General Election leaders’ debate: an evening of soundbites and spats

Head of Public Affairs, Craig Lawton, analyses the first live leader debate of this General Election campaign. 5th June 2024


Leadership debates are supposed to give us a better idea of what the parties stand for. 

During the first live debate of this General Election – a head to head between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer – we also got a glimpse of what we can expect from the two main parties over the next few weeks as the country prepares to vote on 4th July.

There were clear lines – repeated numerous times in the hope that they would stick – from both participants.

Expect the Conservatives to repeat the soundbite that Labour will increase taxes by £2,000 per person, while insisting “we don’t know what Keir Starmer will do.”

In comparison, Labour will rely on the record of Liz Truss – named checked multiple times – and other Conservative leaders of the last 14 years, while reminding us of Starmer’s experience and leadership from his time as Director of Public Prosecutions. 

With modern elections fought more on our social media than our doorsteps, these clips will have already been posted online and aimed at each party’s intended demographics and algorithms.

The bad-tempered affair saw the two leaders interrupting each other and fighting to get the last word in throughout the hour long broadcast. It was no surprise then, that the biggest applause of the night from the live studio audience came in response to moderator Julie Etchingham’s request for no more interruptions.

As seems to be the case with modern elections and politics, can we expect the next four weeks of campaigning to be as equally bad tempered?

With neither party publishing their manifesto by the time of the broadcast, the policy discussions at this point focused mainly on what each party stood for, as opposed to detailing specific policies.

On climate change, Sunak set out that the UK needs to meet its Net Zero targets to ensure energy security and reduce the cost of living, adding that there is still a role for North Sea energy to play here.

Echoing the need for energy security and lower bills, Starmer however reminded us that renewables offer an opportunity to achieve these goals as well as create more jobs.

Discussing housing, Starmer hinted at more opportunities for house building, setting out how governments need to work with elected mayors (in England) and local authorities to ensure more homes can be built.

Taking a more cautious approach, Sunak agreed that more houses are needed, but reiterated that this does not mean concreting over the countryside.

Focussing on taxation, Sunak reminded us of the Conservatives’ ‘triple lock plus’ pledge on pensions to make sure people do not pay tax on their state pension.

Starmer instead took aim at tax loopholes for ‘non-doms’- something Sunak said he has already done – while also setting out increased taxes for oil and gas companies.

And while policies are of course extremely important, for many watching it will also come down to who said it better; who sounded more convincing; and who they felt they could trust.

In the coming days it will be intriguing to see whether the Conservatives, Labour, or even one of the parties not involved in the debate, experiences a bounce in the polls over the coming days.


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