The election is only 34 days away, and party campaigns are in full swing. What follows is not a transcript of the things that were said during last night’s 7-way leaders debate, but a summary and explanation of how each leader performed.
Natalie Bennett of the Green Party was first to speak. Her opening statement was one of fairness and populism, setting her up as a left-wing alternative to politics as usual, and offering an alternative to the Westminster elite. Bennett used her opening statement to reject the politics of fear, and outlined her hope for a Britain of the future, one that tackles climate change, blocks the profit motive in public money, and one that creates a fair and humane society for everybody.
Nigel Farage of UKIP was up next. He used his opening statement to outline a plan for self-governance, and his message repeatedly used notions of ‘taking back control’. He distanced himself from all the other parties and denounced them as EU-loving, immigration-loving clones. Farage urged voters to reject the Westminster elite and promised that he could restore a new age of trust in politicians. The others have let you down, he said, but he wouldn’t.
Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats was next to speak. Seemingly candid and honest, he admitted that his party has made mistakes in the past and recognized that things aren’t perfect, but he was quick to insist that he has learned from his mistakes, and his party is the only one offering the grit and resilience needed to finish the job. Clegg urged voters to reject extremism on both sides, painting himself as a centrist who would neither borrow too much or cut too much.
Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP was next. Careful to avoid overt Scottish nationalism, she used her opening statement to extend the hand of friendship to the UK, with a message of commonly shared interests and fairness. Sturgeon denounced the austerity programme as a failed experiment, and urged voters to reject privatization and nukes. The SNP leader did not disguise her hopes for an independent Scotland, but reaffirmed her belief that Scottish interests are British interests, and that England has nothing to fear from a strong Scottish voice in Parliament.
Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservatives was next. He used his speech to recite his economic record, something he was eager to express pride at. Cameron claimed that his party brought the UK back from the brink of economic collapse, and his long-term economic plan stands ready to deliver even more jobs. Cameron dismissed false predictions about what his government would do, and urged voters to look at his record of economic growth.
Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru was next. Wood maintained her love of Wales and her desire to see Welsh interests represented at the national level, but like Sturgeon, was keen to insist that Welsh interests and British interests are usually the same thing. She reaffirmed her commitment to spending and investment, decried austerity measures, and urged voters in Wales to vote for her so she could take their interests to Westminster.
Ed Miliband of the Labour Party was last to speak. He outlined an alternative plan for Britain, one that rewards ordinary hard working people, one that will rescue the NHS from inefficiency, and provide a future for young people by balancing the books. For Miliband, the government has failed to live up to expectation, and Britain can do better.
The First Question – How will you keep your promise of eliminating the deficit without austerity measures or raising taxes?
The leaders’ responses to this question effectively fell under two categories: Austerity, or anti-austerity. Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg all insisted that public spending cuts are essential for balancing the books, to differing degrees. Clegg attempted to paint himself as a centrist who believes in a balanced mix between cuts and taxes on the wealthy, but his record of supporting Coalition austerity speaks for itself.
On the other hand, the three female leaders were consistent in their anti-austerity message. Bennett refused to bow down to deeply-held beliefs about deficit reduction, instead offering a plan of public investment. Flinching in the face of a deficit and abandoning public services is not the answer, but investing and providing people with more money and a better standard of living is a much more effective recovery method. Sturgeon and Wood were also quick to express their displeasure with austerity as a means of deficit reduction, with Wood describing it as “so much pain for so little gain”.
Then there was Nigel Farage. Instead of offering a clear message of either austerity or investment, Farage used his time to promote more right-wing prejudice against foreigners, calling for a reduction in foreign aid and an end to EU payments. Although he rightfully called for an end to “vanity projects” like the HS2, Farage also called for a reduction in Barnett Formula spending, essentially damning Scotland and Wales to further hardship.
Open Debate on Cuts and the Deficit.
The battle began. Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg all recited tired lines about “previous governments” and squandered their time to speak by attacking the other side. Although somewhat more enigmatic than he has been in the past, Miliband still devoted more time to attacking the Tories than explaining his own plan. Meanwhile Clegg failed miserably to distance himself from the Tories’ austerity plans, despite helping them with it every step of the way.
Sturgeon also went on the offensive, but didn’t need to try so hard to distance herself from the 3 main leaders. Sturgeon rightly drew comparisons between Labour and Tory neoliberalism, asking direct questions to the leaders that they failed miserably to answer. Sturgeon is no fool, and nor is Wood.
An interesting debate-within-a-debate between Bennett and Farage also took place over the issue of foreign aid. Farage again painted the leaders as EU lovers who want to send British taxes abroad, but instead of bowing down to his prejudice and giving in, Bennett reaffirmed her commitment to higher foreign aid spending, delivering a message of a better world to counter Farage’s hopelessness and cynicism. As Labour embrace prejudice against immigrants, Bennett’s refusal to kowtow was a breath of fresh air.
