With David Cameron having ruled out the idea of a head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband, Channel 4 and Sky instead brought us ‘The Battle for Number 10’ on Thursday 26th March, which was the first full day of the election campaign. Cameron and Miliband would be interviewed individually by Jeremy Paxman, and take questions from the studio audience.
The running order was:
1. Paxman’s interview with Cameron
2. Cameron’s Q&A with the audience
3. Miliband’s Q&A with the audience
4. Paxman’s interview with Miliband
This was a strange decision. Why not have the same order for both men?
Dad and I were watching the programme together, and we both thought that 3. and 4. should have been the other way around. Interestingly, Dad felt the running order disadvantaged Cameron, because the audience could pick up on what Paxman had started, whereas I felt it disadvantaged Miliband, because the Paxman section is the tougher one and it was left until the end. In any case, having the interview followed by the Q&A was the more logical order and I think they should have run it that way for both participants.
Paxman’s interview with Cameron
Paxman opened by quizzing the PM on food banks, asking if he knew how many there were. Cameron didn’t have the figures and instead praised the volunteers who run them; Paxman stated that the number has risen from 66 in 2010 to 421 now. Cameron says there has been an increase in use, in part because job centres are now permitted to point people in the direction of the nearest food bank.
Cameron moved the topic on to employment, saying that the government has created a thousand jobs for each day that they’ve been in office, of which only ‘about one in 50’ are on zero-hours contracts.
Paxman: ‘There are 700,000 people on zero-hours contracts. Could you live on one?’
Cameron: ‘That’s not the question.’
Cameron said some people, such as students, choose zero-hours contracts because it suits them; Paxman persisted in asking whether Cameron could live on one until he finally conceded that no, he couldn’t. He says he wants to see the minmum wage “go through £7, on to £8.”
In terms of the wider economy, Paxman asked ‘How much money have you borrowed?’ Cameron again avoided directly answering the question, saying ‘We have cut the budget deficit in half as a share of GDP.’ Paxman said he has borrowed £500 billion, which is more than the previous government was borrowing.
On immigration, Cameron fully accepted that the government has missed its target to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. Non-EU migration has fallen by 13% but EU migration is still rising ‘not least because we have created more jobs in Britain than the rest of Europe put together’. He said there are plans to stop immigrants from claiming unemployment benefit, and if they fail to get a job within six months, they have to return to the country they came from.
Looking ahead to the next Parliament, Paxman asked where the £12 billion in welfare cuts is going to come from. Cameron said they will freeze in-work benefits for two years.
Paxman: ‘What about the rest? Do you know, and you’re not telling us, or do you not know?’
Cameron said more difficult decisions will have to be taken, such as the family welfare cap will be reduced from £26,000 to £23,000 per year; young people shouldn’t be able to go straight on to unemployment benefit and housing benefit when they leave school. (More detail on that last idea is available in this BBC article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-31500763)
On Europe, Cameron said ‘Europe isn’t working properly’ but it would be giving people a ‘false choice’ to give an in-out referendum now. We need to make reforms in Europe and then give people the choice in 2017.
On not serving a third term, Cameron said he simply doesn’t want to be one of those leaders who seeks ‘to go on and on and on’.
Cameron’s Q&A with the audience
Question: What do you think are Ed Miliband’s best qualities?
Cameron’s answer: initially generic; politicians ‘all believe in serving the public and trying to do the right thing’, but he then gave the individual example of Miliband backing the government on measures against ISIS.
Question: Should there be a cabinet position dedicated to looking after older people?
Cameron’s answer: We need to make sure we treat retired people with dignity after their working life. But the concerns of older people should be under consideration by every member of the Cabinet, and appointing one person to do it may lead to others thinking it isn’t their job.
Question: How intense will cuts to public services be from a majority Conservative government?
Cameron’s answer: Our priority has to be to continue to get the deficit down. We need to ‘find £1 in every £100 the government spends, and save that without putting up people’s taxes’.
Question: Would the Conservatives reverse their decision on cuts to the police service?
Cameron’s answer: the police have been a brilliant example of dealing with the cuts. Between 2010 and 2015, budgets were cut by 20%, but in the same time period crime has been cut by 20%. (In other words, no; and I suspect Cameron feels further savings can be made in policing in the next Parliament.)
Question: What will you do to ensure disabled people play a greater role in public and community life?
Cameron’s answer: we should do “everything we can” and “the job isn’t done”, especially in terms of getting disabled people back into work.
