Sunak Vs. Starmer – June 3rd Election Debate Analysis

Ahead of the July 4 elections, UK’s conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the leader of the opposition party, Keir Starmer, went head-to-head in their first live television debate on June 3rd, 2024, in the northwestern town of Salford. 

The leaders engaged in a heated debate on several key issues, including tax, immigration, and the state of the National Health Services (NHS). Sunak, with a more aggressive approach, accused Starmer and his party of planning to impose a hefty £2000 tax on working-class people. On the other hand, Starmer seemed to take a more passive stance, failing to counter Sunak’s claims.

Migration was a hot topic in the debate. Starmer, for the first time, suggested that he was not opposed to considering the idea of processing asylum claims in a third-world country, provided it was in accordance with international law. Sunak, on the other hand, successfully pointed out flaws in the Labor Party’s migration policy. However, he could not provide a satisfactory answer to the figures of asylum seekers who crossed the English Channel that Starmer quoted. This exchange shed light on the leaders’ differing views on a crucial issue. 

 Both Sunak and Starmer did not show much intention to tackle issues related to climate change and net zero. Sunak spoke disapprovingly of the previous policies set in place by the Conservative governments and said measures like heat pumps, electric cars and the use of renewable energy – which the opposition party has promoted and encouraged a lot – would cost each household “thousands of pounds”. Starmer also lent himself to criticism on the issue after his party failed to address climate change, and he backtracked on a plan to spend £28 billion. But rather than dismissing the issue as expensive as Sunak did, he clearly stressed the party’s pledge to shift to clean power by 2030. 

Sunak, who worked at a hedge fund and is one of the UK’s wealthiest people, blamed NHS waiting lists on doctors’ strikes and drew laughs from the audience when he said that the numbers were going down “because they were higher before”.  Sunak mentioned that people in Wales have a 40% longer waiting period for the NHS than people in England. Starmer, however, criticised the Conservative Party for leaving the NHS far worse than when they came to power about 14 years ago. He mentioned how the waiting list has grown from 7.2 million people to 7.5 million despite Sunak’s claims that it is going down. When asked if a loved one was on a long waiting list for surgery, would they prefer private health care, Sunak answered he would, but Starmer said he would not.  “I don’t use private health. I use the NHS. That’s where my wife works in one of the big hospitals; as I said, it runs through my DNA,” Starmer added.

While these were the major issues discussed in the debate, Starmer pointed to Sunak’s party’s track record in the government, saying he should be “ashamed of the last 14 years.” He brought up Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, and made references to her relatively short 49-day stint in office. Both men were told to lower their voices and not speak over each other. They both got personal to seem more relatable and empathise with the viewers. When talking about the NHS, Sunak mentioned how his mom was a pharmacist and his dad, a GP and the Labour leader, brought up his mother, a nurse. In the section about the cost-of-living crisis, Starmer mentioned how the phone in his home was cut off when he was young. 

After the debate, a YouGov poll showed Sunak slightly ahead. 51% of respondents said that he performed better overall compared to 49% for Starmer. In terms of individual issues, the respondents said that Starmer did much better than Sunak on the cost of living, the NHS, education, and climate change. On the other hand, Sunak seemed to do well in tax and immigration. 

With Sunak’s party having a rough time at the polls, his performance might improve his party’s image. Since the campaign began, the Labour Party has held a firm lead over the Conservatives. Despite both leaders touching upon issues that are significant concerns for the voters, Sunak seemed to be the apparent choice as the winner. This debate leaves the audience to decide whether they want to choose “more chaos and division” with the Conservatives or “turning the page and rebuilding with Labour” – in the words of Starmer himself. 

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