Leaders’ debate #GE2015

Here we have the only full debate of this general election.

Alongside Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour Leader Ed Miliband and Lib Dem Leader and coalition partner Nick Clegg, for the first time the debate will include the leaders of the smaller parties.

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage, Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, Scottish Nationalists (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood will also appear.

This is the one debate we get that has all the major players in UK politics.

Going into the debate, the spin room and the media were full of claims that two party-politics was over in the UK. It is, they claim, no longer a choice between red or blue, with the yellow Lib Dems as the protest vote.

There was a buzz around the potential clash between the SNP and Labour, as polls in Scotland show the SNP are on track for a near wipe out of Labour.

Opening statements

Bennett kicked things off saying we deserve better – with principles and values first. This includes a fair economy returning the NHS to founding principles, with the aim of building a decent and humane society.

Farage pointed out that the UKIP stance on the EU and immigration is different to that of the other six parties. He argued Britain was good enough to go it alone and that we should control our borders with an Australian-style points system.

Clegg argued no one would win outright, saying the current situation was less than perfect. He even admitted he had made mistakes and learnt from them.

However, he also pledged to balance the books by acting responsibly. He said there would be no ideological cuts on services serving all parts of the country (reminiscent of his pledge not to increase tuition fees five years ago).

Sturgeon pledged to change Westminster politics, offering friendship to those outside Scotland. The Greens wish to deliver positive change, she said, including an end to austerity, the bedroom tax and NHS privatisation. She also promised a no vote on nuclear weapons for a new, progressive politics.

Cameron reviewed the changes over his five-year term. The long-term economic plan is balanced and is working, he said, with a tax cut for 13 million people.

He also claims Britain has the fastest growing economy in the developed world. He argued the economy wouldn’t grow and that the deficit would increase under a Labour government, and he urged voters to stay on the road of economic recovery.

Wood made a personal message to the voters of Wales, offering hope for the young people. In a hung parliament they will win for Wales to make the communities as strong as they can be

Miliband argues Britain succeeds when working people succeed. For five years the NHS has gone backwards and wages have decreased.

Labour is pledging to ban zero hour contracts, build a future for all young people through apprenticeships and reduce tuition fees. Britain, he said, can do so much better than the last five years.

On the economy

Clegg argued it’s all about balance, not cutting too much or borrowing too much. Reduce spending, he said, but get those at the top to pay more tax. The ageing population, he conceded, requires more NHS funding.

Cameron argued that the Conservatives got three million people out of tax and two million people back to work, and he claims his plan is balanced. He doesn’t want to raise taxes, as this will impact working people, but he warns efficiencies must continue to be made to allow for investment in the NHS.

Wood argued they would reduce the £90bn deficit to £30bn by 2020, with no arbitrary deadlines for deficit cuts, arguing the deficit was supposed to have been balanced. The people need a bail out now and invest in public services.

Farage argued the deficit was supposed to have been reduced to zero, and pointed out that it’s currently at £90bn with the national debt up at £1.5 trillion from £850bn.

Farage argued for cutting £10bn from foreign aid and £10bn by leaving the E.U, with a look at saving £5bn through reworking the Barnet formula which allocates funding across the UK nations.

Miliband argued he would be balancing the books with a fair budget, fair taxes, reverse tax cuts for millionaires, common sense spending cuts and a raise in living standards to increase tax revenues.

Bennett said the Greens were offering the reversal of austerity to invest in the future. She argued we shouldn’t slash essential services – which has so far caused unemployment. She admitted her party would raise taxes on the rich and multinationals to afford decent services.

Sturgeon argued economic policies are a means for allowing people to live a better life. If economic policy doesn’t do that, it needs changing. She pledged the deficit would fall but it would take longer to balance the books.

Clegg was quick to attack Cameron – who he has spent the last five years working with – on the Tory plan to stay the course for economic growth, which would mean, he argued, that the rich wouldn’t be paying their fair share with cuts to the NHS affecting everybody’s lives.

Cameron argued that £5bn would be raised through tackling tax avoidance and argued that Labour hadn’t learnt their lessons on the economy.

Miliband argued that Cameron was focusing on the past and not on the future. Miliband argued they would make the economy fairer.

Sturgeon argued Clegg was as much to blame as Cameron for the cuts. She argued Cameron missed his borrowing targets by £150bn, which would lead to one million more children in poverty by 2020. She argued the SNP would back Labour in a plan to raise spending.

Farage argued that spending was out of control with no party talking about the national debt. He argued that £10bn could be saved by cutting foreign aid to which no other party agreed.

Bennett said the Greens would instead increase foreign aid to 1% of GDP from the current 0.7%.

Wood then challenged Miliband to admit that Labour had failed Wales. Miliband said a mansion tax and a tax on bankers’ bonuses would benefit Wales.