Question: How are you going to convince the British public to not opt out of the EU?
Cameron’s answer: Britain is at its best when it’s involved in trade, but the EU is ‘trying to become too much of a state’. We need a ‘new deal’ with Europe and a proper referendum on whether we should be in or out of a reformed EU, not part of an ever-closer union.
Question: Would you like to see more NHS services provided by private companies?
Cameron’s answer: what matters is that it’s good healthcare. His disabled son Ivan had ‘amazing treatment’ on the NHS and he wants to make sure that is ‘always there’ for other families. Use of the private sector has gone from ‘something like 5% to 6% under this government; a tiny increase’.
Question: If you could redo one thing from your time as Prime Minister, what would it be?
Cameron’s answer: he regrets not bringing an end to insults at Prime Minister’s Questions, and he would have brought in things like the Help to Buy scheme sooner.
My thoughts on Cameron’s performance
In the Paxman section, Cameron kept his voice strong and calm but on almost every question he pulled out the old exam trick of answering the question he wanted to have been asked, rather than the one that was actually put to him. Paxman had to work hard to get a straight answer, and got concessions on a couple of occasions. For his part, Cameron managed to change the topic on a couple of occasions.
In the audience Q&A section, he had good eye contact and body language, engaging with the questioner. He was quick-thinking and the responses were slick.
In both sections, Cameron turned negative questions into positive answers. Sometimes this jarred because it meant he wasn’t directly answering the question, but overall it was an effective method as it meant that he got the party message across throughout.
Miliband’s Q&A with the audience
Question: You sound gloomy most of the time. Are things really so bad?
Miliband’s answer: ‘No, but they could be a lot better,’ and we should do something about it, including a legal right to a regular contract. ‘We can do a lot better than this; we’re a great country.’
Question: Why does the Labour party demonise people from working class backgrounds who are now higher rate taxpayers?
Miliband’s answer: policies such as the reduction in tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 will benefit families from middle-class families as well as working-class. We need to focus on what is better for the whole country.
Question: What will the budget deficit be at the end of five years and how will you achieve it?
Miliband’s answer: we will cut the deficit every year, and end with a balanced budget in the final year. This will be achieved through ‘fairer taxes’, spending reductions (but health and education will be protected) and raising living standards.
Question: Why is Labour opposed to an in-out EU referendum?
Miliband’s answer: we need to stay in the EU for many reasons, including jobs and counter-terrorism measures; leaving would be ‘a disaster for our country’. He would only offer a referendum if there was going to be a further transfer of power from the UK to the EU.
Question: Do you not think that your brother would have done a better job? He was better-qualified and better positioned.
Miliband’s answer: No; we needed to move on from New Labour. Mistakes were made on immigration, foreign policy and equality. It was a “bruising” contest and he wouldn’t have gone through it if he didn’t think he was the best person to be Prime Minister.
Question: Is socialism still an important Labour value?
Miliband’s answer: Yes; ‘democratic socialism’ is still an important Labour value for ‘a fairer, more equal society, making this country work for working people again’.
Question: What are David Cameron’s best qualities?
Miliband’s answer: admired his commitment to equal marriage, and keeping overseas development at 0.7%, both of which were ‘a risk within the Conservative party’.
Question: Why should we vote for you when you’re prone to gaffes and not standing up to arts cuts, etc.?
Miliband’s answer: Labour have very different spending plans. On gaffes, ‘I’m not going to win a contest on who looks best eating a bacon sandwich’ but what’s more important are ideas and decency.
Question: Why are Labour only neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in the opinion polls?
Miliband’s answer: ‘I take an old-fashioned view on this, which is let’s let the people decide in six weeks’ time.’
Paxman’s interview with Miliband
Paxman started off by asking if Britain is full. Miliband conceded that the previous Labour government had ‘completely wrong’ figures and ‘proper controls’ are needed, but the UK ‘benefits from our diversity’. He refused to be drawn into hypotheticals on a maximum capacity number for the country.
Paxman asked what else the previous Labour government got wrong. Miliband said he was proud of what they had achieved, but two further things were being too relaxed about inequality and the Dome was not a good example of the way money was spent. He denied that Labour had spent too much and said the global economic crisis was caused by the banks, not UK government spending.
On forecasting the economy, Paxman said Miliband’s predictions have been wrong on unemployment, wage levels and inflation. Miliband countered that he was right about wage levels; on unemployment, he quoted an OBR forecast which turned out to be wrong. What needs to change about the country is that wages are too low, jobs too insecure and young people too heavily burdened.
