The BBC gave us a 90-minute opposition leaders’ debate on Thursday 16th April, hosted by David Dimbleby. The two coalition party leaders, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, were not included in the line-up (Cameron didn’t want to be included; Clegg wanted to but wasn’t invited as the Lib Dems are also in government). So the attendees were: Ed Miliband, Labour party leader Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru leader Natalie Bennett, Green party leader Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and Nigel Farage, UKIP leader.
Leanne Wood says people are ‘looking for an alternative’ and no longer believe in ‘the austerity myth’. Plaid Cymru would focus on investment instead of further cuts, and will ‘not apologise for standing up for Wales at every opportunity’.
Nigel Farage says the general election campaign ‘has become farcical’ with every party except UKIP ‘trying to bribe you with borrowed money’. UKIP would get their spending money by cutting foreign aid and no longer contributing to the EU budget. ‘It’s only UKIP who are prepared to talk straight’ and Farage believes he’s the only party leader ‘saying what a lot of you at home are really thinking’.
Ed Miliband draws attention to the fact that David Cameron has chosen not to attend the debate. He says Labour will tackle the cost-of-living crisis and save the NHS, with extra funding raised through a mansion tax on properties worth over £2 million and clamping down on tax avoidance. He pledges to freeze energy bills until 2017 and rejects the ideas of leaving the EU or breaking up the UK. ‘If I’m Prime Minister, I’ll always put working families first, because that’s the way we succeed as a country.’
Nicola Sturgeon promises Scottish voters the SNP will make their voice heard, and promises ‘everyone’ the SNP will ‘work to deliver progressive change for ordinary people right across the UK’. She says the election looks likely to deliver a hung parliament, meaning parties will need to ‘build bridges’ to deliver real change’. The SNP seeks to end austerity, protect the NHS, increase the minimum wage and create more jobs.
Natalie Bennett says ‘there’s been a powerful opposition in Parliament in the last five years. Her name is Caroline Lucas.’ Electing more Green MPs means they can bring about further change. ‘We can and must make sure that everyone has food on the table and a stable home to live in.’ She highlights policies including free health and social care for the elderly, tackling climate change and restoring community services. ‘Challenge the establishment. Vote Green.’
Question 1: As someone about to enter the job market, do you think it’s fair to increase government spending, like so many of you plan to do, leaving my generation to pay off the debt?
Nicola Sturgeon says ‘economic policy is not an end in itself; it’s a means to let people live better, happier and more prosperous lives’. Austerity is currently not delivering this which is why the SNP proposes modest spending increases. The deficit would take another couple of years to be eliminated, but she sees it as ‘a price worth paying’.
Ed Miliband says the questioner is right and ‘we must live within our means’, which is why Labour ‘would cut the deficit every year’. He disagrees with Cameron’s plan to double the cuts. Labour would instead ‘reverse the tax cut for millionaires’ and spending would increase in health and education, but decrease in other areas.
Natalie Bennett says the Greens would reduce student debt from £44,000 to ‘zero’ and increasing spending will be done in order to invest in the future, particularly in education, housing and renewable energy. They aim to reduce the deficit to 1% of GDP.
Nigel Farage says ‘in the last five years, our national debt has doubled’ and the interest repayments are bigger than the defence budget. The plans of the other parties would lead the UK into ‘bankruptcy’. UKIP would balance the books by cutting the foreign aid budget, leaving the EU and ending those contributions, ‘stopping white elephant projects like HS2’ and ‘recalculating the Barnett formula so that less money goes over Hadrian’s wall to Scotland.’ The audience gives a vocal and mixed reaction, while the Hadrian’s Wall comment leaves me picturing Farage attempting to stop it himself:
Leanne Wood says ‘Plaid Cymru does want to tackle the deficit, but not at any cost, and not according to artificial deadlines’. She talks about investing in the future generation and job creation, aligning her party with the anti-austerity plans of the SNP and Greens.
