The first and only televised election debate for this year’s general election took place earlier this month, featuring seven party leaders from across the United Kingdom. The two-hour debate was structured around four key questions on the following topics: tackling the deficit, the future of the NHS, immigration policy and future prospects for young people.
The marathon debate, moderated by Julie Etchingham and hosted by itv, represented months of foreplay between political operators and broadcasters culminating in a single pre-election debate featuring seven party leaders from across the political spectrum.
The meeting was enlivened by the new female dynamic and stirred by the presence of three parties that only stand in certain areas of the UK: the SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and The Green Party in England and Wales. So how well did each candidate perform?
David Cameron- Conservatives
Cameron took the opportunity to reemphasise that five years ago the country was “on the brink” and that the “long term economic plan was working.” He spoke of two million more jobs and the coalition tax cuts. Cameron defended attacks on his immigration record by stressing that the UK currently has the fastest growing economy in any major western country, naturally resulting in people wanting to come here.
He predictably focused his attacks on Labour, and expressed concern that voting for Miliband would “put us back to square one.” The PM declared that the problem with Miliband is that he “still doesn’t think Labour borrowed and spent too much,” and told the audience about a letter left by Labour at the Treasury in 2010 which read “I’m sorry, we’ve ran out of money.”
The Conservative leader came out strong for the NHS, calling it the UK’s “most important national institution” that provided “unbelievable care” for his severely disabled son. Cameron claimed that there are now 9000 more doctors and 20000 fewer bureaucrats, and promised to implement seven-day operation for A&E and GP surgeries.
In response to attacks from Ed Miliband on the number of zero hour contracts, Cameron told the audience about claims that 70 labour MPs currently employ people on zero hour contracts.
On immigration, Cameron laid out plans for new policies that would stop immigrants from claiming benefits until they have lived and paid into the country for four years and prevent migrant workers from sending money to dependents who live overseas. The PM promised an in-out referendum on Europe in 2017 after renegotiations to “get a better deal for Britain.”
Ed Miliband - Labour
Ed Miliband focused his attacks on Cameron’s record, claiming that “over the last five years wages haven’t kept up with bills.”
He promised to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour and “rescue the NHS by hiring more doctors and nurses.” Labour’s cut in tuition fees from six to nine thousand was not criticised by the other leaders, while Miliband promised to cut the deficit every year while reversing the tax cut for millionaires and making “common sense spending reductions, where outside the NHS and education system spending will fall.”
The Labour leader set out a NHS “time to care fund” coming from a new mansion tax on properties worth over £2 million, a banker’s bonus tax and unexplained money coming from tobacco companies. The Labour leader attacked Cameron on the NHS, claiming that “over one million people waited in A&E for more than four hours.”
Miliband plans to prevent immigrations from receiving benefits for the first two years that they come here, and will attempt to “stop the undercutting of wages and working conditions.” On the EU, Miliband argued that “David Cameron has marginalised us in Europe” and asserted that he will not be holding a referendum like the Tories.
In his closing speech, Miliband reminded the audience that he will “stand up to energy companies” and implement a price freeze.
Nick Clegg – Liberal Democrats
The abiding message from Nick Clegg was that the Liberal Democrats act as a moderating force in British politics, who will stop the country from “lurching to the left or right.” The deputy prime minister acknowledged that “no one is going to win outright in this election,” but that “the country is in a much better shape than it was five years ago.”
Mr Clegg declared that the Liberal Democrats have “the grit and resilience to finish the job and balance the books fairly” and did a good job of positioning himself as the reasonable compromise between the two biggest parties. The Lib Dem leader went on to say that the next five years require more austerity but emphasised that “It’s a balance. We will cut less than tory, and borrow less than labour.”
In an effort to distance himself from his Coalition partner, Nick Clegg attacked Mr Cameron on the harsh cuts made in the coalition, claiming that the prime minister had executed “ideologically driven cuts on schools” and that the “Tories cut more because they want to,” as opposed to the Lib Dem who reluctantly feel that it is in the best interests of the country’s current finances.
“The NHS doesn’t need warm words it needs hard cash.” Mr Clegg also stated that “mental health has for far too long been the poor cousin of physical health.”
The deputy prime minister said he “will never spread fear about immigration” and “welcome people who play by the rules,” before going on to say that “without immigrants the NHS would collapse overnight.” The three female leaders shared these positive sentiments towards immigrants.
In one exchange between the three biggest Westminster parties, Mr Clegg asked Ed Miliband for an apology about the state of the economy that the coalition inherited. This prompted a rare applause from the audience. Miliband deflected the criticism by attacking Cameron for his statements while in opposition that the banks were overregulated before the 2008 crisis, “so I won’t take any lectures from you.”
Mr Clegg defended his party’s success in the coalition with the pupil premium, income tax cuts for millions of low earners and new apprenticeships, before talking about the Liberal Democrat ‘rent-to-own’ scheme for people trying to get onto the property ladder.
The deputy prime minister intends to raise more money by closing reliefs in capital gains tax. He closed his speech by highlighting the Liberal Democrat mission statement: “A stronger economy and a fairer society, with opportunity for all.”
Nicola Sturgeon – SNP
Nicola Sturgeon said she was committed to changing the Westminster system while “standing up for Scotland’s best interests.” She made it clear that she wants Scottish independence and offered an alternative to austerity, where the UK “puts investment in children, not nuclear weapons.” The SNP leader claimed that “economic policies shouldn’t be and end in itself,” and would like to see “modest spending increases” that stop “pushing people into poverty.” While admitting that this approach would “take longer to pay off the debt,” Nicola Sturgeon justified that it would “give money for infrastructure and public services.”
