(Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood, and Natalie Bennett embrace after the debate)
Last night, five of the main opposition leaders, whose names you surely know by now, went head-to-head in a televised BBC debate. Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg did not attend the debate, allowing for the opposition leaders to fight among themselves and prove their plan is the best alternative to the Conservatives’.
Leaders took five questions from the audience over the course of the debate, having a minute to answer each question without interruption before opening up the question to debate.
What follows is not a transcript of the things that were said during the debate, but a summary and explanation of how each leader performed.
Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru was the first to speak. Wood announced herself as a staunch opponent of austerity measures, which she referred to as a myth and a failed vision. She declared that her party stands ready to deviate from the stale politics as usual, offering a vision for a post-austerity society which includes job creation, strong public services, and better communities. Wood said she refuse to apologise for speaking up for Wales at every opportunity.
Nigel Farage of UKIP was next. Farage claimed that May’s election has become a farce because all the parties are bribing voters with false promises of spending. He said he is the only leader with a fully-costed economic plan verified by an independent think-tank, and is the only leader committed to ending the bloated foreign aid budget. Farage insisted that out-of-control immigration and corporate giants are to blame for driving down wages, and insisted that he will never be afraid of offending the politically correct parties.
Ed Miliband of the Labour Part was next. Miliband warned voters that the choice this election is between an NHS going backwards and young people being worse off than their parents, or his plan, which doesn’t involve a penny of extra borrowing. He declared he wants a mansion tax to fund new nurses and doctors, wants to clamp down on tax avoidance, and freeze energy bills. He insisted that he will never hurt working families by doing disastrous things like leaving the EU or breaking up the UK.
Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP was next. Sturgeon assured voters in Scotland that she will make their voice heard, but also reassured voters elsewhere in the UK that we share the same interests – making Westminster work for the many, not the few. She reiterated that nobody will win an outright majority in May, and so the task at hand is building bridges between different parties to deliver real change. Sturgeon declared that she is willing to work with any party that wants to stop austerity and raise the minimum wage.
Natalie Bennett of the Green Party was the last to speak. Bennett proudly reminded voters that for the last five years there has been a powerful opposition in Westminster – her name is Caroline Lucas. She is restoring the NHS and leading the fight against fracking. If we elect more of her, we will deliver a vision of a humane and sustainable society. Bennett reaffirmed that austerity is a spiteful and failed experiment, and urged voters to reject it and give young people food on the table, and give old people free health and social care. Bennett promised to continue to challenge the establishment.
The First Question – As somebody who is about to enter the job market, is it fair to increase government spending, when it is my generation that will be left to pay it off?
As with the first debate, the leaders’ responses to this question broadly fell under two categories: Austerity, and anti-austerity, and it’s no great secret which leader falls into which category.
Sturgeon agreed that reducing the deficit is an important task, but was quick to explain that austerity isn’t the means to do it. Austerity holds people back and slows economic growth, and the alternative – modest public spending increases – will allow the UK to cut the deficit without unduly burdening the poor. Sure, it may take a bit longer to cut the deficit, but it’ll be worth it. Bennett took a similar approach, but insisted she was more concerned about the enormous burden of student loan debt and those who fall into debt spirals just to make ends meet. Bennett did not dismiss the deficit, but it’s clear she cares more about the individual, human cost of debt.
Most impressive of all, Wood reminded voters that the welfare state was created at a time when the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. In the late 40’s there was no money for anything, and yet we fought hard for a welfare state to deliver basic provision to people. From this, it is clear that austerity is not the answer in times of need – investment is.
Farage and Miliband were less keen to decry austerity measures. Miliband agreed with the premise of the question and promised to make Britain live within its means, albeit in a fair way that doesn’t unduly burden the working class. Outside of key areas like education and health, Miliband said spending must fall. Farage similarly agreed with the question’s premise, arguing that continuing vanity projects would drive us into bankruptcy. Most farcical of all, Farage said he would recalculate Barnett Formula spending to stop so much money “going over Hadrian’s wall” (which is in England, by the way).
Open debate on the deficit and spending levels.
This debate was, enjoyably, a chance for pretty much everybody to attack Ed Miliband from both sides of the political spectrum. All three of the female leaders accused Ed Miliband of not being bold enough – Sturgeon accused him of not being different enough from the Tories, Bennett accused him of wanting to fiddle with tuition fees and freeze child benefit, and Wood challenged him to stand up and be counted as a truly progressive leader, a challenge which Miliband promptly evaded.
