On Thursday 2nd April, ITV brought us ‘The Leaders’ Debate’, hosted by news anchor Julie Etchingham and featuring the leaders of the seven biggest UK parties: David Cameron (Conservatives), Ed Miliband (Labour), Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats), Nigel Farage (UKIP), Natalie Bennett (Green), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru).
Julie Etchingham explains that the order of the opening statements, as well as the closing statements and order in which the leaders will deal with the questions, has been determined by lots drawn before the show. Up first it’s the leader of the Green Party.
1. Natalie Bennett, Green Party
Natalie Bennett says: ‘You were told that austerity and inequality, bankers’ bonuses and tuition fees were inevitable. They were not. You all deserve better.’ The Green Party’s vision is of an economy that supports the poor and disadvantaged, and ‘we must take action on climate change’. She says that instead of trading in fear and demonising sections of society, the Green Party offers hope. ‘Vote for change. Vote Green.’
My thoughts: Bennett was positive in content, and set out the stall for the national party well. She made it clear that taking action on climate change and stopping austerity are the top priorities for the Green Party. Bennett looked directly at the camera and spoke very clearly, but a bit too slowly, and some of the passion behind her points was lost.
2. Nigel Farage, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Nigel Farage says: ‘There are six other party leaders on this platform tonight. They may all look different, but actually, on some of the big issues that affect this country, they’re very much the same.’ They all support EU membership and, because of that, they all support ‘open door immigration’, which in UKIP’s view has ‘depressed the wages for ordinary people, made buying houses for youngsters very difficult, made it tough to get a GP appointment and not been good for this country.’ The alternative would be to leave the EU and ‘make our own laws’ but keep co-operating with Europe through trade deals; we could then ‘control our borders’ and have ‘an Australian-style points system’ to determine who to let in.
My thoughts: Farage is setting UKIP apart from the other parties by making immigration the defining factor of this election, presenting it as a magic bullet to cure all ills across areas like employment, housing, education, health and welfare. His use of language is insidious: contrasting immigrants with ‘ordinary people’ sets them outside of this group, reinforcing UKIP’s idea that they are a threatening group of outsiders rather than, um, ordinary people themselves. Farage’s delivery was quick and confident.
3. Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg says: ‘I think it’s pretty obvious that no-one’s going to win this election outright, so you’re going to have to decide, as you did last time, who is going to work with whom.’ He isn’t going to ‘pretend everything’s perfect’ and admits he has made mistakes, but he and the Liberal Democrats have ‘the grit and determination to finish the job and balance the books, and doing so fairly’. Clegg says he won’t ‘let anyone else borrow money that we don’t have’ or ‘impose ideological cuts on your hospitals and your schools’. He promises to serve ‘not just parts of our country, but the whole of our wonderful United Kingdom.’
My thoughts: Clegg made a mistake in opening with negative and defensive statements. He may well believe that we’ll have another coalition after 7th May 2015, but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion, and people don’t like being told the outcome of a democratic vote before it has taken place. He made his claim for the centre ground halfway through the statement, and clearly sees it as a three-horse race: the reference to borrowing too much money refers to Labour, and the imposed ideological cuts to the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats portrayed as continuing along the current path fairly in the middle. His closing point was pretty generic and a bit cringey. Clegg stumbled over a word at one point but otherwise spoke with calm determination, and still looks pretty photogenic, which served him well in the 2010 debates.
4. Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish National Party (SNP)
Nicola Sturgeon says: ‘This election is a chance to change the Westminster system so that it serves you better.’ She represents Scottish interests but knows that others across the UK ‘feel let down’ by current politics and her ‘message to people watching in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of friendship’. The SNP’s goal is independence, but while it is part of the Westminster system it will work together with like-minded people to deliver change. ‘Like many of you, we want an alternative to the pain of austerity; an end to the bedroom tax; a halt to the privatization of the NHS; and we believe the scarce resources in our country should be invested in the future of our children, not in new nuclear weapons.’ The SNP wants ‘new, better and progressive politics’ for ‘all of us’.
My thoughts: Sturgeon, like Bennett, delivered a positive message looking to the future. Her delivery was strong and confident, and she spoke at just the right pace. She set out the SNP’s priorities as ending austerity, ending the privatization of the NHS, scrapping Trident and changing the political landscape. Sturgeon’s real brilliance lies in the fact she can simultaneously (and seemingly with ease) stand up for Scottish interests and connect at a national level with voters across the UK.
