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In 2010, history was made when the three leaders of Britain’s main parties took part in televised debates. In 2015, the General Election’s crucible forged a new history: seven party leaders debated live in the ITV studios.
The Prime Minister and Conservative leader David Cameron sparred again with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband stood in centre stage, flanked by the Green’s Natalie Bennett, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, as well as the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, representing the SNP. Julie Etchingham moderated the two-hour debate, facilitating the seven-way fray, opposed to directly intervening. The leaders debated a number of topics, from public spending to healthcare.
(Video: ITV News)
Given any one of six participants could follow a speaker, the dynamics of this debate are more fissile and unpredictable than the 2010 parley. After the opening statements, the actual debate began. Jonny Tudor, an A-Level Politics student, asked how the party leaders were intending to keep their promises of eliminating the budget deficit, without raising certain taxes or harming vital public services.
When the floor opened, Nick Clegg sniped that the Conservatives were “not going to ask the richest in our society to make an extra single penny contribution through the tax system”. Between competence and chaos, Mr Clegg opined to the Prime Minister that their plans would induce chaos in people’s lives. Mr Cameron replied that the Conservatives intended to raise £5bn from “tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance”. The Prime Minister then said:
If you don’t understand the mistakes of the past, you can’t provide the leadership for the future.
The Labour leader wanted a £2.5bn Time to Care fund for the NHS, paid out of ‘action’ on tax havens and hedge funds. Mr Miliband stated supposed Conservative intransigence was due to hedge funds donating to the Conservatives. Mr Cameron cited new taxes on diverted profits. Mr Cameron then said of the Labour leader:
He wants to put up taxes and cut your pay, going into your monthly payslip at the end of the month, and taking your money out, because he thinks he can spend that money better than you.
Nicola Sturgeon said Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had worked “hand in glove in opposing austerity”. Scotland’s First Minister added the government had missed its borrowing targets, and one million more children were estimated to be in poverty by 2020. Ms Sturgeon then called for spending increases, since “we cannot afford more cuts”.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage lambasted the surge in debt, saying “we gotta get real” and said the foreign aid budget could be cut “with popular public support”. Nick Clegg then opposed this reduction, and repeated his wish for an intermediate plan between the Conservative and Labour proposals. Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood interjected to Mr Clegg that “you’ve been balancing the books on the backs of the poor”. Mr Clegg suggested the government had taken a balanced approach, before Mr Farage wailed:
The books aren’t balanced! We’ve got a £90bn deficit!
Ms Wood continued to speak, before the moderator allowed Mr Miliband to say he wanted “those with the broadest shoulders to bear the heaviest burden”. Green leader Natalie Bennett then suggested, since debt to GDP ratio had been higher in Britain’s history and “no-one worried about it”, that borrowing should seek its own return, such as through new social housing. Ms Bennett also said spending cuts had the “most vulnerable in our society”.
Mr Cameron then spoke of “the truth about cuts”, holding up Labour’s note left for the incoming Chief Secretary of the Treasury: ‘I’m sorry, but there’s no money left’. After a brief exchange between Nigel Farage and David Cameron, Ed Miliband invoked Ronald Reagan:
There you go again. You can’t talk about the present, you can’t talk about the future, so you talk about the past.
Mr Miliband continued he wanted “fair taxes” and “common sense reductions in public spending”.
This excerpt of the debate shows the fascinating interplay between the party leaders. Unless there is an unprecedented transmutation of voting preferences in this election, either Conservative leader David Cameron or Labour leader Ed Miliband will be Britain’s Prime Minister. This meant those two leaders were in direct combat. Since the two parties had formed a coalition government, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg sought to differentiate himself from the Conservative leader, whilst proffering an intermediate arrangement between the two largest parties.
Ed Miliband’s message of an ‘alternative’ and ‘change’ was diluted by three other leaders using similar words. It was not a debate for potential Prime Ministers, but became a contest for acting like the Leader of the Opposition.
Both the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood wanted to attack Labour’s economic stances, whilst the Green’s Natalie Bennett sought a drastic overhaul in economic governance. Furthermore, the two nationalist leaders needed to vehemently oppose the coalition government, for any deleterious effects of its policies on their countries.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage wanted to group together all six other speakers as “very much the same”, citing support for membership of the European Union. Mr Farage also drew controversy over his comments about HIV sufferers.
According to the four opinion polls conducted after the seven-way debate, there was no clear victor between Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Conservative’s David Cameron. UKIP’s Nigel Farage performed well in all four of these polls, and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon even triumphed in the YouGov survey.
After following a similar strategy to the 2010 debates, Nick Clegg found himself fifth in all the post-debate polls. Whilst both performed competently, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood plainly failed to cast a lasting impression on viewers.
In the ITV Leaders’ Debate, seven speakers fought for screen-time. The discussion was also difficult to follow, fracturing and meandering based on who spoke and in what order. The lack of serious discussion on foreign policy was disappointing.
Like our politics and our parliament, there was no overall winner.