Though, as expected, it was not a revelational evening, Thursday’s two-hour live TV debate on ITV was certainly better than the previous faux-debate, and was the first and last opportunity for the seven parties to go head-to-head with each other and sell themselves to the British public, primarily by denouncing the rest.
But, perhaps more significantly, it was the only opportunity for Ed Miliband to share the stage with David Cameron and challenge the PM’s legacy so that the electorate could compare and contrast the two side-by-side. This is what Miliband would have been waiting for and what, most suspect, Cameron and the rest of his Tory party would have been dreading.
The Conservatives’ campaign has been largely based on promoting the idea of Ed Miliband as an incompetent fool who would put the whole of the British economy in jeopardy if elected in to power. Labour would have been hoping to put that to rest on the night.
The other smaller parties would simply have been hoping to make their voices heard for once in a general election debate largely dichotomized by the mainstream media.
The story of the night was one of solidarity between the progressive insurgents, comprising of the Greens, the SNP, and the little known Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales), opposing everyone else, and each of them against each other.
The membership, apparently proposed by the Tories, certainly paid off for them. Labour would have liked to have stood out as the party proposing change, fighting for the working-class individual, but discovered that, when superimposed onto the rest of the parties (especially the SNP) their USP was not actually that unique, and was not offered as extensively as others.
If the Tories’ plan was to accentuate the divided left, then it succeeded. Much of the debate was consumed by Leanne Wood (leader of Plaid) and Nichola Sturgeon berating Ed Miliband on Labour’s record and undermining it’s long-held but increasingly uncertain image of champion of the common man, clearly targeting it’s voting pool, the most likely “demographic” to switch allegiances to them. Of course there was also the occasional obligatory attack on David Cameron’s term in office, but not nearly as much as would have been expected, or indeed perhaps as much as Cameron and the rest of his cabinet deserved.
UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, predictably, aimed to appeal to the audience as the party of unashamed honesty, common sense and good old-fashioned British values, and surprise-surprise, the running theme of his night was immigration, most notably his contraversial reference to the burden of foreign HIV sufferers on the NHS.
Going into the debate, Cameron and his party’s track record was both an asset and a liability. Something to use as evidence of a successful term, but also something to be used by others as evidence of failure. However, if all went to plan, then all the Cameron would need to do would be to sit back, not mess up hugely, and stand his ground.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that with seven parties, the event would be absolute chaos, but the format went some way to mitigating that, allowing everyone to have their say. Each party leader would have a minute to provide an opening statement, then pre-selected questions would be put to the panel, following which, each leader would be able to make a statement on that subject, and finally, an open debate.
The Greens’ Natalie Bennett’s opening statement in summary was that they would provide an alternative to supposedly inevitable austerity. UKIP’s Nigel Farage said that they were the only party that was truly different, that they wanted out of the EU and controlled immigration, the root of the suffering of the “average Brit”. Nick Clegg argued that the country is in a better condition than it was 5 years ago and asked the British public to let them finish the job. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon offered a chance to change the system and make up for broken promises made by so many who had gone before them and that, although they did want Scottish independence, as long as they were a member of the Union they would be a constructive partner, fighting for progressive, liberal left-wing values. David Cameron painted a picture of a country on the brink of devastation, saved only by the mercy and initiative of the his government and proceeded to list a resume of achievements, finishing with the choice of the safe, proven Conservatives on the right hand, and the “incompetent” Labour party on the left. Plaid’s Leanne Wood spoke directly to Wales and of the difficulty faced by communities and the waning hope of the youth. Finally, Labour reeled off their tagline, “Britain Succeeds When Working People Succeed”, then a list of Conservative failings and what they would do to rectify them, with a final reassurance of “Britain can do better”.
The first question put the panel was regarding how their respective parties would eliminate the deficit without raising certain taxes and cutting vital services.
The word of the night from the big three was ‘balance’, a balance between spending and cutting. Clegg saying that those with the broadest shoulders should pay their due; Cameron stating that they would raise £5bn by eliminating tax evasion; Miliband saying that he wanted fair taxes and common sense cuts and would aim to “live within our means”. Wood set a target for the deficit and went with the angle that the bankers had been bailed out, and that it was now time for the people to receive the same kindness; Farage in all fairness provided the clearest plan and answer to the question, pointing out that national debt had doubled in five years and outlining that they would save money by leaving the EU, cutting foreign aid and stopping HS2, remarking that although the economy was growing, at some point the debt would have to be faced; Bennett, rather more vaguely, said that her party wanted to reverse the austerity that had caused the poorest to suffer the most in society by investing in the future, saying that the world’s sixth richest society could afford to have strong public services; and Sturgeon argued quite saliently that cutting the deficit is important but not an end in itself, and denounced cuts proposed by Labour and the Conservatives, proposing modest increases in spending in order to invest Britain out of recession, which would admittedly take longer to reduce to deficit but would help alleviate the poverty caused by previous government.