The Second Question – How will you ensure long-term funding for the NHS without privatizing it?
What’s to blame for a lagging NHS? Is it privatization, lack of money, or foreigners? Those were the only three options on the table, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which leader blames which reason. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband committed to just throwing money at the problem, while Bennett, Sturgeon, and Wood insisted that social welfare cuts and creeping privatization is to blame, and that the profit motive has no place in healthcare. Most interesting of all, Cameron had a bit of a Freudian slip and said it was a difficult decision to keep funding the NHS when he came into power. Your mask is slipping Dave.
And of course, last and most certainly least, Nigel Farage blamed “health tourism” for the NHS’s woes. Population increases, the EU, and open-door immigration are the reason that the NHS is lagging behind, and in Farage’s mind, the whole place would be a lot better if white faces were running the show again. Of course he didn’t say as much, but this “immigration and EU” ploy is becoming both tiresome and revealing about his true intentions. If you blame every single problem on foreign people, chances are you’re a xenophobe.
Open Debate on the NHS.
Even when he wasn’t speaking, Farage managed to dominate the debate. He was the first to outline his plan for a better NHS, and aside from stopping parking charges, his plan was based entirely on blaming immigrants for using our public services, complete with the ‘I’m such an outspoken bloke’ routine and the ‘political correctness gone mad’ ploy. Most disgraceful of all, Farage claimed that HIV+ migrants are coming to the UK to get diagnosed and treated, and said they should be deported.
Although Miliband didn’t bend over backwards to accommodate prejudice against HIV+ migrants, he did admit that health tourism was a noteworthy problem that needs solving. Where privatization is concerned, Miliband refused to depart from New Labour, and admitted that some privatization is necessary. Some left-wing alternative.
Speaking of left-wing alternatives, the three female leaders again provided a much-needed alternative to the politics of fear and confusion, slamming Farage for his blatant prejudice against HIV+ people. Wood in particular stood above the fray when she said the NHS is not a “political football” but a vital public good. For the females, the private sector has no place in healthcare.
Meanwhile, Clegg seemed totally confused about what was happening and proceeded to attack all of the party leaders for no clear reason. While he did reaffirm his commitment to better mental health treatment, he claimed that sweeping privatization in the NHS was a myth.
The Third Question – Immigration is inevitable while we’re in the EU, how would you respond to it if you were elected?
Responses to this question were either economic, or emotional. For the progressive party leaders (Wood, Sturgeon, and Bennett), the immigration debate is not about genuine concerns of overpopulation, but a strain on public services and low living standards caused by austerity. It was implied that if everybody had access to better wages and better lives, nobody would mind about immigration, at least not the non-racists. These were the economic arguments.
Most radical of all, Bennett said that migrants and asylum seekers were people, and that the free movement of people across Europe is a two-way street that benefits migrants and Brits alike. Combating prejudice in a time when everybody agrees immigration is a problem is a radical act indeed, and of all the leaders to speak, Bennett was the only one to mention victims of torture and asylum seekers in general. That is telling.
Then there were the emotionally charged, prejudiced ones. Miliband insisted that benefit tourism would be a high priority in his government, but at had the decency to admit that British business owners are to blame for exploiting migrants. Farage of course was not so decent, and used his time to speak to decry letting “ten former communist countries” into the EU.
Open Debate on Immigration.
Farage’s specialist subject was a litmus test to see which leaders would bow down to his prejudice and which wouldn’t, and the results were predictable. Clegg, Cameron, and Miliband all appealed to people’s prejudices on benefits, citing migrants who claim as a scourge on the nation. Not one of the three main leaders attempted to combat Farage’s arguments with the truth, with statistics, but bowed down to him yet again in order to look tough on immigration.
The three female leaders again exposed how far-right UKIP are. Sturgeon and Wood took the view that pandering to UKIP harms our democracy, and Bennett was adamant that the debate about immigration is not one simply of figures and statistics, but of human beings with real lives, and directly challenged David Cameron about the measly number of Syrian refugees the UK has taken on since the civil war.
Most interesting of all, Sturgeon and Wood announced that an in/out referendum on EU membership should have th agreement of all regions, so that if Wales and Scotland decide not to leave, they shouldn’t be dragged out by England. A novel idea which could pave the way for independence without a referendum, but certainly more democratic than a simple referendum where English voters get to decide Scotland and Wales’ future.
No leader was content with Europe as it stands, but the choice came down to those who want to abandon the whole thing and damn the consequences, or those who want to stay and reform the place.
The Fourth Question – People in their 20’s are struggling, and for the first time in living memory, the new generation will be worse off than their parents. What will you do to make this generation feel more optimistic?
No matter what the subject, austerity seems to be a ubiquitous theme, and could not be separated from the issue of education. Specifically, tuition fees were discussed, with the three female leaders again reaffirming their commitment to free education. Miliband’s pledge to cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 looked pitiful in comparison, and although he admitted he’d like to cut it down more, he didn’t. If Miliband really thinks the difference between “drowning in debt” and having a future is £3,000, he’s more out of touch than he realizes.