5. David Cameron, Conservative Party
David Cameron says: ‘Five years ago, this country was on the brink. We had millions of people unemployed, and we had one of the biggest budget deficits anywhere in the world.’ Working through the ‘long-term economic plan’ has resulted in ‘almost 2 million more people in work’ and it has been ‘a balanced plan’, with continued investment in the NHS, reducing the deficit and cutting taxes ‘for 30 million working people’. He says ‘the plan’s working, because last year we had the fastest-growing economy of any of the major Western countries’. The other claims made in the debate will be from ‘the same people who claimed that if we followed our plan unemployment would go up, the deficit wouldn’t come down, the economy wouldn’t grow, that public services would be destroyed. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.’ He says the choice in the election is between continuing with the plan or going back to too much taxing, borrowing and spending. ‘I say, let’s not go back to square one. Britain can do so much better than that.’
My thoughts: Cameron, like Clegg, focused on too many negatives and perhaps should have led with the statistic about the UK being the fastest-growing major Western economy. He set out the Conservatives’ position as continuing the economic recovery, highlighting the increase in employment and reduction in the deficit. Again, like Clegg, Cameron stumbled over a word at one point but otherwise spoke with calm determination. (In fact, their tones of voice are very similar these days. Is it like those old married couples who start to look like each other?…)
6. Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru
Leanne Wood says: ‘I’m speaking to everyone back home in Wales tonight.’ She says she understands that ‘jobs and services have been cut to the bone, and can be cut no more’. Plaid Cymru offers ‘hope of a decent future for our young people; for thriving, successful communities’ and they ‘can win for Wales’ in the event of a hung parliament. She asks for voters to ‘make Plaid Cymru Wales’s voice in Westminster’.
My thoughts: Wood focused entirely on the Welsh message, in contrast to the local + national approach by Sturgeon, and it seemed strange by comparison not to have a wider message for the rest of the viewers in the UK. Her delivery was clear and she smiled warmly at the camera.
7. Ed Miliband, Labour
Ed Miliband says: ‘Here’s what I believe. Britain succeeds when working people succeed.’ He says that for five years, ‘wages haven’t kept up with bills’, ‘the NHS is going backwards’ and ‘our young people have been fearing they’ll have a worse life than their parents’. If Ed became Prime Minister he would ‘raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour and ban exploitative zero-hours contracts’, ‘save our NHS and hire more doctors and nurses’ and ‘build a future for all of our young people’. He highlights plans for apprenticeships and a cut in tuition fees to £6,000 per year. He says ‘we’ll cut the deficit every year, and balance the books’ and ends with ‘I say, Britain can do so much better than it’s done over the past five years.’
My thoughts: Miliband set out Labour’s priorities as the NHS, working people and young people. His concluding sentence had a distinct echo of Cameron’s and the plans to eliminate the deficit by 2020 are shared by the Labour and Conservative parties. He mentioned some specific and popular policies, using positive language for the future and linking all things negative to the past five years. Miliband addressed the camera in a more natural manner than I have seen before, and sounded assured, speaking at a good pace.
The Q&A section
The format of this section was that each leader would have one minute to respond to the question, before opening up to a free-flowing debate.
Question 1: How do each of the party leaders aim to eliminate the deficit without raising certain taxes or imposing cuts to vital public services?
Nick Clegg says ‘it’s all about balance’. The Conservatives plan to cut ‘£50bn more than what’s needed’; Labour plan to borrow ‘£70bn more than necessary’. The Liberal Democrats would instead balance the books by increasing taxes for the wealthiest, and Clegg highlights that NHS spending will necessarily have to increase due to the aging population. ‘The Liberal Democrat plan is a very simple one: we’ll cut less than the Conservatives, and we’ll borrow less than Labour.’
David Cameron says ‘we’ve got a plan which is working’. The Conservatives will continue to increase spending on the NHS in the next Parliament, but elsewhere ‘we will need to find savings of £1 in every £100 the government spends’ for the next two years. Cameron says the alternative would be to raise taxes ‘and I don’t want to do that’. Last time they were in power, Labour increased taxes and debt, and it ended up hurting working people rather than helping them.
Leanne Wood says ‘under our plans, the deficit would be cut form £90bn to £30bn by 2020.’ Plaid Cymru would avoid ‘arbitrary deadlines’ for the elimination of the deficit, which was supposed to have been achieved under this government. She says that austerity has failed: people have felt the pain of it without the promised reward.
