and instructive. They want power. They know how to get it. And they will know what to do with it once they get it. A Leninist critique if I ever heard one. The very definition of “hard left”. Nothing malleable about that. Up the Fenians!

    2. vlade

      I can’t say whether Corbyn _wanted_ power.

      But he never _acted_ as if he wanted power. His all political career was built on being a disruptive element, but unlike say Sanders, who actually run things, he never had and exercised power.

      I said it before, and will say it again – he’d have been a great party ideologue, but he was a horrible party leader.

  9. Mel

    It seemed from the time Starmer took the leadership that he was setting up to be the second head of a two-headed Uniparty, such as we know in the U.S. Nothing seems to have changed.

  10. Eustachedesaintpierre

    I try to avoid anything to do with Starmer as it’s too depressing as in the ultimate damp squib – saw something the other day when he was involved in a tussle with Javid about who is in possession of a cervix, relating to Trans rights & how their uplifting is having the opposite effect on those who do truly possess one.

    Here in NI Sinn Fein have succeeded with measures that have protected those who are most vulnerable to the austerity butchers knife, like a fund that protects against the bedroom tax, fighting off public sector redundancies while setting up local projects to help with housing problems etc. They also have a strong presence in communities, who are not shy in letting them know when they are not happy.

    A friend of mine told me about large local meetings complete with a large patriotic speeches given by the likes of Gerry Adams that once finished, were always greeted at their end with many including his Mother standing up & complaining very loudly about various issues in a kind of – never mind that ” what youse gonna do about the water, bins or whatever sort of a way.

    Good to hear from Clive.

  11. caloba

    Prime Minister Harold Wilson was once dining in the House of Commons with left-wing cabinet minister Barbara Castle and backbencher Bryan Magee. The division bell rang and they all had to leave mid-meal for a vote. When they returned, the dinners of Wilson and Magee had been left for them to resume, but Castle’s had been cleared away. Barbara at once set off for the kitchens to find out where her plate had gone. Magee asked Wilson whether they should continue eating or wait for her. “Forget about Barbara,” said Wilson, “she’d far rather have a grievance than her dinner”.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      That reminds me of a popular story told in Irish Labour party circles about the now President, Michael D. Higgins, a prominent supporter of various national liberation movements (so long as they were not in Ireland). Back in the 1980’s when the Chair of a crucial meeting to discuss some very contentious internal party matters asked where Higgins was, he was told that he was at a pro-Sandinista rally somewhere. ‘Typical’, the Chairman said ‘when given the choice of saving the Irish Labour Party or saving the world, Michael D always picks the easy option’.

  12. PKMKII

    Starmer sounds more like a corporate HR rep offering lunchtime mindfulness classes in lieu of benefits than the leader of a major political party.

  13. lance ringquist

    i am waiting for the real left, the real left hates free trade, and understands the implications of what free trade really is.

    the real left never takes its eye of off the ball, and is not duped by a clinton or blair type.

    the labour party like the democrats will keep losing till nafta billy clintons polices are driven out of the parties, or the parties are doomed.

    nationalism, sovereignty and protectionism is fundamental to liberty and freedom, the real left knows this.

    free trade, deregulation, privatization, tax cuts for wealthy parasites, jim crow laws all go hand in hand. you cannot put these under democratic control, deregulation, privatization, tax cuts for wealthy parasites, jim crow laws, if you leave this in place, free trade.

    free trade is simply corporate colonization of our sovereign state.

    without sovereignty, you cannot address the rest of the problems.

    this was spoken out loud by nafta billy clinton when he was asked why are you letting corporations write all of the rules?
    nafta billy responded, we do not want some government getting in the way of trade, when he meant was no democratic control.

    unions want a raise, nafta billy ceo says we are going to mexico, a sanders type of dupe says we want environmental regulations, a nafta billy ceo says we are off to china, and we get to export to the american market, tax free, and free of all pesky regulation and taxation.

    and of course our exports drive your population into poverty, so we now need a police state(jim crow laws)to keep violence down.

    the real left knows what sovereignty is.

  14. Sound of the Suburbs

    I am a centrist.
    I don’t want to change anything too much.
    What’s wrong with the way things are?

    This is what centrists are supposed to be like.

  15. ven

    Don’t forget Starmer was the Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, when it sought to pressure the Swedish prosecution service NOT to drop its case against Assange. So lets not be under any delusions about Starmer and ‘new’ labour; and whose interests he represents. Truly Blair 2.

  16. Harry

    Very interesting and I very much appreciate the perspectives.

    Personally, after having voted Labour all my life, I will be probably be voting Tory in the next election. I will never vote for “bigoteers”. The tactic, particularly when used against people of color, is immediately and universally disqualifying. I know Brexit was idiocy, and I know the Tories are corrupt but this one sin I cannot abide. Accusing black and brown people of antisemitism to sideline them is just not on.

  17. Ignacio

    Very happy to see Clive contributing if not to bring good news from the Labour Party and the discussion thereafter. There is some, timid, turn to the left in parts of Europe. See Germany, the ever leftist Portugal and the struggling left in Spain (always struggling but there is pushing for policies that are mixed but a relief from the horrible conservative policy that was dominating after 2008).

    Nothing like having power to want to repeat and keep it and stop playing the foolish clever but innocuous leftist. I am wondering whether Johnson could make it so bad as to give it to, unfornunately, another Blairite.

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