In the open debate section, Miliband rejects the trickle-down economy with tax cuts for the rich promoted by the Conservative and UKIP. Farage counters that UKIP wouldn’t reduce the top rate of income tax ‘because it’s not the right time for that’. They cast doubt on each other’s figures for saving money in the next Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon says Labour is currently offering a ‘pretend alternative to austerity’. Natalie Bennett agrees and draws attention to social care for pensioners.
Leanne Wood reiterates the point that public spending should be seen as investment for the future. She asks Miliband if he would be prepared to call an emergency budget to reverse the Conservatives’ spending cuts.
Miliband doesn’t answer directly, instead listing Labour’s policies of having a mansion tax, scrapping the bedroom tax and setting up a bank bonus tax. Sturgeon gets involved, saying he needs to be bolder, and there’s ‘not a big enough difference between Ed Miliband and David Cameron’, calling his current policy proposals ‘Tory-lite’. Miliband says ‘people at home know that we need to live within our means’. Bennett says that Miliband needs to pledge more funding than the NHS and go after the big multi-nationals to make sure they pay their share. ‘We need to rebalance this society; you’re just holding things at the same kind of level.’
Question 2: As a working single parent of three children who privately rents my home, I’d like to know each leader’s thoughts on the lack of affordable social housing throughout Britain, and how their party means to tackle this housing crisis.
Before the leaders answer this one, David Dimbleby reminds the audience that housing is a devolved issue in both Scotland and Wales.
Ed Miliband says the current government is building fewer homes in England than at any time since the 1920s, ‘and that has got to change’. Too many people can’t afford to rent or get on the housing ladder. Labour would build 200,000 homes per year by 2020 and give councils ‘use it or lose it’ powers so that developers must build on their land.
Leanne Wood says Plaid Cymru would oppose Cameron’s plan to extend right-to-buy. They would like more council houses to be built, rent caps introduced and ‘double the council tax on holiday homes’.
Nigel Farage says it’s a question of demand and supply, and ‘we have to build a new house every 7 minutes in this country just to cope with current levels of migration’. There is also a need to build more homes on brownfield land and using empty government buildings, but ‘we should make sure that all new social housing is for UK nationals only’.
Natalie Bennett says the questioner’s struggle ‘is the struggle of so many people in Britain’. She identifies the key problem as housing being seen as primarily a sound investment, and only secondarily as a home for people to live in. The Greens would build 500,000 new homes for social housing by 2020, cap rent so that it can rise no more than inflation, and change lease lengths from six months to five years.
Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland is ‘on target’ to meet the pledge of 30,000 more affordable houses by 2016. She adds that SNP MPs would want to see 100,000 per year across the UK and calls the Conservatives’ plan to extend right-to-buy ‘one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard’.
Wood and Sturgeon confirm that if Plaid Cymru runs the Welsh assembly and the SNP runs the Scottish Parliament after 7th May, right-to-buy will not be extended in Scotland or Wales even if it becomes policy in England. They will instead ‘protect social housing’ so that affordable rented homes are there for those who need them. Miliband says that when it comes to private renting, Labour will seek three-year tenancies, cap the rents within those three years and stop letting agents from charging tenants fees.
Nigel Farage makes the bizarre decision to insult the audience, saying there is ‘a lack of comprehension’ and that it is ‘a remarkable audience, even by the standards of the left-wing BBC, I mean, this lot’s pretty left-wing’. Over the audible booing, Dimbleby defends the audience selection process, saying they have been ‘carefully chosen, not by the BBC but by an independent polling organization’. Miliband says to Farage ‘it’s never a good idea to attack the audience’; Farage counters ‘the real audience is sitting at home, actually’, which prompts further booing.
Farage finally gets back on track to talk about demand and supply, asking the rest of the panel to acknowledge that the demand has massively increased due to ‘open-door immigration’. Sturgeon responds ‘it’s not caused by immigrants; in your world, every problem is caused by immigrants!’ Farage looks on, shaking his head in disbelief.
Sturgeon maintains the answer is to build ‘substantially more houses’ and then protect them for those who need affordable places to rent. She highlights that EU immigrants ‘make a net contribution to this country’, to loud applause from the audience. Dimbleby says there is a question coming up on immigration, and asks them not to get into it too much in this section.