Nigel Farage says ‘this coalition was put together to reduce the annual deficit to zero’ but it is still £90bn/year. ‘More remarkably, and what no-one talks about, is the national debt, which has been going on for hundreds of years, and in this five years, the national debt has doubled from £850bn to £1.5 trillion.’ [It isn’t quite double, but he’s right about national debt continuously rising and now standing at £1.5 trillion. The deficit is the gap between national income and national spending; the national debt increases year on year if there is any amount of deficit. With Farage’s financial background, it’d be good to see him going down the path of economic scrutiny more often.] UKIP would cut £10bn/year from the foreign aid budget, save another £10bn/year by ‘not paying it to Brussels’, save £4bn/year by scrapping the ‘vanity project’ HS2 and ‘revisit the Barnett formula, because frankly, English and Welsh taxpayers are getting a rotten deal’, saving £5bn/year [but this would obviously mean a further £5bn of cuts needed in Scotland and Northern Ireland]. ‘There’s a plan and a promise that could be kept.’
Ed Miliband says ‘we’ll cut the deficit every year, and as I said in the opening, we will balance the books, but we’ll do it in a fairer and better way than has been tried over the past five years.’ Labour would reverse the tax cut for millionaires [meaning top rate of income tax would go back up to 50%, or perhaps higher], spending cuts ‘outside key areas like education and health’ and increase living standards for everyone. ‘It’s a fair way; it’s a better way for our country.’
Natalie Bennett says what the Greens are offering is ‘not cuts, but the reversal of austerity’. She takes an example of why the cuts aren’t working: think of ‘a children’s centre or a local library that has closed’, and picture a worker who used to be employed there, providing a public service and paying her taxes, with ‘a modest amount of income to spend in the community’. ‘Now that service is gone, she’s on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and everybody is much poorer.’ The Greens would replace cuts with tax rises ‘on those who aren’t currently paying their share: multinational companies in particular, and rich individuals’.
Nicola Sturgeon says ‘cutting the deficit is important’ but should be the means not the end. ‘The fact is, austerity is pushing people into poverty, it’s undermining our public services, and it’s holding back economic growth’ so it needs to change. Instead of the cuts proposed by the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, the SNP would seek ‘modest spending increases over the course of the next Parliament’ to invest resources for future infrastructure and lift people out of poverty.
In the open-floor debate, Clegg attacks Cameron’s idea that they are going to stay the course; in fact, they will cut deeper and tax the rich less. Cameron counters that raising £5bn from tax avoiders and evaders will target the very wealthy. He says Miliband will not admit the last Labour government borrowed too much, taxed too much and spent too much, and ‘if you don’t understand the mistakes of the past, you can’t provide the leadership for the future’. Miliband counters that Cameron would rather talk about the past because he doesn’t want to discuss the future, and the Conservatives have failed to take action on hedge funds. Cameron says they have, and that Miliband wants ‘to make a very big cut: he wants to raise taxes and cut your pay’. Sturgeon says ‘David Cameron has missed his own borrowing targets by £150bn’ yet child poverty is on the rise, and she would support Labour’s plans to raise the top level of income tax.
Farage says the whole panel are in denial: half are saying we have no problems being in debt; the other half are claiming a proven record in government. ‘We have doubled the national debt in the last five years; our debt repayment is bigger than the defence budget, and that’s with interest rates close to zero.’ The panel start squabbling over ‘balance’ and Farage can be heard over them all saying ‘I don’t know what’s going on here!’, flapping his arms about and looking incredulous. Bennett says there are two points to make about the cuts: firstly, the ratio of debt to GDP isn’t so important if what you’re spending it on is an asset for the future, such as housing; secondly, the poorest have been the worst affected, e.g. two-thirds of households hit by the bedroom tax have a disabled person in them and the Independent Living Fund has been cut.