On the other side of the platform, Farage accused Miliband of not being harsh enough on public spending levels, demanding that he provide a single example of a cut he would make, which he didn’t, and accused the Labour leader of offering peanuts compared to UKIP.
In the end, all Miliband had to say was that the election is a choice between Cameron and himself, and he has the better plan. When he was backed into a corner by the three female leaders, he resorted to scare tactics and accused the SNP of wanting to break up the country with £7 billion of ideological cuts to turn Scotland against Westminster.
Making the loudest and most crass anti-referendum voice the head of Scottish Labour is the thing that turned Scotland against Westminster Ed, not an imaginary conspiracy to plunge Scotland into poverty so it votes SNP.
The Second Question – I am a single parent of three who works and privately rents a house – what are your thoughts on the social housing crisis, and what do you plan to do about it?
Again, there were broadly two responses to this question, albeit different from the previous responses: Those who want to build new homes because there’s a shortage, and those who want to build new homes to stop the nasty foreigners from snapping them all up. At least we can all agree that we need more houses.
Here’s how many houses each leader promised to build if they were in government:
- Bennett: 500,000 social homes over five years.
- Farage: 200,000 homes a year for five years.
- Sturgeon: 100,000 homes a year for five years.
- Miliband: 200,000 homes by 2020.
- Wood: Unspecified number, but does want to build.
Open debate on housing.
The dishonourable Lady Thatcher got a couple of mentions during this time. Miliband accused Farage of repeating Thatcher’s mistakes in the housing market by treating it as a supply and demand issue instead of a human issue, while Wood accused Thatcher of creating the problem in the first place by introducing the right to buy and gutting the social housing market.
Interestingly, Miliband refused to condemn the principle of right to buy, but argued that if it is to remain government policy, it must ensure that more houses are available, not fewer. His biggest problem with the right to buy seemed to be that the Tories hadn’t found the money to properly implement it, not that they’d gone to far.
The highlight of the debate came when Farage departed from the topic at hand and went on a deranged rant about left-wing bias at the BBC. To almost unanimous boos, Farage accused the BBC of selecting an anti-UKIP audience, accusing them and the panel of being simple-minded fools who don’t resemble the electorate. As usual, Farage insisted that migrants are to blame for all of society’s ills, calling for any new social housing to be made available only to UK nationals.
Bennett and Sturgeon both took Farage to task on his statements, a refreshing sight to see. She took on what she called his “beloved market” and pointed out that landlords make £9.3 billion from housing benefit and have made profits of 1400% since 1996. It is not a market issue, and it’s certainly not an immigration issue – it’s a human issue.
Sturgeon accused Farage of making every single issue about immigration, politely asking him to “put the bogeyman to one side” and enter a real debate. Ouch.
The Third Question – With increasing instability on the world stage, can we really afford to give up our nuclear weapons and allow defense spending to fall below 2% of GDP?
(NATO guidelines ask that member states spend a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defense)
Yet again, two clear responses to this question: Those who want to scrap the Trident nuclear weapons programme, and those who don’t. No points for guessing which leader falls into which category.
Farage insisted that the world is probably a more dangerous place now than it was since the fall of the Wawsaw Pact, and as such, he will commit to the recommended 2% spending level of defense and back Trident renewal, which he called expensive but necessary. Miliband took a similar approach, promising to retain our independent nuclear deterrent in an uncertain world. Both leaders were quick to criticize Vladimir Putin, but Miliband promised that he had learned from his party’s past mistakes, and is confident he can say ‘no’ when the Americans demand he intervene in foreign affairs.
As with previous questions, the three female leaders took a starkly different approach.
- Bennett took a moral approach and questioned whether nuclear weapons, which we will never ever use, make us any safer. We’ve followed America into disastrous wars, she said, so it’s time to take the lead by ridding ourselves of hideous weapons of mass destruction. We cannot use military might alone to solve our problems.
- Wood took an economic approach, criticizing the cost of Trident when so many people are in dire need of assistance, and urging Brits to recognize the disastrous role the country has played in making the world less safe. She insisted she tried to hold Labour to account over the Iraq war, and demanded that we reverse our role in the world and turn it into one of conflict resolution and peace.