Bennett says that private landlords ‘have made 1400% profit since 1996’, and it is using houses as a means of mass investment that has ‘utterly skewed our economy’ and reduced the numbers of affordable homes for people to live in. Miliband admits ‘the last Labour government didn’t build enough homes’, and focuses on the supply side of the equation. Farage says even building 200,000 new homes a year wouldn’t be enough to cope with 300,000 net migration. (Using the figures in that way is a bit disingenuous: 300,000 is of course bigger than 200,000, but it’s 300,000 people not 300,000 families. There’d be an average of more than 1.5 people per home, meaning there would still be homes left over. For example, taking an average of 4 people per home would mean using 75,000 homes for 300,000 immigrants, with 125,000 homes left over. And that’s assuming every immigrant would need a home, i.e. not accounting for students going into university accommodation or those who move to live with family/a partner already resident in the UK.)
Question 3: With increasing instability on the world stage, can we really give up Trident and allow defence spending to fall below 2% of GDP?
(Trident = 4 nuclear submarines operated off the Scottish west coast by the Royal Navy as a 24/7 naval deterrent: one of the submarines is currently on patrol at any given time. Each is equipped with 16 missiles and 48 warheads. In 2007, MPs voted to replace Trident and it is estimated that a like-for-like system would cost £100bn.)
Nigel Farage says ‘the answer is, clearly, no we can’t afford to’, citing tensions in the Middle East and Russia, and highlighting the reduction of the army to 82,000 as an issue. He sees it as necessary to spend 2% of income on defence, ‘return to 2010 manning levels’ and maintain Trident. More money should also be spent on ex-service personnel when they return.
Natalie Bennett says ‘Trident nuclear weapons don’t make me feel any safer’. No PM would ‘seriously consider using’ nuclear weapons, so ‘how about we take a lead and say we will rid Britain of this hideous weapons of mass destruction’. She would rather use the money to increase aid and international diplomatic efforts.
Leanne Wood says ‘it makes no sense to spend £100bn when we have so much social need’. Plaid Cymru opposed going into Iraq and Afghanistan. and believe a strong diplomatic approach will make us safer than spending money on defence. We should focus on being a ‘beacon for human rights, conflict resolution and peace’.
Nicola Sturgeon says defence is ‘of paramount importance’ and we should protect the MoD from cuts rather than spending money replacing Trident. ‘I think it’s time to invest in strong conventional forces, not in nuclear weapons.’
Ed Miliband says ‘the first duty of any Prime Minister is to keep our country safe’ and he would retain the nuclear deterrent. The threats we face in the future are unpredictable and we also ‘need to work with our allies in the EU’ and work with the USA, but not for them.
In the open debate section, Farage and Miliband clash over whether Juncker and the French President planning a European army. Miliband repeatedly says ‘no’ to the idea of Britain signing up to a European army, and says the EU helps us tackle defence threats across borders. ‘We can’t withdraw from the world, because otherwise the problems will visit us here at home.’ He adds we need to be ‘judicious’ about when to take military action, and he said no to a war on Syria but will continue to fight against ISIS. Sturgeon says that 25 of the 28 members of NATO ‘don’t have nuclear weapons’ and if we want other countries to give them up ‘surely we should lead by example’. Bennett says we need to stop supplying arms to Saudi Arabia. Wood says troops serving abroad need to be properly equipped during conflicts and looked after when they come home.
Question 4: Immigration has put public services at great risk. What are your plans to deal with this?
Natalie Bennett disagrees with ‘the premise’ of the question. In her diverse community everyone contributes ‘to British life in their own way’ and she wants to celebrate migrants, not demonise them.
Nicola Sturgeon says we do need controls on immigration, but shouldn’t ‘scapegoat immigrants’ for pressures on public services. She thinks the debate is too UKIP-driven; ‘a majority of migrants work and pay taxes; and a majority of the remainder are students’.
