The main event of the election’s media calendar – the seven way TV debate featuring the leaders of each of the major parties – took place this evening at ITV’s Salford studios. Alongside David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green leader Natalie Bennett, UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood were given the chance to put forward their vision for Britain in the 2-hour debate.
The debate kicked off with a question from 17 year old Jonny Tudor on the deficit and how the parties plan to balance the books without cutting essential services or raising taxes. This led to a heated discussion about spending cuts, with David Cameron claiming that cutting the deficit through austerity continues to be the necessary course of action. Bennett, Wood and Sturgeon presented themselves as the ant-austerity options, with Bennett describing the choice between Labour and the Conservatives as “a choice between austerity-heavy and austerity-light”.
Talk moved on to the NHS, with Cameron’s government accused of moving the UK increasingly towards privatisation. Bennett, Sturgeon and Wood also pointed to the false economy of cutting council budgets and social care services, ultimately resulting in a greater burden on the NHS.
Wood earned the first applause of the night, telling Farage he should be “ashamed of himself” for scaremongering about the impact of immigrants on the NHS. Predictably, Farage managed to turn every question into an excuse to talk about the need for Britain to leave the EU.
Moving to immigration, Sturgeon criticised the main parties for being driven by UKIP, rather than rational debate. The topic quickly turned to Britain’s relationship with the EU and Cameron’s failed attempts to renegotiate on it. As Farage continued with his anti-EU, anti-migrant line, Clegg implored him to “open-hearted”, before reminding him that both their wives are immigrants. “You seem to imply that anyone who comes to this country is a menace,” he said.
The final question, from Rebecca Creamer, centred around what the parties will do for young people, with tuition fees a particularly hotly debated point. Miliband called Nick Clegg’s claim that he had “got the fairest deal possible” laughable, which resulted in an off-topic squabble between the two with Clegg asking Miliband to apologise for Labour “crashing the economy”.
Bennett brought the discussion back to education, saying that cooperation should be the foundation of the education system rather than competition, as is currently taught.
Moderator Julie Etchingham reminded the leaders of Rebecca’s initial question: “If you’re elected, what will you do to make my generation feel optimistic about our future?”
Cameron answered this by bigging up Britain’s clout in the world, during which he was interrupted by a shout from the audience. “They’re not listening to us”, said a nameless woman. The excitement was brief, and the debate quickly returned to ITV’s strict formal format.
The leaders were then each given an opportunity to give a final message to the electorate. Sturgeon, Wood, Bennett and Farage all positioned themselves as the alternative: “You don’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils”, said Bennett while Farage said: “If you want things to be shaken up, you need to put more UKIP MPs in Westminster.”
Clegg’s closing statement was about stability and balance, avoiding lurching one way or another in terms of cuts and spending. Miliband repeated his “if I’m Prime Minister” mantra, presenting Labour again as the working people’s party.
Cameron was given the closing line: “Let’s stick to the plan that’s working,” he said. Viewers appear to disagree: at first glance of the polls, the SNP seem to have come off best, gaining 1200 new followers in 2 hours.