Bennett had the top sound bite for the evening, arguing that the British people faced a choice between ‘austerity heavy and austerity light’ with 1 in 5 workers now on less than the living wage.

Clegg said that Cameron and Osborne cut funding because they wanted to, but the Lib Dems would only cut when they had to in order to balance the books.

On the NHS

Farage argued that having both a rising and ageing population is a threat. He said he would run the NHS efficiently and find £3bn for the NHS from the E.U. savings.

Sturgeon said they would protect the NHS as a public service and not for private profit, as privatisation poses a long term risk. She vowed the SNP would vote against any further privatisation of the NHS.

Bennett argued the NHS was not a big issue in 2010 but now it was a huge issue in this election. She argued profit has no place in healthcare. She made a pledge of 0% profit in the NHS and not the current 5%, with the intention to remove the market system of the NHS which costs £10bn a year. The SNP wants free prescriptions, eye care and dental care.

Clegg said the NHS needs £8bn by 2020. He argued the Lib Dems will tax the rich more to balance the books and invest in the NHS, with £800m for Scotland and £400m for Wales.

Wood said the NHS was a gift Wales gave the world, and that the NHS came through communities contributing together. The NHS should be protected, saving them from centralisation in Wales, with a drive for more doctors in the country.

Miliband asked where the money was coming from. He argued a Labour plan would involve a mansion tax, money from hedge funds and the tobacco industry – raising £2.5bn, with a focus on tackling the challenge of the ageing population.

Cameron said the NHS was the most important institution. He added, ‘I want unbelievable care for every family,’ but said a strong economy funds a stronger NHS. He called for a move to a 12-hour-a-day service at GP’s surgeries, seven days a week.

Farage shared concerns over the £2bn cost of health tourism. Bennett disagreed, saying the NHS is hugely dependent on foreign workers and couldn’t survive without them.

Miliband argued that wasn’t the root cause. One million people waited more than four hours in A&E last year.

Cameron said 460,000 more people had been seen for cancer treatment, while Clegg focused on mental health – pledging to treat it as we would physical health issues.

Wood didn’t like that health has been used as a political football which causes the patients and staff to suffer.

Miliband argued that Cameron had broken his promises on the NHS with waiting times increasing and the top-down reorganisation going against his pre-election pledges.

Cameron argued he got rid of 20,000 bureaucrats. Clegg defended his role in the Coalition, saying the ‘sweeping privatisation’ other parties were talking about was an increase from 4% to 6%.

Farage had the rather harsh statement that of the 7,000 HIV diagnosis in the NHS last year, 60% are non-UK nationals. He argued that we should not be funding this.

Cameron argued the Labour ‘target culture’ led to NHS care dropping, as demonstrated in the case of Midstaff Hospital.

Miliband ended the NHS debate with his claim the NHS has gone backwards on the Tories’ watch, turning to Cameron and saying, ‘You have failed on the NHS.’

On immigration

Miliband argued he had changed Labour’s approach and said it was not unwilling to discuss this issue. He said Labour would control immigration through a policy of no benefits for the first two years, and he would stop the undercutting of wages and conditions through the exploitation of migrant workers.

Wood said Plaid Cymru won’t go along with scapegoating. It wasn’t Polish migrants that had caused the economic problems. There are gaps in the Welsh economy, the party believes, which are being aggravated by the immigration debate.

Sturgeon recognised there was a strain on homes but the answer was to build more homes and fund better wages. She said we need a decent and tolerant debate.

Cameron said people that come here and work do help, however this number is high. He said they need to bring it under control. E.U. migrants won’t get unemployment benefits, and if an E.U. migrant doesn’t have a job for six months they will have to go home.

Farage rightly argued that as a member of the E.U. we can’t do anything about E.U. immigration, a statement that was backed up by Plaid Cymru. Farage continued by saying we needed to build one house every seven minutes in order to cope with the immigration and that 77% of the British public want something done about immigration.

Clegg said he will never spread fear, and that there is good and bad immigration. ‘We should remain a decent and open-hearted nation. If we turn immigrants away the NHS would collapse overnight.’ His sound bite was ‘Open for business not open for abuse.’

Bennett argued that Britains have been able to take advantage of E.U. migration. Outside the E.U., a quarter of asylum seekers are left years before we class them as a refugee. Problems in society are not the result of immigration, she argued, but a failure in government policy.

Farage argued that German Chancellor and ‘boss of Europe’ Angela Merkel has made it clear you can’t renegotiate free movement. Miliband argued Cameron has no allies in Europe as demonstrated by his attempt to block the election of the current European Commissioner. Clegg repeated that freedom to move should never mean freedom to claim benefits, whilst Sturgeon argued we would deprive ourselves of the economic benefits of international students we educated going into the workplace here and filling vital jobs.

