Politics

'We need better politics than this': Sunak and Starmer's election debate leaves voters unimpressed

'Instead of giving soundbite answers and posturing to the public, we really needed to hear substance from both parties'

Screenshot of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer during the ITV News debate on Thursday 4 June

‘We need better politics than this’: Viewers react as Sunak and Starmer go head-to-head in ITV debate (ITV News/screenshot)

Politicians, experts and voters have reacted as prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer have gone head-to-head in the first debate of 2024’s general election campaign. 

Covering key topics to this year’s election, the two politicians discussed issues including the NHS, climate change, housing and taxation. 

Viewers seemed less than impressed with Sunak and Starmer’s performances, however, with many criticising the format which meant the politicians had only 45 seconds to answer questions from voters. 

Others joked that the format also meant that Sunak and Starmer seemed to interrupt each other and host Julie Etchingham many times throughout the hour-long debate aired on ITV. 

“What an unedifying spectacle we’ve had so far, with both men speaking over each other,” former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas wrote on X. “We need better politics than this.”

With plenty of topics to cover, here’s what viewers thought of the main topics covered in the ITV debate. 

The NHS and healthcare

Starmer and Sunak were asked about several aspects of the NHS, including waiting lists, strikes and private healthcare.

The audience at ITV’s debate were heard groaning at several points during discussion on the NHS, with Sunak claiming high waiting lists were because “the NHS was impacted by industrial action“.

An NHS worker reacted: “As someone who works on a medical ward on the frontline of the NHS I can categorically say that it isn’t strikes which have broken it. It’s chronic staff shortages caused by poor wages and challenging working conditions, plus the fragmentation resulting from privatisation.”

While many topics relating to the NHS were covered during the debate between Sunak and Starmer, viewers explained that the format of the programme meant there wasn’t enough time to delve into the issue with enough depth.

“Please explain precisely how you would fix the NHS. You have 30 seconds to answer while being spoken over by two people. Ready. Set. Go,” one viewer joked.

Taxes

One key point Rishi Sunak brought up numerous times is that there would be “£2,000 higher taxes for every working family” under a Labour government, a figure which Labour disputes. According to fact-checkers, the numbers seem to be based on Conservative estimates of Labour spending plans.

Some viewers, however, claimed they didn’t necessarily want tax cuts, but instead wanted fully-funded public services.

“I don’t want tax cuts or need them, what I want is funded public services, clean rivers, fully-funded schools,” one viewer wrote on X. “Which party can fund these in the future if it’s not funded through… fair taxation?”

Caroline Lucas added that neither party had explained how they would invest in public services using taxes on the “super wealthy”. She added that those taxes may be used to “reverse the obscene two-child benefit cap” or “insulate homes”.

Housing and renting

Both Sunak and Starmer spoke of the need to help young people get on the property ladder, with Sunak saying he wanted “everyone to feel what I felt when I got the keys to my first flat”.

Protection for renters, however, were noticeably absent from the debate, with neither party laying out how they would help with the skyrocketing costs of renting.

Money expert Martin Lewis wrote on X: “We need a question on renting. The situation is dire for renters. The costs are rocketing, their rights are limited, renters need better.”

One viewer added: “I don’t have a single interest in buying a house, what I DO want is a secure tenancy on a place with decent rent. When did social housing stop being included in this debate?”

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Immigration

Both Starmer and Sunak spoke of the need to lower immigration in the UK, with Sunak claiming that if the Conservatives win in July, he would continue with his plans for deportation flights to Rwanda.

“Stick to our plan and illegal migrants will be on those planes – with Labour they will be out on our streets,” he said.

Notably, Keir Starmer also agreed that he would consider processing asylum claims in third countries “if that was possible to do it in compliance with international law”.

Many viewers disagreed with the way immigration was handled by both Sunak and Starmer in the debate, however, with both politicians emphasising that they would lower immigration and tackle “small boats” crossing to the UK.

“It would be great if Sunak or Starmer took a second to talk about the positives of immigration and all the ways it benefits the country,” one viewer wrote.

Another viewer explained: “Everyone I know has beloved relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbours who came from overseas! The public services that these politicians claim to value are massively staffed by people who immigrated here!”

Climate change

The climate crisis was tackled by both politicians, with Starmer highlighting the need to invest in renewable energy, and Sunak explaining that climate change is a global issue, rather than one for the UK to fix alone.

“I don’t think the British people should solve a global problem all by themselves, which is why I am also prioritising energy security and your bills,” Sunak said.

“We are going to stick to the targets we have put in place, but we are going to do it in a way that saves you all money. I am not going to impose thousands of pounds of costs on you to rip out your boiler, change your car, convert your home.”  

Climate groups, however, have underlined that there are affordable ways for the public to switch to greener choices, like insulation and heat pumps.

“You know what would make it more affordable? A proper government scheme to roll out insulation and heat pumps to low-income households and make it easier for all,” Greenpeace wrote.

Rosie Downes, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth, described the discussion on climate as “astoundingly poor”.

“There was no accountability for recent backtracking on green policies by both parties, with the prime minister denying outright that he scaled back his ambitions,” Downes said in a statement.

“The Labour leader did fare somewhat better by recognising the huge opportunities the transition to a green, clean economy will bring in terms of lower energy bills, new jobs and a safer more secure future, but neither fully acknowledged the scale of the challenge ahead.

“Instead of giving soundbite answers and posturing to the public, we really needed to hear the substance of how both parties intend to meet the UK’s climate and nature targets, for which we’re veering dangerously off track.”

The next debate, which will include leaders from the seven biggest parties in the UK, will air on BBC One on Friday (7 June) from 7.30pm. 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more

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