Opinion

There's no debate – the fate of the UK will not be decided by big mouth over small mouth

The UK needs to move towards a serious politics that recognises the depth of poverty and how it thwarts government plans and destroys government budgets

Sunak and Starmer debate

Sunak v Starmer: The ITV Debate. Image: Jonathan Hordle/ITV/Shutterstock

How impolite do things have to get before we can get to the so-called truth? I watched the Starmer/Sunak debate last week and realised that it was fraught from the start. You can’t ask two professional politicians who are seriously ambitious about the next election to debate coolly, when among the audience are many who have been injured by the political and economic processes of the last dozen years or more. 

That adversarial kind of TV is a joke anyway, an extension of the joke that you have in the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions. The contest of the shouting mouths. If we were sure that we needed to elect shouting mouths – talking and disagreeingly mocking leaders – then ‘Combatants’ TV’ might be a good way of establishing the skills necessary for that leadership.

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If you were watching the Rugby World Cup last summer you could have seen the forerunner of last week’s first debate when the New Zealand All Blacks came out to mock and threaten the opposing side with their warriors’ ritual. But there was of course a true purpose to these insulting gestures and sounds: to demonstrate their prowess ahead of the game. I didn’t see political prowess or any kind of transferable skill shown on last week’s piece of theatrical TV. No one, as my Irish mother would have said, “came off handsome” – that is, impressive. 

Last week’s general election debate doesn’t get you very far down the line to understanding what these two leaders have planned for us if they get the levers of power again, or for the first time. The incumbent defending their record whilst the aspirant defends their ability to take the country somewhere new. An insulting few weeks are before us. But will we at the end be any the wiser in our decision making?

Abraham Lincoln, in the early days of trying to rise from being a dirt-poor local politician, would I believe wrestle with political opponents; and in those rough-hewn days never lost a contest. It probably did him no harm as he rose to become the 16th president of the United States. Last week’s wrangle was a variation on that theme. But the world has got more serious since then, and the fate of the UK will not be decided by big mouth over small mouth.  

What will decide our future together in these isles will be who looks out for our security, laying down defences against world events. And who will address the appalling waiting lists for hospitals while we face a bigger demand for health provision than ever before. We have more sick, more old, more depressed and more poor than we can cope with. ‘More of the same’ seems to have disappeared as a viable option some years ago. It seems to be a question, not of being able to stay as we were, but of a future of increasing troubles. If only we were seeing ‘more of the same’ then we could at least arrest our decline. But we are not.

I think the debate has become so passionately angled because the Liz Truss meltdown really did add new fears for all of us. Could such a piece of political ambition by a new prime minister create such havoc in the money markets that it did actually create more poverty? Instant poverty? Are we that exposed? How much of our future is tied up in political personality?

Shouldn’t we actually encourage such crap debating as last week’s TV debate to show the underside of who we’re voting for? So rational decisions can be made because we’ve seen what a personality does to money markets and therefore to savings and cost of living increases. 

Boris Johnson, defeated by his own personality, was replaced by another personality who led us towards economic meltdown. We need a new personality to replace the existing one; or simply stick with the existing one. So it seems that the cost of living crisis grew out of political ambition. Out of a ‘choosing the right personality’ contest. So the TV squabble may have served a purpose.

Let’s find out how rational a person is, so to say, by bombarding them with questions from an injured audience and then over-talk them. Yet what is glaringly obvious is that the NHS is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sick people in society. And that behind it all is the fact that there are too many people in poverty and that poverty is the biggest cause of illness.  

And we have a political elite running a governmental machine that does not address the elephant in the room: the continuation and duplication of poverty in people’s lives. Robbing society of poverty by spending on the prevention of inherited poverty, and on curing poverty, rather than on maintaining people in poverty, would lead to the most productive change in our society. Yet there is precious little discussion about dismantling poverty. Or that poverty is the big bad wolf in our economy.  

The UK needs to move towards a serious politics that recognises the depth of poverty and how it thwarts government plans and destroys government budgets. Our schools and our hospitals and our community are left to pick up the costs of poverty and the damage it leaves in its trail. I suggest the candidates don’t allow themselves the mockery of another election debate. Start honing your poverty-dismantling skills and exposing them to us all. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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