It’s been a week since the seven main party leaders of the UK stood on a stage and talked through the main issues facing the country ahead of the election in May. The campaign trail has been ticking along and though plenty of people have opinions on who “won” last Thursday no-one can really say how the leader’s chances have changed, if at all. Taking a look back at what was said over the two hours in the ITV Studios in Media City and who agreed with who makes me think that the change in electoral system that the smaller parties all want really needs to happen. People think of a proportional system as producing weak and ineffectual coalitions and while that can be true I’d bet a coalition formed in Britain in 2015 would either barely function or collapse entirely, if it even came about. At this point a coalition elected by PR rather than grudgingly adopted would actually produce a more focused government.
Natalie Bennett of the Green Party kicked off the session by attacking banker’s bonuses and promising a fair economy and real action on climate change, a potentially popular sentiment. Next up was a man I wrote about on this very blog a lifetime ago; whose sentiments are unfortunately popular quite often; UKIP’s Nigel Farage. He was straight out of the gate with a mention of the EU, claiming all parties supported continued membership, declaring that trust in politics has broken down because the other leaders are “all the same” and Britain needs to “make its own laws.” Standard stuff. The Dark Horse of the evening was undoubtedly Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party who declared that the Westminster system needs to change and that austerity, the bedroom tax, privatisation and cuts to the NHS need to end. Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, while a bit more Wales-Centric also said that jobs and services had been cut to the bone. And finally the Labour Leader Ed himself had the cameras pointed at him. He promised a raise of the minimum wage and a ban on Zero Hour contracts. Echoing the anti-austerity sentiments of Bennett, Sturgeon and Wood as well as presenting a similar “middle-ground common sense” notion that Clegg raised.
This kind of grudging agreement really came through in the questions, the first of which, asking how the leaders would tackle the deficit, came from newly crowned social media Icon Jonny Tudor.
Elimination of the deficit
In this first session the anti-austerity camp formed again. Miliband promised fairer taxes and a boost to living standards, Bennet mentioned heavier taxes on multinational corporations and stressed the need for investment paid for by borrowing, Sturgeon championed the idea of increased investment and Wood agreed with Sturgeon. Clegg again held the middle ground; they’ll cut less than the Tories and borrow less than Labour. Farage was an outlier and gave some figures that he believed would be saved through cutting foreign aid budgets, payments to Brussels and the end of “vanity” projects like HS2. Cameron favoured staying the course declaring that the government has put 2 million people into work and they don’t want to raise taxes. Cameron didn’t win many friends here and Farage was of course isolated because of his stance on foreign aid. With that all out of the way Terry, a retired NHS worker, asked how the party leaders would protect his former employers.
Protection of the NHS
Again, Miliband, Bennett, Wood and Sturgeon all agreed that the privatisation of the NHS needed to end. Discussion focussed on where the additional 8 Billion pounds, or 9 if you count the Scottish NHS, needed to ensure its future should come from. The mansion tax, money from hedge funds and tax on tobacco companies were the Labour suggestion and Clegg also proposed increased tax on the richest. Farage again cut himself off from the others when he criticised the strain so-called health tourists place on the NHS. He also didn’t win any good will when he said that the cost of anti-retroviral drugs for non-British HIV sufferers was an unnecessary expense. Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon both called him on this. Some other points that were raised were the need for an increased focus on mental health issues, one from Clegg and Natalie Bennett’s call for more promotion of healthier lifestyles and a reduction in air pollution.
The big two insisted on having their own separate debate over who has the worst record on the NHS. Miliband raised the point that Labour cut waiting from 18 months to 18 weeks and under the conservatives A&E waiting times have increased dramatically. Cameron defended his party by pointing out that more doctors have been hired.
When Julie Etchingham got tired of that bickering session Immigration was the next issue under the spotlight courtesy of Joan, the third audience member. Miliband spoke about the need to stop the undercutting of the minimum wage and the exploitation of migrant workers. Sturgeon added that the majority of immigrants are net contributors. Cameron and Clegg actually came into agreement when both stressed the need for controlled immigration with Cameron wanting to see a reduction in immigration from outside the EU and make introduce a law that immigrants need to pay into the benefits system for four years before they get anything out of it. Clegg also promised harsher penalties against employers who exploit foreign workers. Miliband’s criticism of Zero Hour contracts came up here. With the final area of discussion being membership to the EU an odd moment occurred near the end when Leanne Wood and Nigel Farage agreed that not a lot could be changed about immigration while still in the EU. Bennett reminded the audience that the Green Party support a referendum on Europe but supported staying because environmental decisions have to be made on a continental level. Rebeccah then moved the discussion on by asking how the parties would encourage younger voters.
Encouraging young people
The first focus point was education. Labour, The Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP all brought up student debt. Clegg, held up his hands and apologised again for raising tuition fees but drew attention to an increase in apprenticeships. Farage played the populist card by saying that Rich kids have a great time and bemoaning the abolishing of grammar schools and selective education. Cameron focussed on jobs and promised to build affordable homes not available to foreign buyers. Two rounds of applause came in quick succession. Clegg got one when he demanded an apology from Milliband for allowing the financial crisis to happen after Ed dismissed Nick’s tuition fee apology. Ed then got one of his own when he gave said apology and then reminded the audience that at the time Cameron thought the banks were over regulated. Sturgeon dismissed the Westminster old boy’s network declaring that if voters want Eds progressive promises to go through they’d better hope he has some SNP MPs keeping him honest. The final spat of the evening came when Ed claimed that he would secure a more hopeful future for younger people by scrapping Zero Hour Contracts. Cameron hit back and said he wouldn’t be creating any jobs whereas the conservatives would which Ed shot down by declaring that all he was doing was promising more of the exploitative contracts.
So what is the end result of all this? If I were to rank the leaders on their performance it would be fairly meaningless. However, if pushed I would say that Nicola Sturgeon led the field with Miliband running a close second but it is the point made by Clegg at the very beginning that sticks with me. It is extremely likely that no-one will be a clear winner in May, another coalition will be the result and who knows how long that will last? Let’s face it, first past the post is failing hard and even the big two parties are suffering under it. If they do fail to win a majority then they’ll be forced to compromise with parties they are supposedly against ever agreeing with. UKIP have promised to never enter a coalition with anyone and Labour has emphatically ruled out deals with the SNP. My question is… Why? The general consensus was that austerity has failed, more needs to be done to protect the NHS and an exit from Europe isn’t high on the priority list. They line up roughly with my politics and isn’t it the case that system wherein that kind of consensus was represented in government rather than conceded on a debate floor can only be good right? If coalition is pretty much inevitability why not make agreement a goal rather than a failure state? This past week has seen Labour again denying any willingness to work with the SNP, the Conservatives accusing Labour of wanting to dismantle Britain’s armed forces in return for power and Nigel Farage on a boat in Grimsby with Joey Essex. That last one is unrelated but I had to mention it.
It’s easy to say that “they’re all the same” á la Farage but there is policy difference there, plenty of it unfortunately in a win-or-lose, zero-sum system where any agreement with another camp is penalised it’s a lot easier to see any similarities as a failure rather than potential for government building. So my final thought is this; Come on Britain, we had one dud referendum but Proportional Representation could work… I mean look at how well they could get on!
Note: All images taken from Sky’s upload of ITVs leaders debate found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Sv2AOQBd_s with carefully timed use of the “Print Screen” button.