Three important UK election issues, explained

Rishi Sunak said his leadership is needed in 'uncertain' times. Keir Starmer said the country needs to be 'rebuilt'. So what issues do voters care about most?

Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak campaigning for the 2024 general election. (Getty Images)
Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak campaigning for the 2024 general election. (Getty Images)

After months of speculation, Rishi Sunak confirmed the general election will be held on 4 July.

The prime minister said Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer could not be trusted to lead the country through “uncertain” times. He made the economy and combating global security the key elements of his pitch to the nation as he announced the election date.

In response, Starmer told voters: “Together we can stop the chaos, we can turn the page, we can start to rebuild Britain.”

But amid this “uncertainty” and need to “rebuild”, what do the voters consider the key issues?

This chart, produced using YouGov polling over the course of this parliament, offers an insight in the issues voters care most about and how that has ebbed and flowed over time.

Compared to when Boris Johnson's Tories won the December 2019 poll, the economy, immigration, defence and tax have grown in importance in the eyes of the electorate. This has come amid the cost of living crisis; small boats crossing the English Channel; the onset of the Ukraine war and wider global instability; and the highest tax burden in 70 years.

Housing has also become a bigger concern, with the Renters Reform Bill - in which the government pledged to scrap no-fault evictions - having been paused after Sunak called the election.

Meanwhile, the last general election was fought - and won by the Tories - on a single issue: Brexit. Yet the chart shows a clear downturn in its relevance among voters, particularly after a trade deal was agreed with the EU in December 2020.

This next chart, meanwhile, highlights what voters have considered the top issues over the past year. By a wide margin, the top three are the economy, health and immigration and asylum.

Here, Yahoo News UK breaks down what is behind these issues and how they have ebbed and flowed in importance among voters since the last election in 2019.

The unprecedented lockdown called by Boris Johnson in March 2020 meant the public’s attention shifted to the economy, as demonstrated by the huge spike in the chart above. The then-chancellor Rishi Sunak was forced to implement a £70bn furlough scheme, lasting 18 months, to protect people’s jobs.

There was a second almighty economic shock - and rise in public concern - in February 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This caused a further spike in an already turbulent wholesale energy market, driving up costs for suppliers and ultimately customers.

Average energy bills eventually reached £2,500 a year (and would have exceeded £4,000 had the government not intervened). This was double the £1,278 consumers were paying before the war and by the time this election takes place, people will still be paying much more than this: £1,568.

Energy prices were also a key driver in inflation reaching 11.1% - a 41-year high - by October 2022, though it has since fallen to 2.3%, which is near the Bank of England’s 2.0% target.

The third economic shock of this parliament - and most damaging for the Tories - was in October 2022 when Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng's disastrous “mini budget”, containing £45bn of unfunded tax cuts, prompted an economic crisis. It led to soaring interest rates, and to this day homeowners who are remortgaging are facing significantly higher bills.

Health, like the economy, is another issue which clearly correlated with the beginning of the pandemic. The above chart shows an enormous spike in public concern when COVID cases started to multiply in March 2020, ultimately leading to the nationwide lockdown as the NHS faced collapse.

Cases fell that summer, but spikes in the chart can be seen once infections rose again and fresh nationwide lockdowns were imposed in October 2020 and January 2021. By March 2022, likely as concerns over the Omicron variant faded, there was much less concern about health.

In January last year, there was a brief spike as the NHS in England experienced the biggest industrial action in its history, with tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance staff walking out simultaneously.

As for the state of play going into the election, NHS waiting lists remain higher than they were when Sunak vowed to cut them last year. According to the latest figures, an estimated 7.54 million treatments were waiting to be carried out at the end of March, relating to 6.29 million patients.

Since the last election, the immigration and asylum narrative has largely revolved around one issue: small boats crossing the English Channel.

The numbers have risen in most of the intervening years: there were 1,843 crossings in 2019, 8,466 in 2020, 28,526 in 2021, 45,774 in 2022 and 29,437 last year. This year, the number has already passed the 10,000 mark.

The regular sharp spikes in the above chart demonstrate how frequently crossings have been in the news, including some occasions when hundreds of migrants have made the dangerous journey in a single day.

But it also reflects how the government has made this part of its own agenda. It was Boris Johnson’s government which first announced plans to deport migrants to Rwanda in April 2022. That policy was picked up by Rishi Sunak when he became prime minister in October that year, with Sunak since repeating his pledge to “stop the boats”.

But after calling the election, Sunak admitted this week that flights would not take off before the country goes to the polls.