Labour leader Ed Miliband emerged as the ‘winner’ of tonight’s opposition leaders’ debate, after an evening of intense sparring in which David Cameron’s absence was repeatedly criticised.
The post-debate poll showed that 35% of those surveyed thought Miliband had performed best, with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon coming in second at 31% and UKIP’s Nigel Farage following closely at 27%. The Green Party’s Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood lagged some way behind, at 5% and 2% respectively.
The five-way debate saw the leaders of the opposition parties answer questions on austerity, housing, defence, immigration and post-election deals.
The incomplete lineup made for a more left-leaning debate than usual, with Nigel Farage the only right-wing voice on the panel. Cameron’s decision not to attend was a potentially costly one as the opposition leaders were able to freely criticise the coalition’s record in government as well as future Tory proposals. The Prime Minister had refused a second leader’s debate, and Nick Clegg was also excluded after the BBC decided to turn the event into a ‘challengers’ debate.
With anti-austerity central to the policies of most of the parties on stage, the evening kicked off with young audience member Charlotte Dennis asking whether it was fair to propose more government spending when future generations will be left to pay the debt. Sturgeon called the SNP’s plan to take longer to eliminate the deficit “a price worth paying” whilst Miliband described Labour’s proposal “a balanced plan and a fair plan”, prompting the first of several Sturgeon/Miliband spats.
The SNP leader claimed Ed Miliband’s economic proposals are just “Tory lite”, claiming “there’s not enough difference” between the two leaders.
As the only pro-austerity party, Farage called Miliband’s proposed cuts “peanuts”.
“You’re going to be paying for this lot for a very long time to come,” he said. The UKIP leader then managed to insult the audience for being too left wing, “even by the standards of the BBC”, prompting Chair David Dimbleby to jump to the corporation’s defence. “The real audience is sitting at home,” Farage insisted.
The debate rumbled on to a question about the lack of affordable social housing, and a chance for the opposition leaders to really hurl some mud at recently announced Tory proposals for right-to-buy. Both Sturgeon and Wood described the idea as “one of the worst” they’d ever heard, with Wood suggesting it would increase levels of homelessness.
On a question about Trident, Miliband and Farage – who both said they would renew the nuclear deterrent – were again outnumbered by calls to abolish weapons of mass destruction from Bennett, Sturgeon and Wood. “Trident doesn’t make me feel any safer,” said Bennett, whilst Wood challenged Miliband on whether he would “press the button” and what kind of deterrent trident offered against threats like ISIS.
Moving to Nigel Farage’s favourite topic, the leaders were asked about their plans to deal with the strain on public services caused by immigration.
Bennett said she fundamentally disagreed with the question, as an immigrant who had decided to become a British citizen. Sturgeon suggested that the debate about immigration amongst the main parties had been too influenced by UKIP, whilst Farage repeated his call for an Australian points style system.
Wood argued “our public services would collapse if we stopped immigration tomorrow”, what with one in four doctors being foreign born. The atmosphere heated up considerably as the topic moved onto Labour’s record on NHS funding and PFI debts, prompting Dimbleby to divert the debate away from the shouting match and onto the final question.
This was the one that had been on the tip of everyone’s tongue: what kind of deal would they be prepared to enter into in the event of a hung parliament?
Once again, Sturgeon challenged Miliband to take up her offer of an alliance to keep Cameron out of government. Miliband quickly knocked Sturgeon back, saying “I’ve got fundamental differences with you Nicola. It’s a no.” The rebuff led Sturgeon to give Miliband a stark warning: “You have a chance to get Cameron out of Downing Street. Don’t turn your back on it – people will never forgive you.”
Though ruling out a formal coalition, Miliband dodged questions about working with the SNP on a more informal basis, leaving room for post-election negotiations.
Wood called for the progressive parties on the stage “to work together” but said she would not prop up a Labour government “hell bent on Tory policies” – a sentiment echoed by Bennett.
The debate ended with closing statements from each of the leaders, with Miliband challenging Cameron to a one-on-one. “Debate me, and let the people decide,” he said, staring straight into the camera.
With post-debate polls suggesting that Miliband could now be the nation’s preferred choice for Prime Minister, Cameron may well be wishing he hadn’t chosen to stay at home tonight.