In the penultimate television event of this election we saw a debate between the leaders of the opposition parties of England, Scotland and Wales. Labour’s Ed Miliband, SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green Leader Natalie Bennett, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
This was a somewhat left-leaning panel, as only UKIP are on the right of the political spectrum. This was a must-win for Miliband as this debate opened his leadership of the opposition up for criticism. Going into the debate the media and Labour pointed out that out of all the leaders on the stage, Miliband was the only one that could become Prime Minister.
Wood kicked off the opening statements saying there was an alternative to the current system of grey, stale politics and urged people to see through the austerity myth. Plaid Cymru have a post-austerity vision of prosperity, better public services and stronger communities for the people of Wales and would cooperate with other parties for the good of all people.
Farage was next, referring to the election as farcical, with leaders ‘trying to bribe’ the British public with borrowed money. He argued UKIP was offering a fully costed plan with the intent to take on the big corporate giants. He ended by saying only UKIP were prepared to talk straight, claiming, ‘I’m the only one saying what you’re thinking.’
Miliband firstly pointed out the absence of Prime Minister David Cmaeron. Miliband stayed on the same message he has been repeating, arguing he wanted a fairer society which worked for working families not those at the top. He argued Labour would put working families first.
Sturgeon promised a strong voice for the Scottish people and argued that the SNP had a shared interest in making the Westminster system work for the many. She argued that the SNP would need to build bridges to work with other parties to deliver a better progressive politics for everyone.
Bennett started off strong, pointing out the ‘powerful opposition in Parliament in Green MP Caroline Lucas’. She argued that if you elect more strong MPs like Lucas they could provide properly funded and free education. She argued that they would ensure people had homes and food. She ended by saying that the Greens were the real opposition.
On the Economy
Sturgeon said it was important to bring the deficit and national debt down but that economic policy is there to allow people to live better lives. She argued Austerity is holding the country back. The SNP would look for modest spending increases with the debt and deficit being reduced but over a longer period of time however this would be worth it to invest in public services and lift people out of poverty.
Miliband repeated the narrative set by the PM. He said Britain had to live within its means and Labour would cut the deficit every year with fairer taxes, reversing the tax cut for millionaires, and a clamp down on tax avoidance which would raise £7.5bn. He ended saying that by raising living standards there would be more tax revenues: ‘It’s a fair plan, a better plan.’
Bennett said they wanted to scrap student debt as 73% of those with debt from student loans (at around £43,000) would not be able to pay them off. They wanted to reduce the Deficit to 1% of GDP by the end of the Parliament.
Farage argued that over the last five years the national debt had doubled with the interest on that amount costing more than the whole defence budget. Farage argued they would cut foreign aid and recalculate the Barnett formula. He said UKIP were the only party with a plan to bring down the national debt.
Wood ended the round by saying Plaid Cymru would bring down the deficit but not at any cost, nor to any artificial deadline. Wood argued they would invest in their future and austerity would deliver uncertainty.
In this area of the debate, Sturgeon made her attack on Miliband, saying she wouldn’t support a Tory government yet Miliband was too scared to be bold and wasn’t willing to do what is needed for the NHS.
Bennett added that the Greens would seek to invest in 400,000 new jobs in social care for the NHS to deal with the 800,000 people over 65 in the UK who need social care.
Wood argued that the spending shouldn’t be thought of as expenditure but as investment as well. She challenged Miliband to hold an emergency budget to reverse austerity. Miliband responded by saying the first budget would implement a mansion tax, abolish the bedroom tax and have a tax on bankers’ bonuses.
Sturgeon argued that there wasn’t a big enough difference between Cameron and Miliband, and that she would seek to make Miliband bolder. She argued that she wouldn’t want to replace the Tory government with a Tory-lite government.
Miliband responded by saying the SNP had planned £7.6bn in cuts in its drive for an independent Scotland. Both Sturgeon and Bennett attacked Labour’s spending cut plans with Bennett saying the Greens would not freeze child benefits but increase it by £40 per child and they wouldn’t settle for the ‘halfway house’ policy on university tuition fees.
Miliband argued Britain was building fewer houses than in the 1920s. He argued Labour would seek to create more social and private housing with a reform of the rental markets. Pledging to build 200,000 homes by 2020, Labour would empower councils to buy back land that big developers were not using.
Wood was the first to attack the Tory plan to extend the Right to Buy scheme, arguing that more social housing was required not less. She argued the Right to Buy scheme would not help tackle homelessness, pledging to get councils building more council homes with profits from them being reinvested in to council homes. She argued they would seek a rental cap and a doubling of council tax on holiday homes.
Farage brought the debate down to basic supply and demand. He argued we needed one house every seven minutes due to the demand from migrants. He said UKIP planned for a brownfield building revolution to produce 200,000 homes a year with social housing for UK nationals only.