Sturgeon had something far more poignant to offer – a personal story that didn’t come off as disingenuous or cheesy. She said that she wouldn’t be First Minister of Scotland if it weren’t for free education, and told the other leaders that if they’ve benefited from it, they have no right to take it away from others. That is the message of hope the question was looking for.
As usual, Bennett went one step further than the other leaders. Not only would she eliminate tuition fees for current students, but write off the debt for those who still owe it. A fresh start for those who finished university ten or twenty years ago and are still paying for the privilege.
In comparison, Farage had absolutely nothing to offer aside from a sly dig towards the rich. Interestingly enough, his solution to rich people getting better schools was to expand grammar and free schools, one of the main causes of elitism in the education system D’oh!
Open Debate on Education.
Of all the open debates in the programme, this one lacked direction and clarity the most. On the table were school places, zero hours contracts, small businesses, and house building. It wouldn’t do the debate justice to recite each point in great detail, but on the issue of immigration, only Bennett had a comprehensive education reform plan. Her main problem with schools as they stand is that they are exam factories that do not provide real life skills to pupils. The rest of the party leaders had nothing to say about this, and Miliband in particular simply reaffirmed his commitment to a fairer society yet again.
Bizarrely, Farage used his time to speak to undertake a rambling rant about the EU in which he urged Britain to build closer ties with Commonwealth countries, as if it were the 1920’s again.
Sturgeon was first to speak, and again issued a clear directive to voters: Vote for austerity, or vote against it. For her, that is the crucial choice in this election, and the choice has never been clearer. Either we can spend £100 billion on updating our nuclear arsenal, and let ordinary people pick up the tab, or we can implement a plan for fiscally responsible spending increases. Above all, Sturgeon promised to raise Scotland’s voice.
Clegg was up next, and used his time to urge voters not to lurch too far to the left or right. Again painting himself as a centrist, he urged voters to reject runaway spending or runaway cuts, and promised to finish the job and balance the books. Although he admitted his record wasn’t perfect, he assured voters that he has never been more committed to the task at hand.
Miliband was next to speak, and put working people at the centre of his closing statement. He attacked the government for failing to make work pay, and promised to reward hard work by raising the minimum wage and taking on the powerful. Exploitative energy companies are in his sights, and he promised to balance the books without harming health or education. For Miliband, working Britain must succeed.
Wood spoke next, and promised that her party offers an alternative to the Westminster consensus on cuts. For her, austerity is a choice, and choosing it directly harms decent standards of living and public services. Wood promised that she would make Wales’ voice heard and get a better spending deal like Scotland has, and would reject the failed austerity experiment.
Bennett was next up, and immediately urged people to vote for what they believe in, and to reject tactical voting. The time of voting for the least-worst party or the lesser of two evils is over, and if people want a politics of change, they have to vote for it. Bennett reaffirmed that her party is committed to a stable climate and a decent economy, and promised to deliver a peaceful political revolution with the help of more MPs like Caroline Lucas.
Farage was the penultimate speaker, and again attacked fellow party leaders for all looking and sounding the same. He attacked the political class for trying to be popular instead of listening to ordinary people’s concerns, and promised that UKIP would always believe in plain spoken patriotism. With more MPs, he promised to outshine expectation and really shake things up.
Cameron was last to speak. He stated that his number one priority for the last five years has been turning the economy round and putting people back to work. His hopes for the future include creating a job for everybody that wants and needs one, eliminating the deficit completely, investing in the NHS, and providing security for families across the country. He urged people not to put all that hard work in jeopardy by voting for those who put us in a mess in the first place.
Interruptions: Of all the leaders, David Cameron was interrupted by other candidates the most, and Nigel Farage was the one to interrupt other people the most.
The choice this election is clear. For all their attempts to distance themselves from traditional politics, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage are not the change they promise to be, albeit for totally different reasons. Instead of offering economic hope for those languishing under austerity and stagnating wages, Farage appeals to racial prejudice as a way to gain votes, and his party is crawling with neo-Nazis and bigots of many varieties. Clegg has led his party into a political Siberia, and tarnished the party’s reputation for years to come.
As for Miliband, Labour’s differences with the Tories are simply not enough. Labour may be against the Bedroom Tax, may be in favour of taxing the rich, and may have learned from some of its mistakes from the Blair era, but by and large the party is still Thatcherite, still in favour of public spending cuts, and still content to maintain a cosy relationship with the elite. As Bennett rightfully pointed out during the debate, you can either choose between austerity heavy, or austerity lite.
And how about Bennett. She rejected the politics of fear, refused to pander to UKIP, and delivered a clear and concise progressive message. It does wonders for your ability to express opinions when you’re not being interrupted an average of 7 times per minute.
Along with Sturgeon and Wood, Bennett provided the only alternative to politics as usual.