Finally, the long-awaited leaders debate has materialised. The first challenge for our new multi-party democracy was to promote a critical and engaging discussion with a seven-way debate. This proved, as many might have predicted, a forlorn hope. The stage often appeared to host a loud re-enactment of Prime Ministers Questions, or even a rowdy bar on Call Lane at times. A notable lack of a decent Chair from ITV only served to intensify this cacophony of political noise.
The seven candidates- Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Farage, Wood, Sturgeon and Bennett- clashed on issues surrounding the economy, the NHS and immigration. The tactful seven-way format that Cameron had campaigned for seemed to protect the Conservatives from deepened policy discussion and give voice to Labour’s main challengers; the SNP and Plaid Cyrmru. With the spotlight unable to shine more discriminately on the potential next heads of Government, the Lib Dems, UKIP, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens had a huge potential to steal votes from the traditional two party system.
The stage often appeared to host a loud re-enactment of Prime Ministers Questions, or even a rowdy bar on Call Lane at times.
However, only one seized this golden opportunity. The tabloids have widely noted the stellar performance of Nicola Sturgeon as the best of the night. She engaged with Cameron and Miliband, repeatedly critiqued Farage and was kind to the other female leaders who share her left-leaning instincts. Sturgeon also made an impassioned case for education, healthcare, progressive taxation and scrapping Trident, a performance that had Twitter commentators wishing the SNP were standing in the whole UK. This performance, whilst damaging to Labour, also weakened the Conservative attacks that had voters worried about a potential Labour-SNP coalition deal.
Miliband did remarkably well and proved he’s more than a joke on the Conservative’s billboards.
The Green, Plaid Cymru and SNP attacks on austerity were also damaging to Labour and may have turned a few of their more leftist voters away from them, especially considering the SNP and Plaid Cymru’s focused attacks on their main local opposition. Yet Miliband did remarkably well and proved he’s more than a joke on the Conservative’s billboards. His confidence was abundant, with looks into the camera and beginning, “If I’m Prime Minister” sure to have wooed some who had questioned his character.
Then reiterating his promise to the youth, Miliband stressed the reduction of the sky-high University tuition fees to £6000. Not only this, Miliband explained how his progressive taxation policies will help fill the £8bn NHS cash-hole whilst also defending Labour’s refusal to support an EU referendum. All things considered, Miliband did well to present an appealing case to vote Labour, and to affirm his presence on a stage amongst so many big characters.
Of these characters, Farage was on the attack from the start. Emphasising he is the only common-sense politician who understands the working people, he reminded voters that whilst the other six candidates looked different, on EU membership and open-door immigration they’re all the same. Vote UKIP hey said, to shake up British Politics, reduce in foreign aid contributions and put the British people first.
Cameron was protected by the format of the debates and never entered into full critical discussion on future cost-saving targets and cuts
Farage should not expect many votes from Scotland after he suggested we should stop shovelling tax revenue over Hadrian’s Wall. Then, further defending his controversial label, he argued HIV treatment should not be available to foreigners. This assertion was instantly countered by Wood, who slammed this as a dehumanising argument and said that Farage should be “ashamed,” to much applause.
Yet I’m sure this will not have deterred the UKIP following. On another night, Farage’s slightly vacuous arguments might have been slammed more often, but not tonight – he did well to secure votes from immigration-worried voters and will have worried some Conservative MPs.
Sticking to the Conservative’s mantra, Cameron never strayed too far from the “long-term economic plan” for “hard-working families”. Quick to remind voters of the debt-fuelled alternatives to the Conservatives, Cameron attempted to highlight rising employment and economic growth as reasons not to abandon the progress made so far.
Withholding so much during the debates was a real shame for the Greens, the largest anti-austerity party in England and Wales. Many supporters will be wishing it was Green MP Caroline Lucas representing the party instead.
Cameron also directed much of his attention towards Miliband, even unashamedly wielding a pre-packaged No.10 wisecrack, “Never mind zero hours, with Ed we’d get zero jobs.” Much to Miliband’s angst, Cameron was protected by the format of the debates and never entered into full critical discussion on future cost-saving targets and cuts. He was simply met with other leader’s policy suggestions and Sturgeon’s passionate anti-austerity speech.
The other leaders made little an impact on the debate. Clegg was entirety on the defensive and spent half of the debate apologising for previous actions and the other half arguing that he was the mediator between Labour’s over-spending and excessive Tory cuts. For somebody who shone so brightly at the last debates, Clegg has now succeeded in completely underwhelming the British public, and not for the first time.
Likewise, the majority of UK voters may have wondered why Wood was included. Her parochial inputs focused largely on revisiting the Barnett formula to get a fairer deal for Wales. Yet for the votes that she focused on winning, Wood may have succeeded in promoting the Plaid Cymru over Welsh-Labour. This could contribute the deciding vote count come May.
Bennett was the only leader who failed to completely learn her opening and closing statements, which epitomised her amateurish performance. Other than her strong challenge asking Cameron to explain why the UK has only accepted 143 Syrian refugees and an ending statement on the environment, Bennett had little substance. Despite her loud voice and confident stance, Bennett seemed reluctant to throw her hat into the ring and use the huge armoury of facts at her disposal. Withholding so much during the debates was a real shame for largest anti-austerity party in England and Wales. Many supporters will be wishing it was Green MP Caroline Lucas representing them instead.
Perhaps the most positive outcome of the debates was that 3 of the 7 candidates were woman: a big achievement by way of political gender balance. This in itself is a huge boost for British politics and bodes well for equality in the future. With this in mind, the debates underlined an ever-changing political landscape with more voter choice than ever before. This is perhaps the most difficult election to predict in British political history.