Generally, the leaders failed to really answer the question. Their answers were ultimately the same as those that they had given to the previous question regarding the deficit. There was a split on the role of privatisation in the NHS, with the progressives completely opposing it and the rest conceding that though it had a role, that role was limited. The only other solutions offered to make the NHS more sustainable were by UKIP, to stop ‘health tourism’ by making sure that foreign workers have private health insurance before coming to Britain; and by the Greens who would emphasize preventative measures such as dealing with air pollution and encouraging walking and cycling.
How would the parties address the issue of immigration?
On this issue, Miliband suggested deterring immigrants by making sure that they wouldn’t be able to claim benefits for at least their first two years of residency, stop employers from undercutting wages and recruiting from exclusively abroad. Wood merely said that immigration was not the biggest issue facing Britain and that Plaid would not stigmatize immigrants. Sturgeon admitted that strong controls on immigration were needed however investment in public services and housing were more of a priority. Cameron said that Britain needed immigration that was controlled and fair, alongside a policy that if you haven’t got a job in six months then you would not be eligible for unemployment benefits, that immigrants would not be able to send child benefit back to their native country, whilst promising an in/out referendum in 2017. UKIP, predictably, claimed that, without leaving the EU, Britain had no power over its borders and therefor there was only one solution, to revert to a trade-based relationship with the rest of the European states. Clegg also said that his party would target “unscrupulous employers” and in fairness provided the best sound-bites for the immigration debate, which were that “Britain should be open for business but not open to abuse” and that the “freedom of movement shouldn’t be the same as the freedom to claim”. Bennett took a similar stance to that of Sturgeon saying that though immigration from outside the EU needed to be controlled, the problems that people faced were not a result of immigration but bad policy.
And finally, what would the parties do to make the youth more optimistic about their future?
Wood said that Plaid would create more jobs, and invest in young people, especially in education, which her party believed to be the best route out of poverty. Miliband also mentioned education but added that Labour planned to reduce tuition fees to £6000 a year, to ban exploitative zero-hour contracts, regulate rents by private landlords and build an extra 200,000 homes a year by 2020. Cameron said that his party planned to increase the quantity and quality of jobs, increase the number and choice of apprenticeships, uncap university places, and build affordable homes exclusive to British citizens. Bennett stated that the Greens wanted to eradicate tuition fees, take action against climate change, and increase the minimum wage to £10 by 2020. Clegg said that the Lib Dems were planning a rent to buy scheme where over a period of time renting a property, the tenant would eventually own it. Farage merely said that UKIP planned to build a lot of houses on brownfield sites and trade more with the Commonwealth.
The leaders then finished with a parting statement. Sturgeon said that the old parties only provided misguided austerity and misplaced priorities, whereas the SNP would invest in the future. Clegg emphasized the balancing act needed in the next few years. Miliband made a stand with the working man and pledged to protect essential services. Wood reiterated that austerity was and is still not inevitable. Bennett declared that we do not merely have a choice to make a choice as to who is the lesser of two evils and that the Greens offered a new kind of politics. Farage contended that the other parties didn’t understand the working class, and that UKIP believed in plain-spoken patriotism. Finally, Cameron underlined the increase in jobs and the growing economy that had occurred during his tenure and pleaded for the voters not to reinstate the ones who had reduced the economy to its original state.
It was a bitch-fest, yes, but winners certainly emerged. The leaders who fared best were arguably Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron. Sturgeon will feel like she succeeded in doing what she had set out to do, which was to engage the disillusioned or on the fence Scottish Labour voters by offering a clear anti-austerity stance, which will have attracted many who were adversely affected by the aftermath of the recession and by the Tories’ economic and social policy of the last 5 years.
As for David Cameron, the debate seemed plain sailing for him. He defended his record well and was not called out on anything too ruinous. He arguably seemed more statesmanlike than Miliband, which is all that he really would have cared about, and something that will have left Labour hopefuls disappointed.
Come results day, as any kind of majority looks increasingly less likely than it ever was, though Miliband has ruled it out, he might have no choice but to form a coalition with the SNP. It ultimately comes down to a question of whether Labour voters would rather their party form a coalition with a progressive left-wing party, or the alternative, which is that of another Tory government in a possible coalition with UKIP.
Only time will tell, and that time is running out.
Catch the full debate here and make your own mind up.