A night for the kingmakers and a sea-change for British politics
2015 General Election Commentary at QMUL Mile End Institute
From March until 7 May, the Mile End Institute will invite experts from QMUL and beyond to contribute ideas, analysis and commentary on the 2015 UK General Election. In this post, Paul Sims examines the role of the smaller parties following the 2015 leaders' debate.
3 April 2015
It was introduced by moderator Julie Etchingham as a “remarkable” event, and while it may not have quite lived up to that billing, Thursday’s ITV debate was certainly a first for British politics. Never before had the leaders of the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party and the UK Independence Party been given the chance to debate with their Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts, and in many ways they had David Cameron to thank for the opportunity.
Having dodged a one-on-one debate with Ed Miliband, the prime minister and his campaign team fought to have Thursday’s debate thrown open to a wide range of parties, having calculated (we assume) that doing so would minimise Miliband’s opportunities to tackle him directly.
With this in mind, it’s worth looking back on how the newcomers fared in Thursday’s debate. The most obvious point to make is that it looked like mission accomplished for Conservative HQ. With all of the leaders given what felt like equal space to make their contributions, there was little chance for Miliband to develop his case against Cameron, and few would argue that he succeeded in delivering anything that resembled a knockout blow. Meanwhile, the Labour leader had to face the arguments of the Greens’ Natalie Bennett, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, all of whom are determined to attack Labour on its left flank.
Given the first opportunity to make an opening statement, Natalie Bennett immediately positioned the Greens as the party of anti-austerity, and this message was echoed by the two nationalist parties. Plaid Cymru’s Wood declared that the last five years have seen “so much pain for so little gain”, while Sturgeon pointed out that investment in public services should take precedence over lowering the deficit.
While referencing the Coalition’s record over the last five years, Bennett, Wood and Sturgeon appeared more focused on attacking Labour’s support for austerity, and Cameron looked happy at times to stand back and watch the three of them gang up on his principal opponent.
Most interesting of all was the case presented by Sturgeon, who was widely regarded to have performed best on the night. Amid the ongoing speculation over a Labour / SNP deal, Sturgeon spoke directly to English voters, suggesting that the SNP would help secure public spending in the way it has done so in Scotland. The SNP supports the NHS in England, she declared, and the party will be “England’s ally in rolling back privatisation”. Sturgeon seemed to be saying to the English: look at the Nordic-style utopia we’re building in Scotland, we can help build one for you too. If you want Miliband to keep his promises, she said with reference to tuition fees, then you had better hope the SNP has enough MPs to keep him honest.
It was fascinating to hear the leader of the Scottish nationalists present herself as the potential saviour of the English, and it suggested the party has high hopes for playing a decisive role in the outcome on 7 May. The argument that the SNP can be Labour’s left-wing conscience is unlikely to do Miliband’s party any favours in Scotland, and it may have interesting implications in England. Perhaps some will like the idea of the SNP exporting its ideas south of the border, but others will surely be drawn to the Conservative portrayal of Miliband in the pocket of the nationalists.
All things considered, Thursday begins to look like a decent night for the prime minister. While Miliband had to contend with the rival left-wing arguments of the Greens and the nationalists, Cameron had to defend his right flank from Ukip, and all Nigel Farage really succeeded in doing was underlining his party’s single-issue obsession with immigration. Every national problem covered in the debate was portrayed by Farage as caused by migration and EU membership, while his unsavoury remark about foreign nationals accounting for 60 per cent of HIV diagnoses in Britain was certainly revealing. While Ukip will surely take some votes from the Conservatives next month, there was nothing in Farage’s debate performance to worry Cameron in the way Sturgeon’s will worry Miliband.
Arguably, Nick Clegg – despite a solid performance – was the real loser. He cannot credibly claim a place among the small-party outsiders, and nor can he compete as a prospective prime minister. The debate underlined the real difficulties that the Lib Dems will have in staking out a space of their own.
So, “remarkable” is probably an exaggeration, but the seven-way debate did underline some important themes around the election. The very presence of seven leaders shows how party politics has fragmented and, in terms of this debate, Cameron and his advisers were wise to use that to their advantage. Labour is threatened by three parties positioning themselves to its left, and in the debate studio that made for an easier night for the Conservatives. It may not help them on polling day, though. The stand out performer on Thursday was Nicola Sturgeon, and she could well come to play a decisive role in politics across Britain once the results begin to come in on 7 May.
Paul Sims is a PhD student at QMUL researching the development of environmental politics in inter-war and post-war Britain. He is co-convener of the Mile End Institute Postgraduate Forum.