Key takeaways from West Yorkshire election debate

West Yorkshire election debate
BBC Yorkshire's Political Editor James Vincent hosted the debate from Leeds [BBC]

Parliamentary candidates from across West Yorkshire gathered in Leeds earlier to debate key topics ahead of the general election.

Among the issues raised were challenges in social care and the NHS, trust in politicians, the cost-of-living crisis and climate change.

The debate heard from candidates standing on behalf of the Conservatives, Green Party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Reform UK and the Yorkshire Party.

Watch the debate in full here.

'No quick fix for social care'

The first question came from Manoj, who has worked in social care for the last three decades and wanted to know what the parties would do about social care – he called it a "Cinderella service".

There was a broad consensus among the candidates it was a challenging issue and had been used as a "political football" in the past.

Conservative Sam Firth (Leeds East) - himself a former carer - said it was not an issue his party had neglected while in government.

He pointed to a big change next year when "expenses people would have to pay for a loved one to go into care would be capped at £86,000".

Katie White from Labour (Leeds North West) said her party's long-term plan was to introduce a social care service similar to the NHS, but in the short term it needed to start with "recruitment and retention" of staff, beginning with a fair pay deal.

Lib Dem Katherine Macy (Colne Valley) said hers was the only party with a "carers' manifesto this time round".

She went on to say a starting point would be to raise the minimum wage for carers by £2… and admitted it should possibly be more.

Sarah Wood from Reform (Spen Valley) did not think any of the other parties were being honest with the scale of the challenge, and said her party would instigate a Royal Commission to examine the challenges.

David Herdson from the Yorkshire Party (Ossett and Denby Dale) said his party wanted to see more integration between the NHS and social care.

In politicians we trust?

As with much of the tone of this general election campaign – and in many ways the months and years leading up to it – the issue of trust in politicians and the political system is a big one.

It certainly prompted some of the most fascinating reflections, and indeed introspections, during the debate.

As political reporters, whenever we are tasked to go and vox-pop the public on how they are feeling at various stages of the campaign, words to the effect of "I don’t really trust any of them" are still coming up again and again.

"They are all liars" was the opening gambit from our question setter on trust - how do you bounce back from that if you are trying to woo the voters?

Boris Johnson’s name came up several times.

Labour candidate Ms White said she was not surprised people had lost trust and faith in politicians, as Mr Johnson had “undermined” the integrity of the job.

She said Labour’s plans for a National Ethics and Integrity Commission would try to build back that trust - but it would take a decade.

Katie White - Labour - Leeds North West
Katie White - Labour - Leeds North West [BBC]

Conservative candidate Mr Firth sidestepped the topic of Mr Johnson, but countered that trust in the Labour Party was hardly any better - and was unlikely to be helped by the "£38.5bn black hole" in its manifesto.

Ms White insisted that Labour’s plans were fully costed, and reminded everyone that "we have all got to have two ears and not just one mouth - and be ready to serve the public, not our own personal interests".

The ghost of tuition fees hung over the Lib Dems when it came to the question of trust and honesty, Ms Macy telling the audience that "we have apologised and we are trying our best", stressing "no party is perfect" but adding the "repeated serious failings in Westminster" were what really needed to change.

Sam Firth - Conservatives - Leeds East
Sam Firth - Conservatives - Leeds East [BBC]

Green Party candidate Martin Hey (Halifax) was keen to stress most politicians at local level were "straight-up people who are just trying to help in difficult situations".

Mr Hey also reminded the Labour and Conservative candidates that when it came to questions on honesty, both should look at their manifestos and be "more honest about taxes in the next few days".

Reform UK’s Ms Wood said the question of lost trust was something her party was not seeing on the doors, and instead it was “gratitude that real people, not politicians, are standing up for the country”.

She said it was ultimately about “how politicians treat the electorate”.

She was very much reinforcing the party’s raison d’etre as it often presented it - that it was precisely because of the lack of trust in the main parties that parties like Reform had been able to create a space for themselves.

Martin Hey - Green Party – Halifax
Martin Hey - Green Party – Halifax [BBC]

Mr Herdson of the Yorkshire Party also acknowledged the anger and apathy people felt towards the party system.

He stressed "politicians are human too" – but admitted "something changes when they get to Westminster".

“We cannot take the public for granted – and need a better sense of standards,” he said.

Warm and contrite words all round then, on the whole, but little in the way of any real political or electoral reform or restructuring of the current party system to address this fundamental issue of trust.

Labour talked about its integrity commission, the Lib Dems about transparency and there was mention at one point of bringing in proportional representation.

It was also to be noted that when the candidates brought in their personal stories and experiences, for example being a carer for 20 years, or helping a partner through a cancer diagnosis, or being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and contextualising their politics through that, those were the moments that tended to cut through.

If politicians are human too, maybe the answer is showing that more, and relying on the soundbites and rhetoric less. We can but hope.

How do you solve a problem like the NHS?

There was a level of disagreement between the parties on the future of the NHS.

However there was agreement – unsurprisingly - that the health service needed sorting out.

Ms Macy of the Lib Dems said recruiting and retaining 8,000 GPs was a priority, and “more funding, respect and long-term thinking” for the NHS was crucial.

