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A hot air balloon over a city skyline, with text that reads "NHS waiting lists: Sky high" on it

Jun 26th, 2024

Voters’ verdict on Sunak v Starmer debate as we bring a clear message to Nottingham skies

By Matthew McGregor

Voters are slightly more likely to back Keir Starmer to restore trust in politics – but are crying out for more concrete pledges on key election issues like the cost of living crisis, as well as the environment, 38 Degrees’ latest snap election study, in partnership with JL Partners suggests.

Research conducted for us in the hours immediately after the BBC head-to-head debate by leading pollster JL Partners suggested a rough “draw” with voters unlikely to have changed their minds on either party leader, though Keir Starmer seemed to offer slightly more “hope”.

In a pioneering update to traditional snap polling, the rapid response voter panel study gathers same-day qualitative results from voters on the biggest issues of the General Election campaign. Summarising the results, Tom Lubbock, co-founder of JL Partners, said: “Whoever is the PM on 5th July has a huge job on their hands just to get people to engage with politics. When we asked people what would restore their trust many said that they want delivery and competence above all else. But a feeling of underlying anger comes through strongly and that sense that both parties are somehow to blame. The public are crying out for truthfulness, and transparency in public life.

“On Rishi Sunak the answers show how this campaign has brought very strong views and brought his character into question. Lots of responses referenced the fact that they thought he had lied about the Labour tax figure and there are very many who question whether he can be trusted or say that he is out of touch.

“On Keir Starmer the tenor of these responses suggests that there is a grudging respect for his ‘honest, well spoken’ attitude with a lot of voters, but there is also a lot of anger in these responses that is directed at Keir Starmer when given the opportunity almost as much as Rishi Sunak. He has got one hell of a job on his hands on July the 5th to convince voters that he has the answers on the Cost of Living Crisis and the NHS.

“We asked whether the two leaders in the debate spent enough time on the issues that mattered and one thing that stuck out is that there were quite a few responses that cited the lack of attention on the environment and climate change in the debate. Lots of the responses complained about the style of the debate and that the two leaders were just putting each other down.”

Asked for their response to betting allegations and how candidates could restore trust in politics, voters overwhelmingly said delivering on promises, and competent Government, would help bring back their faith. Among the responses:

  • “Lead by example – don’t expect the public to do and live with things that they wouldn’t be comfortable doing themselves.” (Female, Health administrator, 32, voted Liberal Democrat in 2019 and is currently a Reform UK voter)
  • “Stop creating policies that divide people” (Male, Conveyancing solicitor, 44, voted Scottish National Party (SNP) in 2019 and is currently a Labour voter)
  • “Talk normal, answer the questions given to them without diverting into a rant to mis-direct. Be honest. Prove they are honest by action not words.” (Male, Flower arranger, 39, voted Liberal Democrat in 2019 and is currently a Liberal Democrat voter)
  • “They would need to show they are spending money where it is needed.” (Female, Duty manager, 50, voted Conservative in 2019 and is currently a Don’t know voter)

Asked who was more likely to do this, 32 respondents backed Keir Starmer compared to 26 for Rishi Sunak, but 24 felt neither leader was up to the task.  There were more positive mentions for Keir Starmer, while Rishi Sunak’s previous record in Government was brought up as making him seem less likely to restore trust. 

Asked about the issues most important to them when deciding how how to vote, and whether they believed party leaders had spent enough time offering plans to address these, voters’ opinions included: 

  • “Restoring trust in politics and fixing public services as well as improving the economy.  Some indication from Starmer but nothing from Sunak.” (Male, Teacher, 66, voted Liberal Democrat in 2019 and is currently a Labour voter)
  • “NHS, cost of living and immigration neither of them fill me with confidence.” (Male, Retired biomedical scientist, 82, voted Conservative in 2019 and is currently a Reform UK voter)
  • “[T]here was one hardly touched on, the environment.  Keir Starmer won by default because the Tories have already reneged on all the promises they made.” (Male, Design estimator, 63, voted Conservative in 2019 and is currently a Labour voter)

Asked for their overall view of the two leaders after the debate:

On Keir Starmer:

  • “There seems to be more hope here.” (Male, Retired IT worker, 72, voted Liberal Democrat in 2019 and is currently a Liberal Democrat voter)
  • “Big ideas but not sure where he thinks the money will come from to fund things.” (Female, Compliance manager, 44, voted Did not vote / Prefer not to say in 2019 and is currently a Labour voter)
  • “He tells the truth and offers the public genuine change for the better.” (Female, Product manager, 38, voted Labour in 2019 and is currently a Labour voter)

On Rishi Sunak:

  • “Speaks clearly but doesn’t say why you should vote Conservative only why not to vote Labour.” (Female, Sales assistant, 59, voted Conservative in 2019 and is currently a Don’t know voter)
  • “Weak, out of touch with ordinary people” (Female, Retail business owner, 53, voted Brexit Party in 2019 and is currently a Reform UK voter)

Meanwhile, as the leaders launched into their debate, the 38 Degrees team were hard at work too – sending a message to candidates, funded by members of the public through the skies of Nottingham. 

We wanted to let them know that, with a week to go until the general election, the two issues at the top of voters’ minds –  the twin crises in the NHS and the cost of living – need their undivided attention. So we launched a hot air balloon, emblazoned with the messages ‘cost of living: soaring’ and ‘NHS waiting times: sky high’ over the Nottingham skies in a bid to focus the debate on these issues. The balloon carried a clear message: “no more hot air” – a real solution is needed to these pressing problems. 

This election is about two issues: the cost of living crisis and saving the NHS. It is on these two issues that people vote on 4 July. Yet, when asked about leaders’ performances in the debates, many felt these central issues hadn’t been given the attention they deserve. 

Throughout the campaign, we’ve seen plenty of ‘hot air’, but many voters still aren’t feeling confident that the candidates truly understand what they’re going through. By flying our balloon across Nottingham’s skies, we sent a clear message from the public.

Whoever wins the next election must show that they understand the scale of the challenge so many people are facing. They  will have to be bold and ambitious in bringing about change, so that we can all afford to live a little again, and be confident our beloved NHS can be there for us when we need it. They will also need to restore trust in our democracy and the sense among the public that leaders respect them. This week will be the final chance for party leaders to look up, speak up, and show voters that they get it.



The JL Partners/38 Degrees Rapid Response Voter Panel was used to ask a sample of 100 UK adults online to share their instantaneous reaction to clips and summaries of election debates. In an update on traditional focus groups, JL Partners ask people to explain their views and dig underneath the surface of support or opposition. The sample is collected using web-intercept polling in accordance with MRS and BPC guidelines and data tables are available shortly after publication.

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