What are the key issues set to dominate the General Election campaign?

After months of speculation, Rishi Sunak has called a General Election that many expect Labour to win.

But much can change during a campaign that will be dominated by contentious issues and heated debate across the UK.

Here the PA news agency identifies the main policy battlegrounds and details the positions of the two main parties.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walks with Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer through the Central Lobby at the Palace of Westminster ahead of the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords in November 2023
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer ahead of the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords in November 2023 (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

– The dominance of the economy reinforced by the cost-of-living crisis

Following the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis so deep and prolonged that relatively well-off households found themselves in financial insecurity, the traditional dominance of economic concerns during general election campaigns will be reinforced this time round.

After a long period of day-to-day spending choices being limited, eroding a sense of freedom and control, voters will be eager to hear political parties’ plans for improving the quality of their lives, alongside a long-term strategic vision for their children’s future.

In the here and now, damagingly high inflation has returned to just above the Bank of England’s target of 2%, giving the Prime Minister the opportunity to say the economy is on the right track.

However, as Labour is keen to point out, the long period of unusually high inflation has long-term consequences, with lower rates simply adding less to high household costs.

ECONOMY Inflation
(PA Graphics)

The state of the nation’s finances is a key element that both the main parties always claim they can be trusted on, with the Conservative Party historically regarded by voters as the more reliable on tax and spending decisions.

But with most notably the turmoil caused by Liz Truss’s mini-budget in 2022, the party faces an uphill struggle to re-establish this reputation.

Labour has worked hard to challenge preconceptions and make the most of the chaos by declaring a strong commitment to fiscal caution and a pro-business outlook.

This has paid dividends, with the party winning the backing of some high-profile industry figures.

The move by Labour into typically Tory territory has been bold, even if it may not sit comfortably with some traditional supporters.

(PA Graphics)

In response, the Conservatives have sought to cultivate concern that Labour’s plans for government have not been funded and would require increased borrowing and likely tax rises.

However, this approach is by no means an easy win for the Government.

National debt rose over the course of 2023, and remains at levels not seen since the early 1960s.

The latest figures show the UK’s overall national debt was £2.69 trillion in April, or 97.9% of gross domestic product, and 2.5 percentage points more than at the end of April 2023.

– NHS a key issue as concerns over investment and performance continue

The NHS consistently ranks as the second most important issue for voters and, again, it is a policy area in which the Conservatives have work to do to improve public perceptions of their performance.

Historically high waiting lists for treatment, ageing infrastructure across the NHS estate and workforce challenges combine to paint a picture of the much-loved health service on its knees.

Royal College of Nursing report
The NHS is set to be a key issue during the election campaign (Jeff Moore/PA)

The Government has made progress in reducing waiting times, but the scale of the problem means the figures remain at a level many voters will be disturbed by.

Meanwhile, Labour has promised to cut waiting times and increase appointments and operations.

However, the scale of the issues in the NHS, the complexities across the system and wider related services, as well as the scale of funding involved, pose a huge challenge for whichever party wins power.

– Local services and levelling up promises may hold sway

While the NHS usually dominates attention, public services in general can have a knock-on effect on demand within the health system, as well as serve as a day-to-day reminder of the impact of political decisions in Westminster.

Local government is heavily reliant on central funding and councils are often directed by policy sent down by ministers.

Councils maintain and shape local environments, delivering services that are an important part of everyday life.

Local authorities also play a key role in housing provision, another big national issue, through the planning system and by facilitating development.

Birmingham Town Hall
Birmingham City Council has declared effective bankruptcy (David Jones/PA)

The perilous state of some councils’ finances, with some already declaring effective bankruptcy, could have far-reaching consequences for communities.

The Government’s levelling up agenda significantly raised expectations of the local environments, facilities, services and opportunities being improved in places that had previously experienced little investment.

Therefore, the perceived success or otherwise of levelling up could influence voters.

However, the Government’s current spending plans, which Labour has said it will largely stick to if it forms a government, suggest local government funding will continue to be restricted, as will funding for other key public services such as prisons and the criminal justice system.

– Immigration set to be hotly debated as voters seek action

Immigration consistently comes in third place in recent polling on voter priorities and is set to be a key battleground in the election campaign.

The Government’s Rwanda Bill became law last month, paving the way for deportation flights to get off the ground.

This policy and Tory talk of limits on legal migration show the Government is committed to taking a hard line on the issue, despite the risk of alienating more moderate voters.

POLITICS Immigration
(PA Graphics)

Meanwhile, Labour has said it is also looking to reduce the reliance on overseas workers and backs a points-based immigration system which it says “would work for workers and businesses”.

Sir Keir Starmer has been treading carefully on the issue of small boats, saying crossings needed to be reduced “materially” without setting a target.

He said a Labour government would expand counter-terror powers to cover people-smuggling gangs and create a new Border Security Command to co-ordinate efforts to halt the crossings.

Rishi Sunak said stopping the boats was one of his five priorities last year, but  the number of migrants to have arrived in the UK in small boats across the Channel in 2024 is already approaching the 10,000 mark.

With crossings continuing, the Conservatives may have to rely on the symbolic impact of at least one flight to Rwanda rather than firm evidence that the policy is working.

– Environmental concerns among voters across the political spectrum

While experts remind us of the existential threat posed by climate change, polls suggest the issue is only an important priority for about one in five voters.

Climate Change Committee report
The Government and Labour have faced criticism for their environment policies (David Jones/PA)

However, that is still a significant number of voters and the environment is an issue that concerns people across the political spectrum.

Despite progress in the UK on cutting emissions, the Conservatives will likely have angered many of a green persuasion by introducing new oil and gas licences.

Last year the watchdog the Climate Change Committee described efforts to scale up climate action as “worryingly slow”, with Government decisions undermining the UK’s leadership on the issue.

Labour has also faced challenges on the environment.

The decision to slash its green prosperity plan from £28 billion a year to £15 billion was heavily criticised by environmental groups and unions.

– Prepare for the battle of the leaders as trust and vision key

The individual performances of Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer during the election campaign will be crucial, with many voters likely to be influenced by who they can relate to and trust.

In this regard, the polls suggest both men have their work cut out to persuade many voters that they can be effective, but it is the Prime Minister who the polls suggest is in the most difficult position.

Polling this month by Ipsos suggests 72% of voters are dissatisfied with Mr Sunak’s leadership, with 17% satisfied.

General election
The performance of the party leaders will be a major focus of the General Election campaign (PA)

Sir Keir has both a higher satisfaction rating of 32% and a lower dissatisfaction rating of 50%.

The General Election will not have the same level of focus on individuals that happens in a presidential system but it will not be far off.

But the battle of the leaders will be crucial, with the one who inspires voters with a clear vision for the future gaining a significant advantage.