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Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak on the debate stage.
EPA/ITV/Jonathan Hordle

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer’s election debate: an audience asking for a way out of hopelessness and getting nothing in response

Two questions are commonly asked after televised election debates have taken place. The first is “who won?” This is the favourite question of journalists, pollsters and spin doctors. It is rooted in a conception of politics as battle, all the more exciting when there are metaphorical blood stains left on the TV studio wall.

“Who won” evaluations focus on knockout blows, smart, pithy, memorable one-liners, gaffes and flash-poll verdicts. Behind the question is an assumption that a one-hour televised exchange of views might rewrite the electoral odds. Excitable party activists run around the press room during and immediately after the debate claiming that their leader stole the show. In truth, most studies of televised leaders’ debates around the world have reported that they rarely change viewers’ settled preferences.

A second question concerns the democratic value of the debates. Did viewers become better informed about the political choices before them? This question relates to how successfully the key issues were set out and addressed in the debate and whether the principles and policies separating the parties – as well as the qualities and defects of would-be future national leaders – were made apparent during the course of broadcast.

The second question relates to the effects of the debate upon civic awareness and behaviour. During and after watching, are audience members galvanised to share their opinions with others, whether in their immediate circles or online networks, and are they subsequently motivated to take a further part in the election, including voting?


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In most general elections since the 1970s between a quarter and a third of the electorate have not cast a vote. Asked why, many say that they don’t understand the issues; that politicians never address them; or that they simply can’t make up their minds.

Even among those who do vote, a significant number pay very little attention to the details of the six-week election campaign. If televised debates can offer that substantial segment of the population a focal moment to make a confident choice – and my research studies following previous UK debates suggest that they do – then they are performing a useful democratic function.

But for democracy to work well, people need to know not only what they are being offered by the competing parties, but whether they can trust that what is on offer can be delivered. In the absence of such trust, far from helping voters to make an informed choice, election debates focus minds on the question of whether any of the parties or leaders can make a real difference.

An audience asking for more

In the debate between Labour’s Keir Starmer and the Conservatives’ Rishi Sunak, there were two potential prime ministers on the platform, but I was struck by a third, dominating voice – that of the studio audience – which in many respects did better than either of the politicians in reflecting the mood of the population at large. All of the questions posed by audience members expressed a sense of political frustration and disillusionment.

The first question came from a woman who was clearly suffering from the punishing effects of the cost of living crisis. “I don’t think you understand what it’s like for people like me”, she told the leaders. This sense of politicians being out of touch continued through every single question.

The second and third questions were about the “broken” national health service and under-resourced schools. A questioner asked why he should trust either of the leaders on immigration. Another questioner accused both leaders of being duplicitous about climate change. There was reference to a think-tank’s observation that both main parties were involved in a “conspiracy of silence” about the need for major cuts to public services by the next government.

This was not an exceptional group of disgruntled voters, but a vivid reflection of a national mood of anxiety and distrust that is the backdrop to this election.

Sunak, Starmer and an audience looking for a reason to vote.

As I watched, I found myself wanting the would-be prime ministers to address this common feeling of political hopelessness. Starmer spoke of “turning a page” by voting Labour, but what exactly does that metaphor mean? Sunak talked about having “a plan”, but that sounded more like a spreadsheet than a source of inspiration.

Missing from the debate was any sense of a future that might begin to dissipate what has become a deep and lingering experience of social insecurity. The competitive energy expended by each of the debating politicians in warning voters about the danger of supporting the other resulted in an overall impression that not very much can be done.

Most voters are not looking for help with deciding who not to support. What they are looking for are good reasons to vote for something that will make their lives better. It was hard to discern any of those good reasons in this first debate. There are several more televised leaders’ debates to come before polling day. If the political leaders want to avoid a low turnout, they’re going to need to revise their scripts.

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