The general election campaign is well and truly underway now after last night’s one-and-only TV debate between the country’s seven main parties vying for our votes in just over a month’s time. While at times it was a bit of a stramash, with the leaders trying to get their voices heard over the others, in general it was a very interesting piece of political television and what will hopefully be a real spark to what promises to be a powder-keg few weeks.
In some ways the debates can be characterised by what they weren’t – they weren’t dominated by one person or party in the way that they could have been and they weren’t overly personal debates either. All the leaders did reasonably well in getting their parties’ points across, and no-one landed any killer blows or suffered an appalling gaffe either. While perhaps not the best for entertainment purposes, it did give a good standard of information about the parties to the electorate – and that’s what they were designed for. All the critics of the seven-way format must surely agree that the leaders were in control for most of the proceedings and all got a chance to put their views across in the two-hour span.
What I found most interesting about the debtes were the wide range of battles going on. Clegg darted at Cameron the first chance he got to criticise him, taking on his coalition colleague to put distance between them as quickly as possible. Miliband too couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into the Prime Minister. Nigel Farage criticised everyone for being “all the same” and tried his best to take points off both Miliband and Cameron, while also criticising the Barnett Formula to Nicola Sturgeon’s disapproval. The three progressive party leaders all kept a similar message of decrying austerity, benefitting from their earlier meeting to co-ordinate their plan of action for the debate, and hammered Cameron for his actions and Miliband for his plans (or lack of them). Everyone jumped on the comments that Farage made as he seemed to relate all his points to immigration, as he and his party are wont to do. It wasn’t a free-for-all, but a carefully balanced web of battles that kept things heated but never let anyone lose their cool.
For my money, Nicola Sturgeon was the best performer. In many ways she had the most practice at it, with her experience in debating before the independence referendum coming into play for sure, but she played her hand exceptionally well. She challenged Miliband on his plan for cuts and attacked Cameron on his slashing of benefits (both of which weren’t really answered). She was also very strong on the education question, highlighting that she got to where she was because of free higher education and that she had no right to take that away. Sturgeon did something else that no other leader did though, and that was command the respect of all the other leaders. No-one challenged her when she spoke, and no-one took issue with her points. Whether it’s a sign of her reputation for tenacity and ferocity or her policies that kept them at bay isn’t clear, but when it comes to the debate it’s clear that she was the one that came out of it with the biggest boost in opinion across the UK – something she was clearly aiming for to smooth out any possible coalition negotiations.
Of course one of the big takeaways from the debate was that it was the only chance that Ed Miliband and David Cameron would have to go head-to-head in the campaign, and although the interchange between the two was limited through the debate it was interesting. I think Miliband came out of it slightly stronger, going more on the offensive at Cameron’s record of austerity and failing to bring down the deficit as promised. However, Cameron did well enough in a debate he didn’t want to take part in. He was quiet, and didn’t have too much to add at times, but he kept to his guns of being the main party of Government and of the party line that is keeping on with the long-term economic plan. He was confident and assured in that, and looked Prime Ministerial in doing so. It was an effective dead heat between the two, as the polls below will show, but I think that if the public at large get to see that Miliband is just as competent then it could prove to be the kick in the polls that Labour need to get over the line.