Nottingham experts say it would take 'catastrophe' for Labour to lose after BBC election debate

Keir Starmer arrives at Nottingham Trent University's Arkwright Building ahead of the Nottingham BBC election debate
-Credit: (Image: Joseph Raynor/Nottingham Post)

Nottingham politics experts say the BBC's election debate in the city saw Rishi Sunak coming out "fighting" but that it will take a "catastrophe" for Labour to lose the election. Mr Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer clashed at Nottingham Trent University for an hour and a quarter on Wednesday (June 26) in the last major TV moment of the general election campaign.

The first 10 minutes of the debate were nearly drowned out by scores of protestors against the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, who had gathered right outside Nottingham Trent University's Newton Building on Goldsmith Street. The disruption, which earlier included a giant hot air balloon highlighting the cost of living, forced NET to suspend services at certain stops for a brief period.

The debate primarily focused on national issues, but Nottingham City Council's effective declaration of bankruptcy last year was the focus of one question. Rishi Sunak claimed the financial crisis hitting the Labour-led council was a "glimpse into the future" of the whole country if Keir Starmer becomes Prime Minister, a comment which led Sir Keir to accuse the PM of "gloating" about distressed local authorities.

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Major political figures including Home Secretary James Cleverly and shadow health secretary Wes Streeting descended on Nottingham for the debate, with high-profile journalists including Laura Kuenssberg also in the city. Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor and President of Nottingham Trent University, said its two major Newton and Arkwright buildings had been closed off to staff and students since Friday night, with rumours spreading around campus.

Professor Peck said: "They took up the building last Friday evening, so our colleagues haven't been able to use it for three or four days. Of course, we had to be very tight-lipped about why we suddenly closed our major buildings. Some interesting rumours started to emerge about why these buildings closed.

"Most of our colleagues didn't work out what it was until very, very late, which is great because it is a major security operation for the BBC and the local constabulary. We just played our part by keeping shtum. It's been a fantastic challenge."

Rishi Sunak arrives in Nottingham for the BBC election debate
Rishi Sunak arrives in Nottingham for the BBC election debate -Credit:Joseph Raynor/Nottingham Post

Among those having their say after the debate was 25-year-old Tasneem Zahra, who asked the final question of the debate by questioning the leaders on what hope they could offer to the younger generation. Asked whether she felt her question was answered, Tasneem said: "My question was regarding young people finding hope with the government again and regarding the job market and regarding getting onto the property ladder.

"They touched on the property ladder... they didn't touch on anything to do with quality of life in the UK. They didn't touch on head counts within companies being cut and now a lot of graduates are left without a job.

"They didn't touch on the fact that graduates are looking elsewhere because the places in the UAE or places like Australia have a better quality of life, better salaries, less tax, and it's more likely that you're able to afford a property over there than here... We don't have much hope for the Conservative Party, but there's also not much hope with Keir Starmer because of some of his views.

"We're kind of stuck, and we're kind of looking at making a strategic vote rather than a vote for a party that we completely believe in." Two politics experts at Nottingham Trent University also had their say following the clash. Dr Tom Caygill, a senior lecturer in politics at NTU, said: "The question about whether the two main party leaders are the best option for Britain gives us an insight into how fed up the public are with politics after the past few years.

"There is an anti-politics mood and a lack of trust - the lack of enthusiasm for this election reflects this too. That is going to be hard to turn around and a challenge for whoever wins.

Presenter Mishal Husain with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during their BBC head-to-head debate in Nottingham.
Presenter Mishal Husain with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during their BBC head-to-head debate in Nottingham. -Credit:Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

"A major attack line from Sunak was tax, which is a chink in Labour's armour. Keir Starmer's failure to push back on the initial line of attack in the first TV debate has given the Conservatives an opportunity. However, Keir Starmer was much punchier with his rebuttals in this debate, which shows that he and his team have learned from their mistakes in the first.

"Kicking off with a question on gambling and political integrity shows just how much it has dominated the campaign over the past week or so. It has the potential to become a plague on all their houses and it has cut through with the public. It also fits into a wider narrative of sleaze and scandal over the last couple of years."

Dr Colin Alexander, an expert in political communication at Nottingham Trent University, added: "Sunak came out fighting tonight, although it is likely that some of his claims will be scrutinised for accuracy. He used a lot of military language - particularly the word 'surrender'.

"Surrender the economy, the welfare state, tax rises, migration/borders, local councils. However, worryingly both candidates consider refugees (poor and often traumatised people) as the biggest "threat" to borders.

"This populist argument is worrying because they are encouraging an association with military threat. There was a somewhat bizarre moment when Starmer referred to his work in 'taking down' criminal gangs. He even got into a story of hijacking planes and bombs. It was as though he thought he was Jason Statham saving the day single-handedly."

Asked why Nottingham had been chosen for the major debate, Professor Edward Peck added: "The BBC looked at a number of venues around the country. They wanted to be outside London for the last one as I understand it and we were I think quite high on their list because we did the Today programme here three or four years ago.

"I think that went really well. I think they like to go back to places that have, you know, served them well in the past and then I think we were their first choice when they decided."