Debate verdictsI know all of you have been waiting for my feelings on the debate, so, finally, here they are!
First of all, I’m not sure I feel about TV debates in general. The debating format is inherently flawed because some arguments are more complicated than can be fit in soundbites. That said, that’s a bit of a problem with television in general really, and combative dialogue. A lot of numbers got thrown around in the debate, and I’m fairly certain some of them were misleading or even incorrect. For two examples
-Nigel Farage’s numbers on HIV were plain wrong
-Someone (I think it was Leanne Wood) pointed out that the Conservatives had come in promising to remove the deficit, but debt had doubled under them. This is a really misleading point to make, as the deficit is the difference between spending and borrowing, i.e. the amount of debt we will accrue this year. The conservatives promised to clear the deficit in one parliament (which they did fail at rather spectacularly!) not to clear national debt! Also, we should probably look at debt as a proportion of GDP (and the deficit for that matter) so this isn’t very helpful.
That all said, I do think David Cameron’s wriggling on the debates has been incredibly weasely, given his enthusiasm for them when he was in opposition. As it turns out, I’m not sure his cunning plan to have seven leaders in the debate actually helped him as much as he thought it would, as the variety of opinion allowed Milliband to look much more moderate than he might have been. Of the three leaders: Cameron, Clegg and Millibands, Milliband’s would leave the country with the greatest deficit, making him look the most extreme. However, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all called for more spending, making Milliband in the middle. This also made Clegg’s goldilocks positioning come across as sillier than he had probably planned. I actually thought the format worked quite well when the leaders were debating. The planned statements were fairly dull (seven in a row, oh god!) but the actual discussion was pretty invigorating and enjoyable.
So, for a breakdown by leader:
Cameron: The man with a plan. I think he said plan approximately 4 million times in the 2 hours allotted, and he certainly stuck on message. He was on the defensive all evening, and his attacks didn’t really stick for the most part. I felt like the whole “We’ve got that letter you wrote” just looked kind of petty, and Milliband responded to it fairly well by mostly ignoring it. (As an aside, if I had to guess the purpose of the letter, it was meant to be a silly joke given, rather than a serious political point. Using it is a tool to beat labour with isn’t super classy.)
Milliband: I thought he did rather well for the most part. He did spend a lot of time staring into the camera, which came across as rather intense, but his message was ok. I don’t think Labour has a very inspiring message coming into this election, but he worked with what he had. He even managed to get a round of applause, pointing out quite rightly that Cameron was pro-removing regulations on banks. [Another aside here. In 2007 the Conservatives promised to match Labour spending plans and argued that banking regulation was too restrictive. Every time Cameron or Osbourne go on about how irresponsible Labour were back then I wish their voice would just echo from the past to point out how ludicrous this argument is]. I felt he was weakest on immigration, where he promised to control immigration while being completely unspecific on how; this put him in a position where he couldn’t really respond to Farage’s vile arguments, fortunately Leanne Wood did it for him.
Clegg: It’s not that what Clegg was saying wasn’t reasonable, but it just came across as ridiculous. Attacking Cameron for his record as if Clegg wasn’t a member of the same government? Looked ridiculous. As I said before, his whole goldilocks approach to the deficit just seemed silly and felt ineffective. Finally he was kind of pathetic on immigration: “we’ll stop the bad immigration”. Well honestly.
Farage: It transpires that all the problems related to the UK are apparently tied to the immigration. The deficit? We’ll cut it by leaving the EU and cutting immigration. The NHS? We’ll stop foreigners using it. His numbers don’t add up because he doesn’t have any. Some time soon UKIP are going to have to publish a manifesto that Farage doesn’t disavow as nonsense, and then we’ll see how pathetic their party truly is. I’m sure his nasty racist remarks on HIV appealed to his core vote, but I really hope some voters got a measure of him from this.
Bennet: Wow Natalie Bennet is not the most charismatic of leaders, it has to be said. The Green have some radical ideas, some of which I tend to agree with, but Bennet just doesn’t seem to be the right vehicle to present them. She had a few good moments, being pro-immigration, and suggesting increasing international development aid (I think Farage’s eyes popped out at that point), but mostly uninspiring.
Wood: I think the one clear message I got from her was that she comes from Wales. She had a very clear goal, to demonstrate her commitment to helping Wales, and she definitely accomplished that. Very few of her statements were related to the rest of the UK, although she did call Farage to account over his HIV statements, and got applause for that.
Sturgeon: She clearly had the strongest impact of all seven. Unlike Leanne Wood, she made sure to address the entire UK, she made strong clear arguments for positions that aren’t articulated often by mainstream politicians, and managed to stay above the fray for the most part. Certainly I suspect many left leaning Labour supporters wished they could vote SNP after the debate. It will be interesting to see how much this will blunt the current Tory scaremongering on the idea of a labour-SNP coalition. [Big aside here: this scaremongering really annoys me. Either want Scotland to be part of the UK, or don’t. If you do want Scotland to be part of the UK, then accept that it’s representatives should be able to influence UK-wide policy!]
Of course the truth is that these debates are unlikely to dramatically alter the outcome of the election: there’s little historical precedent of them doing so, and while the lib dems seemed to do very well out of the last debate, at the end of the day they lost five seats and gained a percentage point on the previous election.