Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Natalie Bennett of the Greens both had their first wide-scale appearance on national television last night and both showed no signs of inexperience. Leanne Wood focussed on issues in Wales, which is to her advantage as unlike the SNP Plaid have no major ambitions for holding the balance of power across the country, and did a good job of taking sensible, anti-austerity politics. Although sometimes so softly-spoken that she was drowned out by some of the male leaders, she took Miliband to task time and again for the Labour administration in Wales’ failings, particularly on the NHS, and she also hit back at Farage’s anti-immigration rhetoric, telling him he should be ashamed of himself and drawing audience applause. Natalie Bennett too did relatively well, but with her party’s alternative agenda she did seem to veer off the message of the debates at times and didn’t score any pointing blows on the other contenders – which makes her performance fall foul of the cardinal sin of debating: being forgettable.
Nick Clegg had a solid outing last night, in trying to recapture the form of the last debates that set him up for a stint in Government. It will likely have reminded many voters of who he is and what the Lib Dems stand for, and as sarcastic as that sounds it is actually true – as Clegg and the Lib Dems have been silenced in many ways by their participation in Government and the actions of the dominant Conservative party. Clegg made a concerted effort to appeal to the centre ground, saying they’d borrow less than Labour and cut less than the Tories, and with many ebbing and flowing between the red and blue sides at the moment it might pick up some votes. It was an exercise in damage limitation in a lot of ways though, as he apologised again for his “infamous” blunder on tuition fees that has long since been the signature on the Lib Dems’ death sentence. While it was a good performance, Clegg didn’t set the world alight like he did five years ago – and while he can say he did fight the good fight in the end, it won’t be enough I feel for the Lib Dems to avoid the annihilation that they seem destined for.
And finally, Nigel Farage used his trump card at every opportunity and while appealing to the “man-of-the-people” image and the populist staunches of his party as often as he could he did exactly what he set out to do – prove his party was the only one serious on immigration. While that may have appealed to many voters, and it certainly shows up in the polls that he did, it seemed like one message being replayed over and over again. He also showed some particularly strong beliefs, such as denying HIV treatment on the NHS to those who come from overseas – something that Nicola Sturgeon lambasted saying “when I look at these people I don’t see a foreigner I see a human being”. Farage was a decent debater, but whether his message sets his party up as a real choice to cover the wide-ranging remit of Government is unclear.
So, for me the ranked order of the politicians was: Sturgeon, Clegg, Miliband, Wood, Cameron, Farage, Bennett – but it appears the British public don’t fully agree with me or each other on that. Here is the table of polls asking who performed best, with an average along the side:
While it’s clear that there was a wide range of opinion across the country, with different polls likely using different weightings to arrive at their final conclusion, it can be said to be a four-way tie between Miliband, Cameron, Farage and Sturgeon.
What I find most interesting though is the table asking who performed worst, as this implies taking a strong negative away from the debate and who didn’t hit the bar that people had set for them:
You’ll see here that these results are a bit starker, with Sturgeon out in front as the one that people rated best with Clegg just behind – and the rest roughly around where I ranked them. The results are also far less volatile, in that the both polls arrived at the same conclusions within the margin of error. These are perhaps more an indication of who people generally agreed with most, rather than who they liked or will vote for in May, which gives a more objective view of debate performance I feel.
Now the real question is to see how these debate performances really change things in the all-important voting intention polls. In the last debates, in 2010, we saw the advent of Cleggmania which gave the Lib Dems a boost in the polls that lasted all the way to the election – but that ended up in an actual loss of seats. These debates may or may not do the same to the polls, which have been more or less stagnant for a few months apart from a slight slip from UKIP and a slight gain for the Tories, but in an election as close as this any change from what has been the norm is going to be significant. We know that 7.4 million people watched the debate, down from the 9.4 million that watched the first debate last time, so there are certainly many undecided voters that will have taken a cue from last night’s performances that will last with them until polling day.
The big debate has come and gone, and we are now five weeks away from one of the most unpredictable elections in British history. Last night showed that multi-party politics has arrived in the UK, and with the prospect of all number of different coalition possibilities the British public now have a clearer idea of what their vote means in May.