The UK Seven-Party Election Debate

With just one month left before the British general election, the election campaign is now in full swing. On April 2, the parties competing for seats in England, Wales, and Scotland held a landmark debate featuring all seven major parties from the three nations. The debate, the highlights of which can be viewed here, was two hours long and centered around four questions on the economy and government spending, the National Health Service, immigration and Britain’s role in the European Union, and finally issues facing young people. The seven national party leaders participated in the debate; Prime Minister David Cameron for the Conservatives, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party of England and Wales, Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party, and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru. There were worries that the format of the debate with that many parties would become unwieldy, however the result turned out much better than expected with all candidates receiving time ample time to speak on each issue as well as rebut others’ arguments.

The debate did not start well for David Cameron or the incumbent government parties. Cameron and Nick Clegg started bickering almost in their opening statements, and Labour, the SNP, the Greens, and Plaid were all keen to join in the Liberal Democrats in their criticisms of the Conservatives and Cameron’s policies over the past five years. This is reflected in the two opening statements by the respective party leaders. Cameron sought to take sole credit for the British economic recovery from the Great Recession touting the austerity policies by the coalition government. On the other hand, Clegg tried to distance the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives, stating that his party still seeks to strike a balance between the Conservatives on the right and Labour on the left. Throughout the debate the fact that they were arguing was pointed out, most notably by Nicola Sturgeon in the beginning of the debate and Ed Miliband near the end. Miliband’s comment that “I think they’re both blaming each other and they’re both right,” resonated well late in the debate with the other opposition leaders and the audience.

As an American, one of the most striking things about watching the debate was the relative agreement between all parties regarding the National Health Service. Coming from a political situation where the slightest increase in government oversight of the health insurance industry is met with cries of socialism, it was interesting to see the debate boil down to being between how much to increase funding for the NHS and where to prioritize improving care. Even Nigel Farage reiterated his support for the NHS and opposition to privatization of the country’s healthcare system. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett went so far as to warn that privatization was causing the NHS to “race toward the American healthcare system.” In terms of priorities, the major difference between the Conservative and Labour policies appeared to be Cameron’s focus on increasing the number of doctors and nurses employed by the NHS, while Miliband wanted to concentrate on reducing patient waiting times. Miliband lauded the success of the previous Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in reducing waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks. Cameron felt a robust economy was necessary in order to keep the NHS successful, somewhat trying to deflect the blame and question elsewhere. Sturgeon attacked the two coalition partners as privatizing the NHS, which Clegg denied.

One of the most controversial comments from the NHS question came from Nigel Farage. Farage claimed that 60% of those with HIV using the National Health Service in the UK were not born in the country. The comment plays very much into the anti-immigration sentiment that runs through the core of UKIP policy, and was a deeply disturbing look at how much Farage and UKIP want to cut benefits from immigrants to the United Kingdom and at Farage’s view toward immigrants. Leanne Wood was the first to jump on Farage, chastising the UKIP leader that he ought to be ashamed of himself for the comment. Wood’s retort earned her applause from the audience in one of the few times the Welsh leader stood out during the debate. .Natalie Bennett continued to attack Farage while supporting immigrants, stating that Britain should be thinking of immigrants as fellow human beings. This was only the start of Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration comments during the debate. He also placed partial blame on the European Union and that Britain’s participation in the European Union allowed an “open door to ten former Communist countries.” Why Farage felt the need to specify that the Eastern European countries such as Poland (whose nationals comprise a large portion of immigration to the UK) were Communist can only be inferred, but yet again the other leaders rightfully called Farage out for his nativist stance. Nick Clegg pointed out Farage’s French ancestry as well as that both he and Farage are married to foreigners. Even so, Farage’s derisory comments toward immigrants and the European Union will likely play well with the more rural homogenous areas of the United Kingdom where UKIP has already gained significant support. And Farage’s policies and beliefs aside, he is a better speaker than I expected.

Once the debate concluded, four different snap polls had been taken on who had one the debate. The results were decisively inconclusive. Four different polls were taken, and each gave widely differing results. The ICM poll showed Ed Miliband ahead with 25% declaring him the victor, narrowly beating Prime Minister Cameron at 24%. The ComRes poll showed a three-way tie between Miliband, Cameron, and Farage at 21% with Sturgeon at a close second with 20%. The Survation poll had Cameron and Miliband tied at 25% with Farage on their heels at 24%. Lastly, the Yougov poll showed Sturgeon taking a commanding victory from the debate at 28%, with Farage a distant second with 20%.

In my opinion, the victors of the debate were Nicola Sturgeon and Ed Miliband. Sturgeon was strong, forceful, and confident throughout the debate and not afraid to engage the other party leaders directly. She also reiterated that while one of the main goals of the SNP was Scottish independence, she was willing to work within the current Westminster system to achieve what is best for Scotland. Ed Miliband also conducted himself well, and I caught a slight attempt at imitating Bill Clinton with his hand gestures and a mention of the failure of trickle-down economics in his closing statement. Cameron seemed content to stay largely in the background during the debate. It could be a good play for him to stay out of the fray as the incumbent PM while the opposition parties attack each other, but it could also be seen as acting cowardly. The most unfortunate participant in the debate was Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. While I agreed with many of her policy statements, Wood’s lack of debating skill was evident throughout and it was clear she was not at the caliber of the other party leaders. It remains to be seen whether her narrow focus on Wales, rather than Sturgeon’s attempt to reach out to a UK-wide audience, will be successful in giving Plaid a boost in Wales.

Overall, the debate format, even with the seven party leaders participating, worked out much better than I expected and was a good cursory look at each of the leaders. However, the polls after the debate show that it did not have much of an effect on the voting preferences of most British voters. With three weeks left in the campaign, there isn’t likely to be any significant change so the parties will be fighting for any shred of increase in voter share, especially if it means increasing their leverage in coalition negotiations. The next UK-wide debate will be an opposition debate on April 16. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will sit it out, so the participating leaders will be Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett, and Leanne Wood.

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