Cameron says the ‘truth about cuts’ is that Labour ran out of money, and produces a copy of this letter:
Miliband says ‘There you go again: you can’t talk about the present, and you can’t talk about the future, so you talk about the past.’ Farage adds ‘you have failed to eliminate the deficit’. Cameron says they can do it by continuing to save £1 in every £100 the government spends. Wood says in the Welsh valleys ‘we’ve failed to recover from the deficit past, never mind this one’ and that Labour has let Wales down. Miliband says he’ll have a mansion tax, a bankers’ bonus tax and reverse the bedroom tax. Wood counters that Labour failed to address the unfairness caused by the Barnett formula, saying that Wales should get an extra £1.2bn for ‘parity with Scotland’. [This overlooks the fact that the Barnett formula was in part created to offset geographical difficulties, and the Scottish highlands and islands are more difficult for access than anywhere in Wales.] Farage says the ‘canny Scots’ negotiated a good deal back in 1978, and that too much money is going north of Hadrian’s Wall. Wood and Sturgeon say the three main parties just offer different types of austerity; Wood says people don’t currently have ‘jobs you can build a life on’ and that’s what needs to change.
Question 2: How will your party ensure long-term funding of the NHS whilst keeping it as a public service available to all?
Nigel Farage says he cares about the NHS and ‘when it comes to emergency care, it probably is the best in the world’, but with an aging population its funding is a huge issue. He’d end hospital parking charges and put in an extra £3bn from leaving the EU.
Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland has ‘already ended hospital parking charges’ and the SNP ‘believes passionately it should always be run as a public service, not for private profit’. The NHS has been protected in Scotland and SNP MPs at Westminster will consistently vote against privatization of the NHS in England.
Natalie Bennett says she wants to see the 5% currently going in private profits reduced to 0%, and for things like free prescriptions, eyecare and dental care to be looked at.
Nick Clegg says ‘the NHS doesn’t need warm words, it needs hard cash’ and puts the figure of an extra £8bn by the end of the next Parliament.
Leanne Wood says ‘Plaid Cymru is proud that Wales gave the world the NHS’; it is ‘precious and must be defended’. Wales currently has too few doctors per head and the NHS needs to be funded properly through taxation.
Ed Miliband says Labour will raise money through the mansion tax, from tobacco companies and tacking action on hedge funds, and give the money to the NHS for more doctors, nurses, careworkers and midwives.
David Cameron says his disabled son Ivan got ‘unbelievable care’ under the NHS, and he wants that for ‘everyone in our country’. More money has been put into the NHS every year, and the Conservatives would continue to do this in the next Parliament. By contrast, the Welsh Labour party cut their NHS budget.
Farage uses the open-floor debate to raise the issue of health tourism, and thinks foreign workers must have health insurance before they come here. Bennett disagrees, saying ‘our NHS is hugely dependent on foreign workers; it couldn’t survive without them’, and claims of health tourism and benefit tourism are exaggerated and damaging. Miliband says health tourism isn’t a prominent issue, and Cameron has ‘dangerous’ spending cuts planned for the next Parliament.
Clegg says ‘there’s a simple question: who has got the plan to put the additional £8bn required into the NHS?’ The wealthiest must be asked to make an additional contribution, and more funding given to mental health. Sturgeon says ‘one thing we’ve learned is there’s not one thing Nigel Farage won’t blame on foreigners’ and that Scotland has just integrated health and social care services. Wood says Labour and the Conservatives are using the NHS as ‘a political football’ with the result that patients and staff in the Welsh NHS are suffering. She says that Labour started the process of privatization through PFI schemes and foundation hospitals.
Cameron says hospital operations and GP surgeries should be offered seven days a week, and dementia treatment is improving. Bennett says we could ‘reduce the stress’ on the NHS by using preventative measures, e.g. tackling air pollution; getting more people to commute by walking and cycling.
Farage says his initial challenge on health tourism has been ignored, and returns to the topic with: ‘Okay, here’s a fact, and I’m sure some people will be mortified about it. There are 7,000 diagnoses every year of people that are HIV+, which is not a good place for any of them to be, I know. But 60% of them are not British nationals’. He says the cost of treatment is up to £25,000 per person per year and ongoing for life, and ‘what we need to do is put the NHS there for British people and families who in many cases have paid into this system for decades.’ Wood counters ‘This kind of scaremongering rhetoric is dangerous, it divides communities, and it creates stigma for people who are ill, and I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself.’
Farage keeps saying ‘It’s true’ and ‘We’ve got to put our own people first’. [I can’t find any evidence of the 60% foreigners statistic. There is a higher prevalence of HIV infection amongst people of black African descent, but there’s no specific breakdown showing nationality/citizenship/what country the patients were born in/how long they have lived in the UK. The average cost of treatment per person per year is around £18,000 if there is early diagnosis, with the cost increasing in cases of late diagnosis.] Sturgeon says her reaction when someone is diagnosed with a horrible illness is ‘to view them as a human being, not consider what country they come from’.