Paxman: What would you cut?
Miliband said they would scrap the winter fuel allowance for pensioners earning over £42k per year; make efficiency savings in local government; cap child benefit increases at 1%. Overall spending is ‘likely to fall’ but health and education would be safeguarded.
Paxman asked whether the mansion tax was actually a way of levying the south-east of England in order to prop up NHS spending in Scotland.
Miliband replied that the mansion tax will be levied on properties valued at over £2 million, the majority of which are in the south-east, and it is true that some of the money will be distributed to Scotland. But redistribution across the country ‘is part of being in the United Kingdom’.
Paxman: ‘What about moving Trident out of Scotland? Would you go along with that?’
Paxman said Miliband can’t possibly be immune from the negativity of his image. ‘People think you’re just not tough enough.’ Miliband said when the bombing of Syria was proposed, he was under pressure from President Obama as well as Cameron and Clegg, but looked at everything and decided the answer was no. ‘Am I tough enough? Hell yeah, I’m tough enough.’
Paxman: ‘How is it that you are less popular than your party?’
Miliband says he doesn’t pay attention to popularity polls or snide quotes about him; ‘it’s water off a duck’s back’. ‘People have to decide: do they want my ideas? Do they want my principles? … I don’t care what the newspapers write about me, because what I care about is what’s happening to the British people and I know this country can be so much better, and that’s what I came into politics for.’
Paxman: ‘They see you as a north London geek.’
Miliband: (shrugging) ‘Who cares?’
Paxman then put it to him that people’s reaction is ‘What a shame it’s not his brother’. Miliband replied that people have thrown a lot at him, but he’s ‘a pretty resilient guy’ and has ‘been underestimated at every turn’.
As the section ends, Paxman can be heard saying ‘Are you alright?’, to which Miliband replies ‘Yeah! Are you?’
My thoughts on Miliband’s perfomance
It was interesting to compare Miliband’s approach to the Q&A section with what I had seen him do at People’s Question Time when he was in Brighton & Hove. He was careful to use first names again, but the distance between the perspex podium and studio audience was much greater here, and when he walked back to his notes it meant turning his back on the audience and TV cameras for a couple of seconds. Other than that, he engaged well, and the 18 minutes ran in very quickly.
In the interview section, he needed to be more feisty from the start. He initially let Paxman cut back across him, and was using too many fillers like ‘Let me explain’ instead of assertively launching into the explanation. But he gathered momentum and came across as decisive and passionate in the final five minutes. It was also great to see him counter Paxman’s patronising query at the end.
Media reaction / what the pollsters say
An ICM/Guardian poll found that 54% of respondents thought Cameron had won; 46% thought Miliband had won. A YouGov survey had it almost neck-and-neck, with Cameron on 51% and Miliband on 49%.
The newspapers, rather unsurprisingly, glossed over the main content to instead focus on some weird and tangential things.
The Independent picked up on the fact that Nigel Farage backed Ed Miliband, posing the headline-grabbing but ridiculous suggestion of a UKIP-Labour coalition.
The Guardian didn’t seem to be impressed with either participant’s performance, calling Cameron ‘pink-faced’ and ‘sagging against the rope’; whilst Miliband ‘started defensively’ and ‘often struggled’.
The Daily Mail carried the pollsters’ views and highlighted the level of public engagement via social media.
The Telegraph sketch writer focused on the approaches of Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley, who had presided over the Q&A sections, and gives the edge to Miliband. The Herald, in contrast, gives victory to Cameron.
Never believe what you read in the papers! But looking at them as a spread can be quite interesting and the truth *sometimes* lies somewhere in the middle.
On the programme itself, I actually thought both Cameron and Miliband communicated well what they have in mind if they were to lead the next government, and clear differences in approach are emerging. Televised coverage like this is a great and necessary thing, and there are three more programmes coming up:
- Thursday 2nd April, 8pm on ITV: seven-party leaders’ debate featuring David Cameron (Conservative), Ed Miliband (Labour), Nick Clegg (Lib Dem), Nigel Farage (UKIP), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Green) and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru)
- Thursday 16th April, 8pm on BBC1: five-party ‘opposition debate’ featuring the non-coalition leaders, i.e. Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood
- Thursday 30th April: BBC Question Time special featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg
After all the faff about what format the debates should take, I think we will at least see enough from the four programmes to determine where the parties stand on their national platforms.
It’s going to get pretty busy on this blog, so stay tuned!