Party leaders grilled by public in election Question Time – experts dissect the key issues

In one of the last in a string of special election broadcasts, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Labour leader Keir Starmer, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey and Scotland’s first minister, the SNP leader John Swinney, have faced questions from a live audience on BBC Question Time.

In a two-hour session, each of the men were asked probing questions on their policies and parties. Here, academic experts explain the reality behind the claims they made.

What’s the Lib Dem bank tax?

The first question of the night, asked of Davey, was whether his party’s spending plans, which are most costly than the others, would “bankrupt the country”.

Davey insisted his manifesto is fully costed and that the money would, in part, be raised via a windfall tax on banks. An analysis of that policy by two professors of applied economics finds that “the Lib Dems may be on to something” and that:

By increasing taxes and reducing interest rates to 1%, instead of boosting bank profits that are unlikely to be reinvested in UK plc, the tax revenue will boost government funds that can be used for the NHS, education, infrastructure and public sector debt.

Ed Davey in a tv studio.
Ed Davey takes questions.

In fact, the analysis goes on to say it is “encouraging to see at least one party in this election campaign challenge conventional economic wisdom on government spending, deficits and the role of fiscal policy in managing the economy”.

How can parties afford their spending plans?

Labour leader Keir Starmer was asked how he could afford his plans for the NHS without raising taxes. This was not the only time during the programme that the audience expressed scepticism about the promises being made.

The question “where’s the money coming from?” has come up again and again in this campaign.

As Steve Schifferes of the City Political Economy Research Centre identifies, it’s common for politicians to claim that they can find extra cash through the magic of “efficiency savings” in the public sector and closing tax loopholes:

These potential savings are attractive because they feed into popular cliches. That the government and the NHS are bloated bureaucracies. That there are lots of people getting benefits who could get a job. And that there are plenty of rich people who are avoiding taxes that the government could easily collect.

In practice, Schifferes reveals, there’s no fat left to cut in the public sector and the tax loophole trick is not the PR hit it appears:

HMRC says that the bulk of tax avoidance is by small businesses, not the rich. But it could be politically costly to target a sector that both parties want to show they support as part of their growth strategy.

Why won’t Labour set migration targets?

Starmer was asked if he though it acceptable for his party not to commit to specific migration targets.

“I’m not going to put an aribtrary figure on it because every single politician who has put a number on it has missed that target,” replied Starmer.

In an illuminating reflection on 14 years of Conservative migration policy, Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, contextualises Starmer’s resistance to fixating on overall numbers.

Writing of the coalition years, for example, McNeil notes:

Theresa May as home secretary introduced policies to cap skilled non-EU labour migration and close “bogus colleges” and cut abuse of study migration visas. She also created a minimum income threshold for people bringing a spouse or other family member to live with them, and aimed to “break the link between immigration and settlement”. But the target was always unrealistic. Within a year, my colleagues and I had established that the government’s own impact assessments showed the net migration target could not be met based on the policies that had been introduced.

What will Sunak do to rebuild trust?

An early question for Sunak was from a mother who wanted to know how the prime minister intended to rebuild trust among the young in politicians.

But this was not the first question on trust. Swinney was grilled on his party’s scandals and Ed Davey was questioned over both his party’s history of abandoning pledges on tuition fees and his own role in the Post Office scandal.

It seemed, in fact, that lost trust was the overriding theme of the night.

Striking figures released by John Curtice and the National Centre for Social Research at the beginning of the campaign showed that 45% of the British public think politicians almost never put the country’s needs over those of their party.

Curtice warned that going into this election:

The challenge facing the next government will not only be to repair the damage that the pandemic, inflation and war have all inflicted on the economy. It will also be to assuage the widespread concern that the public once again have about how they are being governed.

Are you for leaving the ECHR or not?

In one of the more heated exchanges of the night, some of the audience ended up shouting “Shame! Shame!” at Sunak over his position on leaving the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The situation is not clear cut here. Sunak has studiously avoided committing to leaving. He has, however, let a portion of the electorate believe he wants to. His mantra has long been that he does not want to be dictated to by a “foreign court” over his Rwanda policy.

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It may not even be worth Sunak angering the public like this over his Rwanda policy. As we learnt earlier this year from Joelle Grogan, an expert on the rule of law in the UK and EU, if Rwanda is safe like Sunak claims then the ECHR would not block him from sending people. If it is not safe, the UK is signed up to multiple other international agreements that would prevent deportations there:

This includes the UN refugee convention, and the UN international covenant on civil and political rights. It’s also protected in domestic UK law. Leaving the ECHR, therefore, would not free the UK of the obligation not to send people to a place of harm.

What’s the plan for the NHS?

Understandably, the public have many questions about what these politicians are going to do about the NHS. Both Sunak and Starmer claim to have a plan, particularly on cutting waiting lists.

And in-depth look at the proposals put forward by the main three parties shows the Tories largely promising more of the same “long-term plan”.

Starmer was asked this evening about his proposal to pay NHS staff overtime to work nights and weekends in order to offer an extra 40,000 appointments to to tackle the backlog. In this assessment, we learn that this target is more realistic than it sounds but also not exactly revolutionary:

An increase of 40,000 per week is roughly 2 million per year. This sounds like a lot, but there were 145 million outpatient appointments in the English NHS last year so Labour are proposing an increase of less than 2%. Hardly gamechanging. In fact, the increase in appointments from 2021-22 to 2022-23 was equal to almost exactly this amount.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are promising to boost the number of GPs and fix dental care.

All in all, though, our reviewer found all three manifestos to be lacking in ambition when it comes to the NHS.

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