Bennett was strong on this topic saying that £9.3bn from housing benefits was given to landlords. The Greens would seek 500,000 homes for social rent with a cap on rent, further adding private rent would not be allowed to rise above inflation and offering five-year tenancies.
Sturgeon said the SNP would have delivered 30,000 more affordable homes by the end of 2015. They were also considering a rent cap. The SNP would vote for 100,000 affordable homes a year for the whole of the UK, with these homes being protected for people to rent. Sturgeon also criticised the Tories’ Right to Buy scheme as the worst idea possible.
Miliband said Labour supported the right to buy but argued that Cameron doesn’t know where the £4bn needed is coming from. He argued that Right to Buy required more homes not less.
Farage argued that the panel and the audience didn’t understand that it comes down to supply and demand. He argued that an open doors policy had contributed to the crisis.
Sturgeon replied by saying UKIP’s answer to every problem is that immigration is the cause of the problem. Bennett argued that at present we have a market led by housing policy that has failed to deliver homes which allowed private landlords to make a profit of 14,900% since 1996.
On Trident and Defence
Farage argued that we couldn’t afford to lose trident or reduce spending below the NATO minimum of 2% of GDP. He said that nobody thought a Tory government would have reduced the size of the military.
Bennett argued that Trident didn’t make her feel safer even though the world isn’t a safer place. She argued Britain should take the lead in ridding the world of nuclear weapons. She said the answer was increasing diplomatic efforts and increase aid to reduce hunger and support democracy.
Wood argued it made no sense to spend £100bn on trident when we have social problems. She argued communities can’t be made safer by pursuing defence and the alternative is diplomatic efforts. She ended by saying we should be a beacon for conflict resolution and peace.
Sturgeon argued national security was important but the country needed to be proportionately protected. 190-odd countries out of just over 200 don’t have nuclear weapons, she said. She ended by saying she would choose childcare, health and education over nuclear weapons.
Miliband said the first duty of a Prime Minister was to protect the country and that’s why he would renew trident. He said it wasn’t possible to predict what was going to happen in the future. He argued that we needed to work with all allies, not just Europe and America, but that the UK should learn lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and that our interests don’t always coincide with America’s.
Bennett argued that immigrants haven’t put a strain on public services. She told her personal story of having come from Australia, choosing to become a British citizen. She added that she got into politics to protect her new home and improve it. She added that immigrants contributed to British life and we should celebrate it.
Sturgeon argued that strong controls were needed and that people shouldn’t get away with abusing the system, however we shouldn’t scapegoat migrants. She warned that the Westminster debate was being driven by Farage and UKIP. She argued that a majority of migrants work and pay taxes with the majority of migrants that aren’t working being students.
Miliband said he had changed Labour’s perception on this and that people’s concerns shouldn’t be labelled prejudiced. He argued for a two-year ban on migrants claiming benefits with punishing those who exploit migrant labour for cheap wages.
Farage said the other parties were losing the argument and thus were abusing their opponent (him). He argued Britain had fewer GPs per capita. He repeated his statement that as long as the UK is in the EU we can’t control out borders. He added that health tourism was affecting the level of care and once again pointed to foreign HIV patients as a strain.
On Hung Parliament Deals
Miliband unsurprisingly repeated his drive to seek a majority. He argued that the current coalition was a government of broken promises and that ultimately the people will decide the make-up of parliament.
Farage asked the question, ‘Are we an independent, self-governing country?’ He argued that we can’t be independent and self-governing as part of the EU and that any deal would have to include an in/out referendum on the EU.
Sturgeon said that her first deal would be with the Scottish people. She then added that she would never do a deal with the Tories. She added she would work with the other leaders to replace the Tories. She said she wanted Ed to be more progressive, change and be better than the Tories.
Wood argued Plaid Cymru would seek an end to austerity and invest in job creation. They want to bring an end to the Tory government as progressives to achieve that. She said she would not prop up a Tory government, nor would they prop up a Labour government hellbent on implementing Tory cuts.
Bennett also pledged not to prop up a Tory Government. She said she was seeking a fair economy, a publicly owned NHS and measures to tackle climate change. She said the Greens would support Labour on a vote-by-vote basis but what was needed was a much stronger alternative – which is not, she said, what Ed is offering.
This was always going to be a tough show for Miliband. It was the smaller parties’ opportunity to challenge him and his leadership of the opposition. They argued he wasn’t bold enough or strong enough as a leader on his own and that he needed the smaller party leaders to assist him on this.
Bennett won the award for the most improved leader. She was more relaxed and a better debater than in the seven-way debate.
Wood tried to broaden her support to the whole of the UK, having been too Wales-focused in the previous debate.
Miliband sounded rehearsed and didn’t offer anything new.
The same can be said for Farage. He may sound good and has some popularist appeal, but he does come undone when challenged by the other leaders.
Sturgeon once again had the strongest showing and won the debate. She challenged both Farage on the right and her prospective partner in government on the left. She opened the door for the likes of the Greens and Plaid Cymru to join her in propping up Labour.