On the future generation

Wood argued that Plaid Cymru would invest in young people, with education as a route out of poverty. She argued the generation of today is on the road to being worse off than the generation before it. She ended by saying she would like to provide free university tuition, but that it’s not possible in Wales.

Miliband said Labour would guarantee all young people a good start in life by reducing tuition fees, providing good jobs for people, and banning zero hour contracts with regular work leading to a regular job.

Cameron said the Tories would ensure good jobs with a plan to create two million more in the next parliament, plus three million apprenticeships and uncapped university places. He also said he would build more homes that people could afford to buy, although indicated these might be through help to buy, rather than social housing, when he mentioned that this latter scheme has helped 88,000 people purchase a property.

Bennett said the Greens viewed education as a public good which should be paid for through progressive taxation. She argued that 73% of current graduates will never pay off student debt (which is on average £43k). Current figures state 45p in every £1 of student debt won’t be paid back.

Clegg said he couldn’t put into action his pledge on tuition fees, but in government had brought in huge tax cuts and healthy meals for school children.

Sturgeon said the SNP were investing in apprenticeships and education, for example through free tuition fees. She stated that as a politician she had no right to take away the entitlement she had had. No politician should take that benefit away. Education should be based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay, she concluded.

Farage claimed the rich are having a fantastic time and now dominate the media, arts and sports – with the social inequality gap increasing. He called for a brownfield building revolution.

Cameron argued one million more children were in good or outstanding schools with free schools aiding this.

Clegg argued there was a £3bn cut coming for education, to which Cameron responded by accusing Clegg of a pick and mix approach to picking policies they had enacted as a coalition.

Closing statements

Steurgeon said voters could vote for the same old parties and get the same old politics, or they could vote for something different, better and more progressive. She said no one could afford more austerity and cuts or the cost of new nuclear weapons. The SNP, she said, were offering a clear alternative with planned investment that is fiscally responsible. Outside of Scotland, she pledged friendship.

Clegg told us to vote for what’s right for your own family and country, to learn and to keep our country stable, strong and fair. He said we should balance the books fairly and put money into services, with an opportunity for everyone.

Miliband said we should build a Britain that puts working people first. His Labour Party would support those that work, cut the deficit every year, balance the books and protect health and education. He argued that when working people succeed, Britain succeeds.

Wood said that there was an alternative to Westminster cuts. For a stronger, more prosperous, greener Wales, voters should vote for Plaid Cymru.

Bennett told us to vote for what we believe in and not for the lesser of two evils. She said that for a fair economy, a public NHS and a cleaner climate, we should vote Green. She also said we need more MPs like Caroline Lucas (the only Green MP), who can deliver a peaceful political revolution. ‘If you’re thinking about voting Green, do it,’ she said.

Farage referred to the other parties as the politically correct political class. He claimed they didn’t understand the thoughts and aspirations of ordinary people. He said he believed Britain can be a lot better than it is and that we can outshine all expectations.

Cameron closed the session by saying, ‘I’ve been your PM for the last five years with one task in mind: turning the economy around, putting people back to work and cleaning up the mess, increase jobs, cut the deficit and keep investing in the NHS for a seven-day-a-week service, security for you your family and your country. Stick with the plan and the team that gave you that plan or risk it by voting elsewhere.’ [Ed: Clearly he can’t count…]

Analysis

Early polls came out showing Nicola Sturgeon had come out on top with 28% of YOUGOV viewers. Farage came second at 20%, Cameron third at 18%, and Miliband came fourth on 15%. As the night went on, more polls came out and the average is:

Cameron 22%
Miliband 21.5%
Farage 21%
Sturgeon 20%
Clegg 8.5%
Bennett 4%
Wood 2.5%

My analysis

In my opinion, Cameron and Miliband offered nothing new. They stuck to the lines they used last week. I never find myself agreeing with Farage or UKIP – especially his comment on HIV and ‘health tourism’, which implies we shouldn’t treat those who aren’t British nationals.

Sturgeon was a strong player, not just appealing to the people of Scotland but to all of the UK. Bennett underperformed in my view. She was rather stiff and almost lectured her points, often deviating – I would put this down to her wanting to promote the Greens as much as possible.

Wood was too narrow in her appeal, only discussing Wales. Yes, this works for her and the party in Wales, but nationally this was weak. I wouldn’t expect her to poll well as Plaid Cymru aren’t widely known. It would be interesting to see the Welsh polling numbers.

Clegg has clearly suffered. Even when he was attacking Cameron, he was quickly brought down by being reminded that he was in on the decisions he is now criticising.

Based on that debate, ignoring any external factors and policies, Nicola Sturgeon would win my vote. An interesting outcome indeed.