Question 3: If you were elected, how would you address the issue of immigration?
Ed Miliband says he’s changed Labour’s approach to deal with people’s concerns. He would introduce new rules so that immigrants can’t claim benefits for two years, and prosecute those who fail to pay the minimum wage and exploit migrant workers.
Leanne Wood says ‘Plaid Cymru won’t go along with the scapegoating of migrants. It was not Polish care workers or Estonian bar workers who caused this economic crisis, it was bankers.’
Nicola Sturgeon says we need ‘effective controls on immigration’ and there are problems with housing and public services in certain areas, but ‘I take the view that the answer to that is to invest in homes, public services, and paying a decent wage’. She points out EU migrants make a net economic contribution, the majority of migrants work and of those who don’t work the majority are students. We wouldn’t want Britons who emigrate to be treated the way we’re talking about migrants here.
David Cameron acknowledges the contribution but says immigration needs to be ‘controlled and fair’. Conservative proposals are: ‘first, if you’re coming from the EU, you won’t get unemployment benefit; second, if you don’t get a job within six months you’ll have to go home; third, if you’ve come here and worked, you’ll have to work for four years paying into the system before you can take out from the system, and finally if you’ve left your family at home, you won’t be able to send child benefit (as you can now) back to them’.
Nigel Farage says he was right at the start; the other parties are all the same because ‘they all want to be part of the European Union’ and as long as that’s true the answer is we can do ‘nothing’ to control immigration. ‘This isn’t about benefits; this is about numbers, and we have a total open door’. He says we have to build a new house every 7 minutes to keep pace with immigration.
Nick Clegg says ‘I will never spread fear about immigration’, but then talks about ‘good immigration’ and ‘bad immigration’, somewhat confounding his point. He says he wants Britain to be ‘open to business but not open to abuse’.
Natalie Bennett says for non-EU immigration, the process needs to be more humane and fair than it is now. Low wages and pressures on housing, schools and hospitals are caused not by immigration but by poor government policy.
In the open-floor debate, Cameron says we can renegotiate with Europe and he’s proven that you can sit down at the table and get things done. Farage counters that Angela Merkel has made it clear that the free movement of people across the EU is not up for discussion. Miliband adds ‘I wonder what world you live in’, saying Cameron tried to block Junker as the EU Commissioner and lost heavily ‘because you had no allies’ and he has ‘marginalized us in Europe’.
Clegg changes the topic, saying our own young people need to be better trained to compete with jobseekers across Europe, and 2 million apprenticeship places have been created to do this. Sturgeon says the immigration debate should be driven by ‘what’s good for our economy’ and that we need to build allies in Europe rather than acting ‘like a petulant schoolchild’ threatening to leave if we don’t get our own way. Bennett says it’s a debate not about economics but human lives; the UN asked us to take more Syrian refugees and we’ve only taken 143.
Farage continually points out that we can’t control numbers of people coming into the country from other EU member states, and says ‘there would not even be a discussion about an EU referendum if it wasn’t for the rise of UKIP’.
Question 4: The younger generation will be worse off than their parents. What will you do to help us feel optimistic about our future?
Leanne Wood says Plaid Cymru would like to scrap university tuition fees, but can’t do so because of austerity. However, some university courses in Wales, such as in medicine, could be made available for free.
Ed Miliband says ‘that’s what we’ve got to turn around’. Labour would cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000, ban zero-hours contracts, and ‘build homes again’ whilst getting ‘a fairer deal in the private rented sector’, so that the next generation can do better than the last.
David Cameron says 2 million jobs have been created; there will be 3 million apprenticeships in the next Parliament and ‘I want us to build homes that people can afford to buy’ through the Help to Buy and Starter Home schemes.
Natalie Bennett says university education is ‘a public good’ that ‘should be paid for by progressive taxation’, not student fees. She says the current system isn’t working: students have an average of £44,000 of debt and 45p in every pound will never be repaid. The Green Party also want to see the minimum wage raised to £10 per hour by 2020.
Nick Clegg says he ‘infamously couldn’t put into practice’ his ‘party’s policy on tuition fees’, but he is proud that there are more apprenticeships, tax cuts so that you can keep the first £10,600 you earn, and better meals for schoolchildren, which are all examples of helping to create a fairer and better society for the future.
