Rishi Sunak And Keir Starmer's First Election Debate: The Facts Behind The Claims

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer have gone head-to-head in their first TV debate of the 2024 election campaign. Here, we look at the evidence behind some of the claims they made with the help of academic expertise.

The cost of living

The opening question in this debate came from Paula, a member of the public who says the cost of living has left her in extreme hardship.

Sunak tells Paula that the Economy is growing and assured her that he has a“plan” that is working.

A snapshot of the British economy provided by economist Michael Nower at the time the election was called a few weeks ago does show that those who have been struggling to make ends meet are experiencing improvements. Some household costs are at last coming down and others, such as food prices, have been rising more slowly than they have been in recent years.

But prices continue to rise for mortgage holders, as does the cost of non-essentials and social care – a burden for many families. The overall picture is therefore mixed.

The debate in full.

Starmer insists the government“has lost control” of the economy and that working people pay the price. However, Labour has been consistently criticised for being far too cautious on this matter. Matthew T. Johnson of Northumbria University and Matthew Flinders from the University of Sheffield argue that the party can afford to offer a far more ambitious vision for spending .

Their argument is based on a nationally representative survey of voters, including over 800 people in red wall constituencies.

This suggests that the voting public are on board with raising taxes in the interests of improving life for people like Paula.

Who is to blame for NHS waiting times?

The two leaders argued about whether NHS waiting times are rising or coming down, with Starmer quipping that he thought Sunak is meant to be“good at maths” when he appeared to become confused over the numbers.

Sunak attempted to blame waiting times on industrial action, but a survey conducted by a group of academics found that the voting public has very little time for this explanation. Even when people have to wait for the treatments they need, they are far more likely to blame politicians than striking doctors.

But the academics have a warning for both sides on this point:

Immigration and asylum

Audience member Steven asked both candidates to address years of“broken promises” on immigration. Sunak says he would put annual caps on legal migration. But looking back at the past 14 years shows many before him have attempted to play this numbers game and failed.

In his recent overview of net migration targets, Rob McNeil of Oxford's Migration Observatory argues that although they can be a convenient political tool,“the reality was (and still is) that government only has limited control over who comes and goes”.

Read more: New data shows net migration falling − what's actually behind the numbers

On asylum, Sunak stuck by his Rwanda plan, which – having been ruled unlawful by the supreme court – has been revamped and kicked into the long grass. Sunak said it is a deterrent policy that is ready to go, and that, if he is still prime minister, flights to Rwanda will take off in July.

Matilde Rosina, assistant professor in global challenges at Brunel University London, has explained why strategies of deterrence fail to stop migration flows.

Sunak has stuck by his Rwanda plan to stop the boats. Yui Mok/PA images

Sunak indicated he would be willing to pull the UK out of the European Court of Human Rights if it would help the Rwanda plan. Starmer, meanwhile, said he would not pull the UK out of international agreements, which the audience applauded.

Joelle Grogan of UK in a Changing Europe (King's College London) has explained why leaving the ECHR would do more to damage the UK's international reputation than it would to stopping the boats.

Tax pledges

There was a bitter exchange about tax, even though both leaders say the same thing – that they would not raise national insurance, income tax or VAT. But moderator Julie Etchingham revealed that ITV has been inundated with questions about how spending commitments will therefore be met.

This reflects polling showing that voters don't believe either Labour or the Conservatives when they make these promises on tax.

Want more election coverage from The Conversation's academic experts? Over the coming weeks, we'll bring you informed analysis of developments in the campaign and we'll fact check the claims being made.

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Alan Shipman, an economist at the Open University, reverse engineered their fiscal commitments to see if they really can keep taxes as they are without making major cuts to public spending.

It's possible, he concludes, but very difficult.

Triple lock for pensioners

Sunak's response to the tax questions was to point to his pledge to introduce a“triple lock plus” for pensions, which he says will mean that state pensioners will never pay tax on the state pension.

As economist Jonquil Lowe points out :

Under the current triple lock, pensions rise with whatever is greatest: inflation, average earnings or 2.5%.

Because the Conservatives have frozen income tax thresholds until 2028, the number of pensioners being dragged into paying tax that they didn't expect has risen. The triple lock plus would also raise the tax-free personal allowance in tandem with pensions.

Lowe questions whether the policy, which she calculates could save some pensioners about £400 over the next three years, is really a good use of resources, given the current state of the UK's public services.

Young people and national service

While the triple lock plus is a policy squarely aimed at wooing older voters, a young audience member called Miles asked when the two leaders would prioritise his generation after a difficult few years trying to get an education through the pandemic and now trying to cope with the housing crisis.

Sunak's response was to call his proposal to introduce national service a great opportunity for young people.

Miles's visible displeasure at Sunak's“big idea” echoes the sentiments of Jo Aubrey, a specialist in youth and community work, when she heard about Sunak's policy. She cited many of the problems Miles raised when she insisted last week that his generation has been through enough and should not be asked for more – or be painted as the problem.

Starmer said Labour's plan to build 1.5 million new homes would help young people. Clare Louise Jackson/Shutterstock End of round 1: will it make a difference?

This was just the first in a series of debate nights that will take place across the election campaign over the next month. But will any of these make a difference?

Research shows that our relationship with these TV debates is a strange one. We tend to think other people will be heavily swayed by what happens on the screen but that we will be impervious to the political pantomime. As this article points out:

If you don't feel like you've learnt much about their policies from watching the two leaders duke it out for an hour, you're probably not alone. However, these events can nevertheless be useful for enabling voters to get to know the personalities of the party leaders, which is especially useful for voters who are yet to make up their mind.

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