The Green Party said it would fund improvements of £8bn in the first year, partly through a wealth tax on the richest.

Ms Wood of Reform UK said “throwing money” at the NHS was the “lazy way” to address the issues, and actually a data-based investigation into the root causes was needed.

David Herdson - Yorkshire Party - Ossett and Denby Dale
David Herdson - Yorkshire Party - Ossett and Denby Dale [BBC]

Mr Firth for the Conservatives said there had been “staggering” investment in the NHS under the Tory government - but the “aftershocks” of the Covid crisis were causing long-term problems.

He also suggested the ongoing disputes with NHS workers had largely been worked out – a day before junior doctors get ready to stage a five-day walkout.

“We’ve settled every other case,” he said.

Ms White for Labour claimed her party had already “fixed” the NHS between 1997 and 2010, and that it was under the Conservatives that waiting lists had gone up year on year.

Mr Herdson of the Yorkshire Party agreed the “massive legacy” of the Covid crisis would continue to affect the NHS, but said money was not the only answer.

“It’s not about more money or less money, it’s how you manage the service, how you make sure it runs effectively."

Every party and every candidate knows the NHS – the "jewel in the crown" as one of the questioners described it - has to be a cornerstone of policy.

But it also felt obvious that the real devil of the detail is yet to be worked out by all of them.

Cost-of-living crisis

Ron in West Yorkshire, who got in touch via Your Voice, Your Vote, reflected many people’s concerns about the sharp rise in the cost of living over the last few years.

The candidates again had many answers for different policies they had put forward, but seemed in broad agreement around the need to stabilise the economy.

Both Labour’s Ms White and Conservative Mr Firth spoke of the need to stabilise and grow the economy.

Both pointed to "Putin’s war" putting up energy costs, but Ms White also highlighted Liz Truss’ mini-budget which put up mortgages.

She said Labour would create GB Energy to bring bills down, funded by a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas giants.

Sarah Wood - Reform UK - Spen Valley
Sarah Wood - Reform UK - Spen Valley [BBC]

Mr Firth said the Conservative government had spent £94bn to help people with energy bills on top of the money spent during the pandemic.

He added the Conservatives' childcare plan would help people even more.

The Green Party’s Mr Hey said they would be higher spending, meaning high taxes for those who are most able to pay.

Yorkshire Party’s Mr Herdson pointed to housing costs because of a housing shortage and said it was difficult to get new homes built.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have pledged to end poverty in 10 years, and Ms Macy put forward some of their policies like extending free school meals to all primary school children, adding the approach needed to be multi-faceted.

Reform UK’s Ms Wood believed a strong economy equalled solvency for people, but said Reform would completely remove 7m people out of income tax by raising the threshold to £20,000.

Climate change question triggers mini storm

It was all relatively firework-free and civilized until the climate change question came up.

Host James Vincent was forced to interject three times to challenge Ms Wood of Reform UK when she said it was possible to "trot out" plenty of scientists to challenge the "propaganda" on climate change.

James said the scientific community was “pretty united” and “nailed on” that the climate was changing.

But Ms Wood disagreed and told him “you need a bit more research”, adding that “trillions” of pounds were potentially being wasted on dealing with the issue.

The Yorkshire Party’s Mr Herdson also waded in on this, saying: “There’s a difference between being honest and chasing down rabbit holes as we have just heard."

His party is pledging to create new green technology colleges, and transition to greener industries.

Katharine Macy - Liberal Democrat - Colne Valley
Katharine Macy - Liberal Democrat - Colne Valley [BBC]

The Lib Dems wanted to focus on building new houses with the climate in mind, as well as accelerating “crucial” moves towards wind and solar energy.

Mr Hey of the Greens also prioritised wind, solar and hydrogen energy advances, but said the party would also focus on expanding proper insulation and modern heating systems.

Mr Firth of the Conservatives said it was about “bringing everyone with us” and making sure “people are not paying the price”.

Ms White was asked if Labour had watered down its pledges on climate change.

She said actually Labour would be “rewiring the country” through getting rid of the onshore wind ban, bringing forward the new GB Energy company and creating opportunities for Yorkshire to be “world leading” in the green jobs field.

Challenged by her Conservative counterpart on looking after natural heritage and protecting the greenbelt, she said the party’s “land plan” would address these issues.

Final thought: It's all about the money, money, money (and where it's coming from)

Whether it was social care, funding the NHS, the cost-of-living crisis or transport, there was no getting away from the fact that how it would be paid for was at the heart of everything.

It felt at times like none of the parties had a convincing answer for the question: “Where will the money come from?"

There was lots of talk of fully costed manifestos, and claims and counter claims on how realistic many of the pledges were, especially around investing in the NHS.

One of the more notable moments came when other parties reminded the Labour and Conservative candidates that both their manifestos had come under scrutiny in recent days.

It came after the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned there was a “trilemma” facing the next government on whether to hike taxes, cut spending or allow national debt to keep rising.

It was also interesting that while many of the candidates were keen to play up their local credentials, they did stick largely to discussing the big national issues as well as reflecting on the perceptions of and flaws in the political system itself.

For example, the chronic funding issues being faced by many councils here in West Yorkshire – and their knock-on effect on local services - did not really come up.

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