Ed Miliband says that ‘people’s concerns are real and we have to address them’. Labour would change the rules so that immigrants have to have been here for 2 years before they can claim benefits and stop the exploitation of migrant labour to drive down wages.
Nigel Farage says ‘when you lose an argument in politics you tend to resort to abusing your opponent’ and that’s what UKIP are finding. ‘If you’re EU members, you cannot do anything about the numbers’ so he would leave the EU and introduce ‘an Australian-style points system’ for immigration.
Leanne Wood picks up on her spat with Farage in the previous debate, countering ‘you abuse immigrants and people with HIV, and then complain UKIP is being abused’. She says the risk to public services is from spending cuts, not immigration, ‘so the answer to that is to end austerity’, ‘raise the minimum wage to the living wage’ and strengthen the trade unions.
In the open debate, Bennett highlights unfair treatment of refugees and says immigration rules need to be ‘fair and reasonable’ as well as controlled. She says to Farage that 25% of doctors and 40% of NHS staff are foreign-born. Sturgeon says she’d like to see a reversal of the rule that foreign students must leave as soon as they have finished their degree, because it denies them the chance to give something back to our economy through tax & NI contributions. We should treat immigrants here the same way we’d want our emigrants to other countries to be treated.
Farage says ‘health tourism to this country costs us a very great deal of money’ and he’d rather see it spent it on cancer treatments (government estimates on health tourism costs to the NHS are £60-£80 million per year; the NHS budget is £115.4 billion). He adds it’s a national health service; not an international health service. Miliband accuses him of exploiting people’s fears and says the answer is just to enforce the existing rules. He then suggests UKIP want to move to an insurance-based system; Farage says UKIP want to maintain free at the point of service and raises his voice to say ‘you’re lying, you’re lying to millions of people’ whilst pointing across the row of leaders at Miliband.
Question 5: What kind of a deal would you be prepared to enter into in the event of a hung Parliament?
Ed Miliband says ‘this coalition government has become an excuse for broken promises’ and he wants a majority Labour government to ensure they can deliver their manifesto promises.He refuses to be drawn on the hypotheticals of a hung Parliament, saying we should ‘let the people decide’ on 7th May and see what is delivered.
Nigel Farage says the most important aspect is whether we are a ‘self-governing nation or not’, and even the SNP aren’t truly pushing for independence as they still believe we should be part of the EU. After the election, UKIP would push for ‘a free, full and fair’ referendum on EU membership and it’s ‘a mystery’ that Labour won’t offer one.
Nicola Sturgeon says making Scotland’s voice heard in Westminster is the number-one priority. In terms of coalitions, she ‘will never, ever do a deal with the Tories’ and she would like to work with Labour, Plaid Cymru and the SNP to lock Cameron out. She would like Miliband to deliver ‘something more progressive; something better’. (In the background, he’s smiling and shaking his head.)
Leanne Wood says ‘most importantly, we need to end this Tory government with its ideologically-driven cuts’ and the progressive parties can work together to deliver an end to Trident, an end to zero-hours contracts, and introduction of the living wage. She will not ‘prop up’ a Labour government that ‘follows Tory policies’.
Natalie Bennett says ‘we would do nothing to prop up a Tory government in any way at all’. She wants to focus on building ‘a strong group of Green MPs’ and ‘would be prepared to work with Ed on a vote-by-vote basis’, but agrees with Sturgeon and Wood that Labour isn’t offering a strong enough alternative to the current government.
In the open debate section, Miliband says he has ‘fundamental disagreements’ with the SNP, and rejects the idea of a further independence referendum within the next five years. Sturgeon says ‘whatever disagreements you have with me, surely they are as nothing to the differences both of us have with the Tories’, and that if Labour and the SNP work together, ‘we can lock David Cameron out of Downing Street’. Farage says that Scottish voters are worried about ‘the Scottish tail wagging the English dog’ if the SNP have to support Labour in order for Miliband to form a government. UKIP would have worked with Labour if they’d offered an EU referendum; as it is they can only consider working with the Conservatives.