She criticised the coalition’s “blind commitment to austerity,” insisted that “you can’t cut your way out of the deficit” and won over the audience after observing “it seems that there is nothing Nigel Farage won’t blame on foreigners.” After calling the NHS “too precious for private profit,” Nicola Sturgeon reemphasised lifting people out of poverty and scrapping trident, while creating an “education system based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay.”
Nigel Farage – UKIP
Nigel Farage quickly tried to distance himself from the other leaders, explaining that “all the other six here support the EU and open door immigration.”
The Ukip leader advocated for an Australian style points immigation system, to give “ordinary working people an even break” and affirmed his intentions to withdraw from the European Union. Mr Farage also pledged to cut the foreign aid budget, stop the HS2 “vanity project” and revisit the Barnett formula because “Scotland should receive less than it currently does.”
Farage said that the NHS “should run as a public service, free at the point of access” and promised to reverse the growth of middle management and scrap hospital parking charges.
Mr Farage raised the topic of health tourism, saying that foreign workers should have health insurance before they arrive here.
Shortly after this Mr Farage brought up the 7000 HIV cases in the UK, and claimed that “almost half” of the patients were from overseas. When he Leanne wood gets the first round of applause for condemning his words.
Farage repeatedly claimed that “we can’t do anything” to control immigration and said that he doesn’t blame a single migrant for coming here.
He highlighted issues such as wage compression and the housing crisis, but steered clear of the economy and focused on immigration and our EU membership as priorities for the UK. Mr Farage attacked the six pro-European leaders, calling them “detached”, “all the same” and declaring they have “never had a job in their lives.”
Leanne Wood – Plaid Cymru
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood stressed that “jobs and services have been cut to the bone” and declared that “the austerity experiment has failed.”
Speaking directly to the Welsh voters, she promised to offer an alternative to “balancing the books on the backs of the poor.”
Leanne Wood relentlessly criticised austerity, saying that “debt has gone up despite promises” to produce “so much pain for so little gain.” At one point the Plaid Cymru leader told the audience that “the banks had a bailout, now it is time for the people to have a bail out.”
In the next parliament Plaid Cymru will demand that Wales receive (per capita) fiscal parity with Scotland.
Leanna Wood criticised Labour for the “creeping privatisation” and the introduction of PFIs (private finance initiatives). She contended that the “private sector has no role in healthcare.”
In response to Farage’s comments on immigration, the Plaid Cymru leader asserted that the United Kingdom would not go along with the “scaremongering” and “divisive rhetoric.”
In closing, Leanne Wood underlined that “austerity is not inevitable. We do have a choice” and told the audience that “for Wales to be strong, like Scotland, Plaid Cymru must be strong. Only they can win for Wales”
Natalie Bennett – the Green Party
Natalie Bennett argued that in the NHS “no public money should go into private profits” and pledged that the Green party would “stop slashing at essential public services” by raising taxes and ensuring that multinational companies and rich individuals “pay their fair share.” She criticised the government’s efforts for the poor and told the audience “one in five workers is on less than a living wage.”
The Green Party leader promised to “increase the amount we spend on foreign aid” because “we need a more secure, stable world.” Bennett announced that other parties are “offering two choices: austerity heavy and austerity light.”
According to the Green party leader, the NHS is “moving to the American system,” which is why the Greens would “take the market mechanism out of the national health service.”
Bennett spoke about the “damaging” debate on immigration caused by Nigel Farage, and agreed with other party leaders about the numerous benefits of immigration. She went on to mention “the NHS couldn’t operate without immigrants.”
Natalie Bennett was the only leader to mention the environment, claiming that “we are using the resources of three planets when we’ve only got one.”
Ms Bennett spent her remaining time praising the “huge impact” that the Green Party’s only MP, Caroline Lucas, had made in parliament and urged the public to vote for the Greens to “deliver a new kind of politics. A peaceful political revolution.”
But just how well was this all received?
Snap polls suggested that Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron had come out on top, but for very different reasons. Many liked the aggressive and impassioned rhetoric coming from Sturgeon, who attacked Miliband for not being left enough. David Cameron remains the most ‘prime ministerial’ in the public’s eyes, after he gave a calm and convincing argument for voting Conservative.
Ed Miliband also came out strong form the debate. He has the most to gain from participating in a head to head debate with David Cameron, due to the expectation game. The Conservatives and the press have hugely exaggerated Miliband’s poor image and the debates give him an opportunity to confront Cameron and look the part.
However, in the seven-way debate he had little time to clash with Cameron, and had to spent just as much time being criticized by Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood for Labour’s support for further austerity.
Nick Clegg, arguably one of the best speakers on the panel, came out with some appealing lines on why to vote Lib Dem, and successfully positioned himself away from his coalition partner. Painting a picture as the party that would “add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one” might chime with the electorate, but Clegg’s image is tainted with large chinks of the public after the tuition fee debacle.
Nigel Farage gave a pretty poor performance and caused controversy his comments on immigrants suffering from HIV. Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood both had their moments that won over the audience, mainly on the subjects of inequality and the “failed austerity experiment,” and the three women leaders were very much in agreement on the issues.
However, as the best debater of the three, Nicola Sturgeon stole Bennett’s and Wood’s thunder.
There were no major gaffes or game changing moments during the debate, and the two-hour discussion probably didn’t change many people’s perceptions of the party leaders, except now there might be a large number left-wing English voters who wish they could vote for Nicola Sturgeon.