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General Election 2024: Leaders’ Debate – incisive report

7th Jun 2024

By  Elle Lindsay

With less than one month to go until the electorate heads to the polls to elect a new UK government, this week saw the first head-to-head leaders’ debate with Rishi Sunak (Conservatives) and Sir Keir Starmer (Labour).

This week, the first General Election MRP (multi-level regression and post-stratification: a method to analyse poll results) poll indicated that the Tories could be left with just 140 seats1 (down from the 365 they won in 2019). This backdrop to the debate potentially meant that Sunak was under more pressure to shore up support than Starmer. Nonetheless, the debate felt largely toothless: the format left something to be desired, as each leader had only 45 seconds to respond to questions posed by the audience. This meant that on complex issues such as taxation and immigration, there was a lack of clarity on each party’s specific policies. It was also not the clash of titans that one might expect from a leaders’ debate, with lots of noise and rhetoric distracting from the real issues. So, what did we actually learn?

The first half of the debate focused on the cost of living and taxes, with a fairly weak section on health and social care. Perhaps predictably, each leader spent as much time criticising the other party’s track record than laying out their own policies. Whilst audience members tried to communicate the true impact of the cost-of-living crisis, there was the sense that Sunak was aloof or out of touch at best, whilst Starmer was more interested in criticising the Tories’ 14-year record than spelling out how he would generate change.

Notably, Rishi Sunak repeatedly referenced the fact that under Labour, each working household would be £2000 worse off due to tax increases; however, Keir Starmer denied the accuracy of the claim once Sunak had used it almost 10 times to suggest why the electorate would be better off under a conservative government. It is important to note that Sunak’s £2000 claim has been heavily criticised since the debate for a few reasons:2

  • The cost was calculated by adding up how much the Conservatives claim Labour’s spending plans would cost and are therefore subject to inaccuracies, especially as Labour denied that some of the items in the document are truly their real policies
  • Sunak claimed that “independent treasury officials” had calculated the figure, when the document actually included costs beyond those provided by the civil service
  • Sunak never made clear that the estimated £2000 figure was summed over 4 years (reflecting an increase of £500 per year)

Nonetheless, with each leader being gifted with only 45 seconds to speak at a time and no specific format for effective cross examination, Starmer was ineffective at rebuking Sunak’s claim.

When questioned about the “broken” NHS, both leaders referenced the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic; however, no clear policy plans or solutions were laid out. Both Sunak and Starmer spoke about their personal experiences with the NHS, but the only real point of difference came when they were asked whether they would access private healthcare if a loved one was on an NHS waiting list: Sunak said “yes”, Starmer said “no”. Overall, this disappointing section on healthcare might have left viewers feeling that whilst both leaders could acknowledge the problems associated with the NHS, neither party was armed with solutions. Interestingly, throughout the debate, there was often little to separate the policies the leaders set out. Even the way they criticised one another was the same, with both claiming their opposition couldn’t be trusted based on their past performances.

The second half of the debate focused on a wider range of issues and perhaps offered more insight into what life under a Conservative or Labour government would look like:

Immigration requires a nuanced debate which the 45-second format did not allow. As a result, “immigration” was not contextualised and became a negative, catch-all term, when in reality it is incredibly important to the economy and “irregular arrivals” account for <5% of immigration.3

This brief section was little more than a race to the bottom, with both leaders trying to take a tough stance. Sunak set out that he would harness the Rwanda scheme as a deterrent and criticised Labour for having no plan, meanwhile Starmer paradoxically accused the Tories of being too liberal, whilst promising that unlike the Conservatives, Labour would tackle the immigration “problem” in accordance with international law.

Unsurprisingly, the leaders were questioned about their stance on Gaza. Both parties’ perspectives have been criticised in recent months, but there was close alignment between Sunak and Starmer’s responses: the leaders acknowledged that the situation is horrific and they are now calling for an immediate cease fire, the release of hostages, and the provision of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Both spoke of the importance of a lasting, 2-state resolution. Such harmony was short lived however, as Sunak took the opportunity to claim that the country would be safer under the Conservatives due to their pledge that they would increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP. In rebuttal, Starmer raised his background in the crown prosecution service but did not clarify Labour’s overall position on defence.

Consensus was briefly revisited when questions arose regarding their relationships with the US: both Sunak and Starmer made it clear that the “special relationship” between the UK and US transcended the person in the White House, meaning that if Trump is reelected in November this year, we would continue to cooperate with such a close ally. These tight-lipped and diplomatic responses were unsurprising under the circumstances, with neither potential future prime minister willing to overtly criticise a potential future president.

The remainder of the debate felt more rushed, as both leaders tried hard to outwit one another in the dying embers of the debate; however, from mildly clashing over climate change to competing on their offers to the younger generation, neither leader managed to land a death blow. With both parties having broken promises regarding the environment, there was little virtue signalling and more of a focus from the Conservative leader on what his opposition would do wrong as opposed to what he would do right. Both leaders promised to prioritise energy security and lowering bills, but Sunak criticised labour for banning North Sea energy and prioritising a green agenda over people’s finances. Starmer on the other hand focused on Labour’s positive plan to transition to renewables and denied that Labour had broken promises: they pledge to produce a fully-costed plan to shift to clean energy by 2030 and also to create Great British Energy – a publicly owned company that will be at the forefront of the UK’s drive to renewables.

Sunak and Starmer then clashed over the Conservatives new plan to introduce mandatory national service for 18 year olds. Interestingly, the audience laughed when Sunak defended the scheme, leaving the door open for Starmer to criticise it as a gimmick, stating that it was flawed, not enforceable, and unfunded. Both leaders however set out that their party would provide young people with greater financial security, with both referencing the current inability of the younger generation to get on the housing ladder. Such a pledge may have fallen upon deaf ears however, as from flawed higher education opportunities to the high average age of first-time home ownership, young people likely feel that they are getting a particularly raw deal at the moment.

Overall, the debate never quite seemed to take off. Arguably, Sunak spoke about more labour policies than Starmer did due to his criticism of them. As a result, Starmer spent more time debunking Sunak’s claims than actually laying out his party’s policies. In their closing statements, both leaders spent much of their time attacking the other party instead of focusing on a positive plan for the country. Starmer claimed that 5 more years of Conservative leadership would cause further chaos and that Sunak was only offering gimmicks and unfunded promises. Sunak’s main argument on the other hand can be summarised by the phrase “better the devil you know”, claiming that Labour represented more uncertainty and that at least the electorate knew when the Conservatives stood for.

So, who won?

According to the Conservatives, Labour have “no plan”; according to Labour, the Conservatives have a poor record from the past 14 years and a future under Tory rule does not look brighter. Officially, a YouGov snap poll after the debate had Rishi Sunak narrowly winning, with 51% of viewers responding that Rishi Sunak performed best;4 however, the debate may have left the audience feeling that in our current situation there are no winners, only losers, namely society.

1YouGov, 2024. Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/49606-first-yougov-mrp-of-2024-general-election-shows-labour-on-track-to-beat-1997-landslide

2Office for Statistics Regulation, 2023. Available at: https://osr.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/news/osr-highlights-the-importance-of-transparency-in-election-claims/

3Home Office, 2024. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/irregular-migration-to-the-uk-year-ending-march-2024

4YouGov, 2024. Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/49618-general-election-2024-itv-debate-snap-poll

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