Nicola Sturgeon says ‘none of us can afford more austerity’ and the priorities of the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour ‘are wrong’. SNP MPs can help force through progressive change. ‘To voters in Scotland, vote SNP to make Scotland’s voice heard; to voters elsewhere, I pledge that ours will be a voice to deliver real change for you, too’.
Leanne Wood says ‘Plaid Cymru does not accept that this is as good as it gets’ and we need a stronger opposition that doesn’t just offer ‘more of the same’. Plaid Cymru are focused on investing in public services, the NHS and a living wage. ‘Vote for Plaid Cymru; vote for Wales. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr.’
Natalie Bennett says ‘we don’t have to take any more of this’. The Conservatives’ austerity programme has hit ‘those who can least afford it’ and Labour are ‘offering just a slightly lighter version of the same failed recipe’. She urges the audience to vote for the party they believe in. ‘If you want real change, you have to vote for it. It’s time to vote for hope. It’s time to be bold. Vote Green.’
Ed Miliband says ‘there’s one fundamental choice at this election’ between putting the richest first or putting the working people first. ‘David Cameron refused to come and debate me tonight, but I’ve got a message for him. David, if you think this election is about leadership, debate me one on one… debate me, and let the people decide.’
Nigel Farage says the other parties ‘basically aren’t very different at all’ whereas he isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. ‘I believe we’d be so much better if we governed ourselves, controlled our borders and gave working people a chance against giant corporate companies who’ve now basically taken over our political parties… vote UKIP if you want things to change.’
As the credits roll, Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood all embrace each other; Miliband walks over and waits to shake hands. Farage stays resolutely at his podium, sipping water and shuffling his notes, and trying not to look like this:
All five shake hands with Dimbleby, and Sturgeon, Bennett, Wood and Miliband stay behind to shake hands with front-row audience members.
Ed Miliband came across as the voice of reason in a lot of places, and wasn’t swayed into considering forming a rainbow alliance with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens. Together, they would almost certainly hold enough seats to form a government, but Miliband drew a clear line with Sturgeon, with dismantling Trident or promoting the break-up of the UK seen as non-negotiable issues. He is still focused on this being a clear fight between him and David Cameron, shown in his one-on-one debate gauntlet thrown down at the end.
Nicola Sturgeon was still strong in appealing to both voters in Scotland and the audience across the UK, but in this debate there was a nasty side that had been previously concealed. In the final question, she had clearly expected Miliband to waver; when he didn’t, she got somewhat shrill about locking Cameron out of Downing Street, as if stopping the Tories would be worth it at almost any cost. There was a clear opportunistic streak combined with negative campaigning, which I found very off-putting.
Natalie Bennett continues to struggle on delivery; she’s just speaking too slowly but it really takes some of the drive and passion out of what she’s saying. It was interesting that she championed Caroline Lucas in the debate and also chose to launch the Green manifesto dually with her. Lucas is clearly still the lead engaging figure in the Green party, and they need other strong voices to come through if they’re going to make a lasting impression. Having said that, Bennett is good at getting the main points of the Green manifesto across clearly and consistently, particularly on climate change, scrapping Trident nuclear weapons and promoting the living wage.
Leanne Wood was better at engaging with the wider audience on this occasion, without losing any focus on championing Wales. She, Bennett and Sturgeon used a lot of the same language when responding to certain questions, and it’s clear that Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens are natural allies. All three also equated the policy of austerity purely with the Conservatives, with Labour sometimes accused of being ‘austerity-lite’ or ‘Tory-lite’. Nobody blamed the Liberal Democrats… but nobody credited them with anything, either.
Nigel Farage maintained his approach of making the EU the decisive factor in this election, and swung every single discussion back to EU membership and immigration. It’s amazing, really; I bet you could talk to him about cheese and crackers or types of tree or the weather and he’d still bring it back to immigrants and Europe. Insulting the studio audience was an ill-advised move and meant he had to walk off at the end when the other leaders stopped to shake hands with them. The isolation of Farage on the panel was at least a nice metaphor for the isolation of the UK if UKIP were to drive through their policies.