- Sturgeon took a military approach, questioning why Trident is the only option on the table when so many conventional means of defense are available. She stated that we’re an island nation and yet we don’t have a single maritime aircraft. 190 countries around the world don’t have nukes, she said, and they spend their money on much more important things like childcare and education. Why can’t we?
Open debate on defense spending.
The open debate unexpectedly centred around two issues: A potential EU army, and the monstrosity known as ISIS.
Farage led the debate, criticizing Jean Claude Junker’s plans for a European army as a cynical attempt to usurp the role of NATO. He also defended spending 2% of the GDP on defense by likening it to home insurance – you hope your home won’t burn down tomorrow, but just in case it does, better to be covered. He also pondered whether we have the capability to defend the Falklands, should it be endangered once more.
A spat then ensued between Miliband and Farage after the UKIP leader demanded to know what Labour would do about an EU army, and whether that would be enough for him to offer a referendum on EU membership. Quite embarrassingly for Farage, Miliband outright dismissed the notion of an EU army without much equivocation.
The talk then turned to ISIS, to which Miliband promised to continue military action again, which he saw as a necessary last resort. Sturgeon and Wood took him to task on Trident renewal, claiming that nuclear weapons absolutely aren’t the solution to groups like ISIS. Best of all, Wood demanded to know whether Miliband would ever press the button – no, he said, but he will keep the nukes anyway.
Of all the leaders, Bennett was the only one to talk about why ISIS has metastasized to the extent it has, and blamed regional countries like Saudi Arabia for feeding the group weapons any money. Most important of all, Bennett called for the UK to stop pouring weapons into the Middle East, for the consequences to peace are dire.
The highlight of the debate came when Wood said she disagreed with “my friend on the far-right there”, referring to Farage, who ironically was on the far-right side of the stage. Looks like someone has a penchant for puns.
The Fourth Question – Immigration has put our public services at great risk – what are your plans to deal with it?
You can probably predict what Nigel Farage said on this question, but here’s a short summary anyway: All the other parties are losing the debate so they’re attacking me. I’m the victim. Immigration will bring about the apocalypse. EU will bring about the second apocalypse. We want to be good neighbours but we don’t want ppl comin over ere n takin all are jobs n that.
Wood again took Farage to task, stating that Farage abuses immigrants and those with HIV and then claims he’s the victim. Wood stated that the risk to public services comes from a lack of investment, not from immigrants, who keep the NHS running. For Wood, the real problem about exploitation in the workplace isn’t migrants’ fault, it’s the fault of Thatcher’s union-busting crusade.
The question on most people’s minds was how Miliband would respond to the question, given that he’s been pandering to UKIP quite a bit in recent months. Miliband admitted that immigration is a problem and that people’s concerns are real, calling for action against those who undermine the minimum wage by employing immigrants. If we’re to believe Miliband, it’s immigrants’ fault that they’re being exploited. Alright then.
Sturgeon also agreed with the premise of the question, but only just. She criticized those who scapegoat immigrants as the sole cause of the nation’s ills, calling for more homes and better investment. Best of all, she accused Westminster politicians of allowing Nigel Farage to dictate their immigration policy. She issued a clear directive to the people of the UK – don’t let the debate about immigration be driven by Farage’s intolerance.
Bennett was the only person to outright disagree with the premise of the question. Like Wood, Bennett claimed that the risk to public services comes from austerity, privitization, and a lack of investment. She stated that she is an immigrant who chose to live here because she loves the way of life, the traditions, and the culture. She claimed to want to protect the vulnerable and the natural environment, and reiterated that migrants make an enormous contribution to the British way of life, which should be celebrated.
Open debate on… Just about anything.
This portion of the debate was supposed to be about immigration, with moderator David Dimbleby constantly trying to get the leaders to admit that immigrants put a strain on public services (so much for that left-wing bias eh Farage?). Ultimately, talk led to the NHS instead.
You’d have thought Farage would have learned his lesson from the last debate, when he accused HIV+ migrants of putting a strain on the NHS, but alas, the bigot just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. He once again reiterated the so-called ginormous massive huge explosive burden health tourism puts the NHS under (0.4% of total NHS spending, actually), and blamed HIV+ migrants who contribute nothing for taking advantage of the health service. Bizarrely, Farage accused Miliband of letting MRSA spread through hospitals.
He also offered a challenge to Miliband on whether he wants an NHS, or an IHS (international health service). One again, quite embarrassingly for Farage, Miliband flat-out denied his cries.
