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Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak’s last election debate: their final pitch assessed by experts

The BBC has hosted the final head-to-head debate between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer with eight days to go until election day. Here, academic experts help us decipher the two men’s claims about each other, defences of their own records – and the disputes that at times spilled over into angry exchanges between the two men.

‘Dismayed’ by the gambling scandal

The first question of the night came from audience member Sue, who wanted to talk about the gambling scandal that has seen both Sunak and Starmer suspend candidates.

Sunak withdrew support from two candidates because of an investigation launched by the Gambling Commission into bets that were placed on the timing of the election before Sunak publicly announced it. And now a Labour candidate has been suspended for betting against himself in a marginal constituency.

Read more: What does the law say about gambling on election dates with inside information?

Sue said people have been “dismayed” by the revelations and asks how both leaders would restore faith in politics.

Sunak says he was furious and has started an internal investigation. For Starmer, this story is about leadership and restoring public service.

Stefan Stern, from City, University of London, has studied leadership in organisations and he concurs. In an article warning that allowing a culture of this kind to infiltrate an institution is a sure fire way to destroy it, he noted:

A wise executive once told me: “The lowest standard of behaviour you tolerate is the highest you can expect.” Why did Sunak take almost two weeks to realise that he had to take action regarding his old friend? The moral collapse of today’s Conservative party would appear to be complete, and it is a collapse that has happened gradually, then suddenly.

Stern diagnoses a bad case of “group think” among Westminster Conservatives that did not necessarily begin with Sunak – but will potentially end him.

Read more: Election gambling scandal: bad culture will kill your organisation – you can bet on it

Women and single-sex spaces

The men were asked how they would handle women’s rights, including protecting single-sex spaces.

Sunak said that the Conservatives were committed to changing the Equality Act to recognise that “sex means biological sex”, and that this is the only way to protect women’s spaces. Starmer agreed that protecting single-sex spaces and services is important, but claimed that the act in its current form already does so.

The evidence tells us that it’s Starmer who is right on this one. Caterina Nirta has explained some of the confusion and conflict around this topic, noting that:

Under the Equality Act 2010, the reform does not erode the special status granted to spaces like women’s health services or shelters.

Read more: Gender recognition certificates: self-identification and the row over it explained

Cutting NHS waiting times

Starmer pledged to open up 40,000 NHS appointments a week to clear NHS waiting lists when asked about his proposals to get people back to work. This sounds like a lot but Paresh Wankhade, professor of leadership and management at Edge Hill University, looked more closely at the numbers as part of his assessment on how each party is proposing to reduce waiting times.

He said this overall figure “would roughly mean 2 million appointments per year, which would translate to an increase of just 2% compared with the year to March 2024”.

Currently “about 3.2 million people in England are now waiting more than 18 weeks for NHS treatment”. And Wankhade didn’t find anything particularly reassuring in any party’s plan to fix the problem. The hope of reducing waiting lists comes with a price and neither leader is giving quite enough information to make it clear how that price would be met:

It is also unclear how willing the staff would be to carry out additional appointments out of hours in the backdrop of the overstretched and exhausted NHS workforce after the pandemic. Reversing this trend over five years, while ambitious, would certainly be challenging.

Read more: Election 2024: which party's proposal to shorten NHS waiting times looks most credible?

Why do councils keep going bust?

At around the halfway point, the discussion turned towards a neglected but important topic: the wave of councils going bankrupt in recent years.

In a revelatory article by Mia Gray and Anna Barford, published as part of our series looking at the state of the nation, we learned that council bankruptcy has gone from being unthinkable to being commonplace in the 14 years since the Conservatives came to power:

Since the advent of austerity Britain in 2010, there have been severe cuts to council incomes. Our research shows how these have translated directly into worse lives for many people: tougher working conditions, statutory services provided on a shoestring and, ultimately, a retraction of the local state at a time when people need it.