Nicola Sturgeon says ‘I wouldn’t be standing here as First Minister of Scotland without the free eduction I had access to’ and she has ‘no right to take that same entitlement away from the next generation of young people’. The SNP has kept university education free in Scotland and will always support the same principle in Westminster.
Nigel Farage says the only people having ‘a fantastic time’ are the rich and ‘they are now dominating politics, the media, the arts, sport in a way I have never seen before’. He blames the elimination of grammar schools for causing the gap, and calls for their reinstatement. He wants to see a ‘brownfield building revolution’ to address the housing crisis.
In the open-floor debate, Miliband says it’s wrong that students are leaving university with £44,000 of debt: it’s something he and the other party leaders didn’t have to go through. He says Clegg broke his promises to young people; Clegg counters by demanding an apology for Labour ‘crashing the economy’. Miliband says they got it wrong and apologizes for the banks being under-regulated, but says Cameron thought the banks were over-regulated, so he won’t be taking any lectures on economic policy from him. Cameron says ‘when you have an economy with out-of-control welfare, out-of-control debt, out-of-control spending, young people suffer the most’.
Bennett brings the discussion back to education and says free schools are based on competition; the Greens would rather see the education system based on co-operation. She wants an end to the ‘exam factory’ and instead have ‘an education for life’ including first aid, cooking, sexual health education and personal financial education. [I think the ‘education for life’ sounds like a brilliant idea. There’s so much wasted time in schools preparing for artificially engineered exam situations; it’d be much better spent on teaching life skills. If everyone knew how to cook healthy meals and run a household budget we’d see a genuine improvement in quality of life.]
Wood says Wales will struggle to continue to afford good education under the proposed cuts. She says ‘if we are in a situation where there’s a hung Parliament, Plaid Cymru will do all it can to end austerity, to rebalance power and wealth, and to win for Wales parity with Scotland’. Sturgeon says the debate has shown ‘why we need to break the old boys’ network at Westminster’. Clegg broke his promise on tuition fees; so did the last Labour government.
On housing, Clegg says the Lib Dems would introduce a ‘rent to own scheme’ in the next Parliament. Farage says it’s about demand-and-supply, and [any guesses?] building houses for immigrants is adding pressure. There should be decontamination of brownfield sites to build more houses and solve the problem. Sturgeon says ‘we have a duty and an obligation’ to make sure rented properties are of good quality. Miliband picks up on this point, saying rental properties are currently too often ‘insecure’ and ‘sub-standard’. Labour would introduce three-year tenancies, stabilization of rent increases and stopping letting agents from charging tenants.
in terms of hope for the future generation, Cameron says ‘we have a strong and growing economy’ and Britain has ‘clout in the world’ through membership of the UN, G8 and EU. He praises the work of the armed services, but is interrupted by a heckler who raises the issue of ex-service personnel ending up homeless. Cameron says we should support charities who help them, and those who leave the armed services with mental health issues.
Bennett says we have to tackle climate change and ‘stop trashing our planet’ to provide an optimistic future. Farage says the UK’s leaders are pessimistic and ‘don’t think we’re good enough to even make our own laws’. We should leave the EU and revive the Commonwealth. Wood says that Plaid Cymru has a job creation plan for 50,000 new jobs. Clegg says we need to ‘wipe the slate clean’ so that the next generation don’t have to ‘pay the price for this generation’s mistakes’. We need to get rid of the deficit to free up more money in the future. Miliband says ‘the quality of jobs’ is key and we need to build a country with security of work. Cameron counters that some Labour MPs are currently employing people on zero-hours contracts so they don’t practice what they preach, and that Labour have a ‘zero jobs’ approach.
Nicola Sturgeon says there is a clear choice: ‘you can vote for the same old parties and get the same old politics: more cuts and misguided priorities; or you can vote for something different, better and more progressive’. She says ‘none of us can afford more austerity’ and the priorities of the old parties are wrong. ‘To people in Scotland, I say vote SNP for a louder voice for Scotland. To people elsewhere, I say ours will be a voice to help bring about change for you, too.’
Nick Clegg says ‘thank you for sitting through this two-hour political marathon’, and asks voters to ‘make sure we don’t lurch this way or that: that we don’t cut too much on the one hand, or borrow too much on the other’. We should balance the books to make sure the country ‘is stable, and strong, and fair’ with ‘opportunity for everyone’.