In the end, Miliband and Farage got the most bashing. Farage was grilled for his outrageous comments in general, but also by Miliband who accused him of wanting to abolish the NHS and replace it with an insurance-based system like that of the U.S. Miliband even brandished the quote where Farage said it in front of him. Burn.
Bennett took Miliband to task for his support for a 5% profit in companies who have NHS contracts. Bennett stated that there should be absolutely no profit in the health service, to unanimous applause.
Wood was the only leader to warn of the dangers of low immigration, explaining that in Wales there has been a shortage of doctors due to restrictions on people coming from the Indian subcontinent. When Farage demanded to know why we don’t train more doctors and nurses here, Wood agreed, but quietly reminded Farage that it takes a very long time to do so, the way a mother might explain to a child why bad things happen in the world.
The Fifth Question – What kind of deal would each of you be prepared to enter, in the event of a hung Parliament?
Things got very interesting at this point, and sadly, Miliband lost his momentum and ended up looking like an arrogant snob.
The three female leaders flat-out dismissed the idea of propping up a Tory government in any way, and challenged Miliband to work with them and deliver real, progressive change. Miliband refused, attacking the SNP for wanting to “break up” the country, for supporting the Tories in the late 70’s, and for gambling people’s lives by risking a Tory government.
Sturgeon remained firm, asking Miliband not to scaremonger and yet again calling for him to work with progressive parties to deliver real change. When Miliband looked smug and dismissed her calls yet again, she dropped the charm offensive and accused him of preferring a Tory government than joining a progressive alliance.
Discussions of coalitions and deals aside, Farage stuck to rambling in the corner about the dangers of the EU and immigration. Yawn. At one point, he admitted that it would be impossible for Miliband to govern without the help of the SNP, which he referred to as the “Scottish tail wagging the English dog”.
On the issue of a deal with Labour, Wood ruled out Plaid Cymru supporting Miliband unless he diverted away from his austerity measures, while Bennett admitted to being open to a confidence and supply agreement with Miliband provided he offers a stronger alternative to the Tories, which he isn’t doing now. Most interestingly of all, Farage said he would be willing to enter a coalition with Labour if they offered a referendum on EU membership.
To call Farage deluded would be the understatement of the millennium.
For perhaps the first time in the debates, Bennett came out swinging. She demanded to know whether Miliband agrees with the views of Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves who said “I don’t want to represent people on benefits and the unemployed”. Bennett reaffirmed that she does want to represent the most vulnerable who have suffered under this and previous governments, by scrapping the work capability assessment Labour brought in.
Sturgeon was first to speak. She stated that the British people cannot afford more austerity, and expressed dismay that the three main political parties are all prepared to spend £100 billion on weapons of mass destruction. Their priorities are wrong and ordinary people will pay the price, she said. We’ve seen tonight that Labour are not bold enough to deliver progressive change, but a team of SNP MPs will force that change. Vote SNP to make Scotland’s voice heard.
Wood was next. She claimed that the way things are is not as good as it gets, and we still have time to change course. Miliband refused to reduce his proposed spending cuts tonight, and an opposition which promises more of the same is no opposition at all. We will rebalance power and wealth throughout these islands, away from the powerful few. It’s time for a living wage, an NHS fit for modern times, and all nations equal in terms of resources. Vote Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales.
Bennett was next. She said we don’t have to take any more of this. The Tories heavy austerity has cut deep into the lives of those who cannot afford it, but all Labour is offering is austerity lite. In 2010, many people voted Lib Dem to keep the Tories out, but they won’t make that same mistake twice. Tactical voting has given us the second-rate politics we’re enduring now, but you don’t have to settle for a pale imitation of change. Vote Green for real, bold change.
Miliband was next. He said we’ve heard from five different parties, but the only real choice is between Cameron and him, putting the rich and powerful first, or putting working families first with the help of more doctors and nurses, better living standards, and a reduced deficit. Cameron refused to debate tonight, so I offer him a challenge – David, if you think this election is about leadership, then debate me one-on-one. My ideas are better. If you disagree, prove it, debate me, and let the people decide.
Farage closed the debate. He stated that the gap between career politicians and ordinary people has never been wider, as proven by tonight. Nobody here will stand up for ordinary people, and I am the only leader who is unafraid to say what I think. I say what I believe in. I’m patriotic and I believe in this country. We must govern ourselves and stop the takeover by giant corporate companies. Vote UKIP if you want things to change.