The Department for Communities and Local Government had its budget cut by more than 50% in the first five years of austerity. And as the questioner who raised bankruptcies rightly observed, the results are cuts to vital services.

In response to austerity cuts, local governments have attempted to reduce spending. This has included shutting youth centres, reducing support for local charities and only providing the most basic of maintenance for public spaces like parks. Between 2010 and 2019, almost 800 libraries closed, while others minimised their opening hours or increased their reliance on volunteer staffing. The UK now has more food banks than public libraries.

Properly funding councils will therefore quickly become a pressing matter for any government hoping to restore the UK’s public services.

Read more: How 14 years of Conservative rule has made council bankruptcy commonplace

Getting people off benefits and into work

Sunak has said that he wants to lower the welfare bill, get people off benefits and into work. He has previously criticised Britain’s “sicknote culture”, and wants to make eligibility criteria for receiving benefits stricter.

But there is evidence, as Elliott Johnson, Howard Reed and Matthew T. Johnson have found, that such reforms do not reduce the number of people claiming benefits.

There is, on the other hand, very good reason to suggest that imposing strict eligibility criteria and sanctions can be very harmful to disabled people’s health, activity and financial situation.

There has been an increase in recent years of working-age people claiming disability benefits, spiking to 3.3 million in 2023-24.

Read more: Rishi Sunak wants to cut the cost of 'sicknote' Britain. But we've found a strong economic case for benefits

Meanwhile, Sharon Wright, at the University of Glasgow, has detailed how the welfare system has failed to tackle poverty over the last 14 years. She also notes the destructive nature of benefits sanctions, which became more extreme in 2012.

Nearly a quarter of all jobseeker’s allowance claimants were sanctioned between 2010 and 2015. Research shows that sanctions have “profoundly negative outcomes”, including on people’s mental health.

Read more: How the UK’s social security system stopped tackling poverty

Is the Rwanda bill a deterrent?

Sunak insisted the Rwanda deportation plan is a necessary deterrent to stop people with no right to be in the UK from trying to enter. Citing a recent report in the Telegraph, he claimed that migrants in the north of France are waiting until a Labour government overturns the Rwanda plan before they attempt to cross the channel.

Researcher Sophie Watt, University of Sheffield, explained in a long read about her time volunteering in a refugee camp, witnessing violence by police and smugglers in charge of crossings. Contrary to Sunak’s claims, the people she spoke to were not put off by the Rwanda plan:

Despite the relentless hardships and suffering, one thing appeared to unite them: they wanted to seek sanctuary in the UK. And headline-grabbing policies about floating prisons and flights to Rwanda were not going to stop them. They had come this far and they were determined to finish their journey.

And much academic research on this topic has found that deterrent approaches don’t work.

Read more: I’ve spent time with refugees in French coastal camps and they told me the government’s Rwanda plan is not putting them off coming to the UK

What is Labour’s plan for growth?

Starmer’s economic plan sounds simple: grow the economy. Over the last 50 years, the UK has seen weak productivity and poor public and private investment.

Labour has proposed several ways to fix this: a new industrial strategy, relaxing planning laws to encourage building and productivity, reforming business rates and raising investment through a national wealth fund, which will direct public investment in high-growth areas such as ports and green technologies.

But these ambitions still face barriers. One is Labour’s commitment to the fiscal rules set by the current government. As Phil Tomlinson and David Bailey highlight:

Many economists question whether Labour’s ambitions will actually be met, given the modest scale of proposed public investment. The IPPR notes that Labour still plans to cut total public investment over the next Parliament – by more than the entire Conservative government of 2010-24 … Labour has signed up to meeting the current government’s fiscal rules. But this self-imposed fiscal constraint will severely limit Labour’s ability to grow the economy.

And, chiming with another question posed tonight, they add: “Brexit has significantly hit UK goods trade and investment – estimates put the long term hit to UK GDP at 5-6%.”

Read more: Keir Starmer rejects 'tax and spend’, so do Labour's plans for economic growth add up?

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