Ed Miliband says the choice is ‘do we build a Britain that puts working people first, or do we carry on with a government that is not on your side? … I believe that it is when working people succeed that Britain succeeds. If you believe that, too, I ask for your support, and let’s bring the change that Britain needs.’
Leanne Wood says ‘there is an alternative to the Westminster consensus’ and ‘austerity is not inevitable; it’s a choice’. ‘For Wales to be strong, like Scotland, Plaid Cymru must be strong … let us be the strength we know we can be.’
Natalie Bennett says ‘if you want change, you have to vote for it’. She encourages viewers to vote for the party they believe in, ‘not the lesser of two evils’. Having more MPs like Caroline Lucas at Westminster can ‘deliver a peaceful political revolution’. She says ‘if you’re thinking about voting Green, do it. Your vote will count.’
Nigel Farage says ‘you see, I warned you at the beginning they were all the same.’ [Audience laughs.] He says the other leaders are part of ‘the politically correct political class’ and ‘they don’t understand the thoughts, hopes and aspirations of ordinary people’. He says UKIP represents ‘plain-spoken patriotism’. ‘We won two by-elections last year; we can outshine all expectations on May 7th; let’s do it.’
David Cameron says in his time as Prime Minister he has focused on ‘turning our economy around, getting the country back to work and clearing up the mess that was left to us’. Over the next five years he wants to ‘finish the job’ by continuing to invest in the NHS, creating another 2 million jobs and eliminating the deficit. He says the choice in this election is to stick with the plan that is working, or put it all at risk. He says ‘Let’s finish what we started.’
Nicola Sturgeon spoke with passion and precision. She didn’t need to shout over people to be heard; she was quick on her toes and ready with responses in the open-floor sections. She voiced her support for free university tuition, opposition to austerity, plans to scrap Trident and vision of a new era of politics, including an independent Scotland.
Nick Clegg had a mixed style; at times enthusiastic and confident, at times defensive and too vague. His content was consistent: he wants to continue with the current plan but make adjustments to shift the burden from the poorest to the richest. Further cuts would be replaced by a rise in taxes at the top end.
Ed Miliband was clear and determined, with the primary focus on low-and-middle-income workers. He has set out Labour’s priorities as the NHS, jobs and housing, with plans to bring greater security to both employment and renting through long-term contracts. Like the Lib Dems, Labour would raise additional funds for public spending through taxing the richest.
Leanne Wood was very engaging and she championed Wales on the national stage, but at times it was so Welsh-centric that I’m sure many viewers elsewhere in the UK started to tune out. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Plaid Cymru aligns itself most closely with the SNP and Greens: anti-austerity, anti-tuition fees and supportive of the poorest in society. Her verbal attack on Nigel Farage over the HIV treatment point had me cheering.
Natalie Bennett spoke a bit too slowly throughout, but had conviction behind every point. She highlighted issues of climate change, air pollution and natural resources, supported the scrapping of university tuition fees and end to austerity, said the minimum wage should be raised to £10/hour and indicated that ‘progressive taxation’ would be used to pay for the Greens’ plans.
Nigel Farage had a dual approach: ordinary man of the people on the one hand, anti-EU and anti-immigrant defender of Britain on the other. He spoke very quickly and passionately, and cited a lot of specific policies such as leaving the EU, cutting the foreign aid budget, increasing NHS spending, removing hospital parking fees and reinstating grammar schools. The problem is that Farage is part of the political class he pretends to be outside of, and whilst some of what UKIP say is just plain speaking is true, far more of it is exaggerated and insidious and closed-minded and dangerous.
David Cameron was calm and measured, even when interrupted by the heckler. He set out the Conservatives’ main priority as finishing the job: they would continue to cut public spending at the same rate in order to eliminate the deficit without raising taxes. Cameron additionally pledged to continue the increase on spending in the NHS and highlighted measures to help people get onto the property ladder, and would bring in tougher measures on immigration. What was missing was the full detail of the welfare cuts planned in the next Parliament.
All of the party leaders were fully engaged over the course of the two hours and gave us a good idea of what to expect in their national manifestos. I’m very glad that a seven-leader debate went ahead and it reflects the fact we’re in an era of multi-party politics. Now we just need the voting system to change to the Single Transferable Vote… but that’s a discussion for another day!