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The Election Explained: The First TV Debate – Reaction

June 5, 2024

As we gear up for the General Election, Edge Hill’s politics team - both staff and students – will be looking ahead to what is coming and highlighting key aspects of the contest. Today, Senior Lecturer Paula Keaveney reacts to the first TV debate between Labour leader Keir Starmer and prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Seconds out of the ring- round one… Last night (4 June) saw the first of an increasingly crowded calendar of leaders’ debates ahead of the General Election. These are high stakes occasions for the principals and their teams. But what do they mean? And what can we take from last night’s performances?

Leaders’ election debates in the UK are a reasonably recent creation. The effect of the first televised leaders’ debate in 2010 came as a surprise to many. These were the days of Cleggmania – when a strong performance by then Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg highlighted how polls can be moved by a single TV event. There was great interest in the innovation with a House of Lords committee taking evidence on the debates’ success or otherwise.

In the UK we are less used to these debates than they are in the US – when notably the TV version of the Nixon-Kennedy exchanges in 1960  provided a welcome boost for the younger man.

While we can all see what happens on the screen, we don’t always know what goes on in the “spin room”. And we rarely get a glimpse of negotiations over format, length, participants and audience. The difficulties of getting parties to agree led Sky News to campaign for an independent commission to make those decisions. But we are where we are. Parties deal with the broadcasters, who in turn want to boost ratings.

Of course, Nick Clegg didn’t become Prime Minister in 2010. “Winning” a debate is not the same as winning an election. So, what can we take from last night’s ITV Sunak-Starmer bout?

Well, not much…

A snap You Gov poll once it was over showed that 51 per cent thought Sunak performed better on the night. But that narrow lead obscures good showings for Starmer on some issues. And You Gov also reports that experience-wise, more people found the debate frustrating than anything else.

The debate covered several broad policy areas. Individuals raised their own experiences and asked questions on the cost of living, the health service and so on. But in a one-hour debate with response times limited to 45 seconds, there is little that can be said. Social care is a big issue. I challenge anyone to give a proper fully-rounded answer in an hour, let alone the time allotted.

We don’t necessarily watch debates for policy information. So, what else could we glean? Sunak was combative, talking over Starmer at times. He had his lines ready and repeated them. Labour will put up your taxes was the main mantra. Starmer related better to individual audience members. He had his lines ready and repeated them. “You’ve been in Government, who why didn’t you solve the problems,” was one very clear theme. We’ve got a plan, they haven’t, argued Sunak. You’ve failed on your promises, countered Starmer, and anyway what about Liz Truss?

Frankly, the arguments were predictable. The debate at times felt less like a contest in the room and more like a contest for the later sound-bites and social media.

Sunak v Starmer ITV debate

This was very much a night of me, myself and I. The repeated use of I (not we, not the party name) in the opening statements was striking. Both men were keen to establish not what their party had done but what they personally had done or what they personally will do. There is a growing focus on the leader as an individual in UK politics, a focus which debates can only intensify.

So, was last night’s event a success? Like many things in politics it depends who you listen to. As an exercise in deliberation, it failed. Short responses can never answer big questions. As an exercise in positioning for the two parties it partly worked. Both sides got their key lines over and repeated them. As an exercise in good viewing, it failed. At times, even a politics geek like me wanted to reach for the off switch.

There are a series of debates still to come. We have more Sunak-Starmer, but we also have larger groups with more parties involved. Next up, the BBC on Friday (7th).  Seconds out of the ring – round two.

READ: The Election Explained: The Phoney War Phase

Paula Keaveney is a former BBC Journalist and Public Relations and Communications expert with a degree in Philosophy and Politics and postgraduate qualifications in journalism, Public Relations and teaching in Higher Education. She is Convenor of the Political Marketing Group within the Political Studies Association. Paula is an election observer for the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe and to date has observed and reported on elections in North Macedonia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Serbia.

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June 5, 2024


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