Ten things we learned from the leaders' debate

What we learnt about the three party leaders last night.

1. The format worked

The 90-minute debate was not the "slow and sluggish" affair that David Cameron feared it might be. The show felt less stilted and stage-managed than those in the US. It's likely that the debates will become a permanent fixture of every election from now on.

2. Brown is desperate to win over Clegg

Brown's constant love-bombing of the Lib Dem leader, "I agree with Nick", was perhaps the most significant feature of the night. As I predicted, aware that he would need Clegg's support in a hung parliament, Brown concentrated his fire on Cameron. But his attempt to sell himself as a born again constitutional reformer, after 13 years in government, failed to convince.

3. And Clegg is determined to resist

Clegg said almost nothing to challenge the perception that he is equidistant between the two main parties. He spent much of the night attacking the Labservatives and, for the most part, it worked. But it's worth noting that he was prepared to follow Brown in raising Ashcroft and that he launched a radical attack on Cameron over inheritance tax.

4. Brown can hold his own

The clunking fist didn't land the knock-out blow that some hoped for but there was no "car-crash moment". The instant reaction polls almost all put Brown a distant third but given how poor his personal ratings were to start with, that's probably no surprise. Brown seemed unusually relaxed and used the only memorable line of the night: "this is not question time, it's answer time, David."

5. Cameron could be vulnerable on foreign affairs

The Tory leader's bizarre decision to bracket China with Iran as a nuclear threat was the closest thing to a gaffe all night. As Jonathan Freedland points out, in a US debate, it would be seen as a sign that the challenger was not ready to be commander-in-chief. Brown and Clegg will be confident ahead of the Sky foreign affairs debate.

6. Brown can crack jokes (just)

The prime minister raised the only thing close to a laugh all night when he told Cameron: "you can't airbrush your policies, even if you can airbrush your posters." Given that the audience aren't allowed to do much apart from laugh, the importance of humour can't be overstated.

7. Cameron has decided to avoid personal attacks

For fear of being branded Mr Angry, Cameron eschewed the sort of personal attacks on Brown that one might have expected. As the frontrunner, his strategy was to appear calm, controlled and prime ministerial. After last night, I expect this strategy will be reviewed.

8. No one is prepared to make the positive case for immigration

Depressingly, all of the party leaders competed to see who could sound toughest on immigration. Brown and Clegg made only practical, rather than principled, objections to Cameron's plan to impose a cap.

9. Cameron is still detoxifying the Tories

Cameron's decision to begin his answer on health with a a peroration of love for the NHS proves that he's still detoxifying the Tories But Clegg soon showed him up when he pointed out: "it's easy to say we love the NHS".

10. Inequality is the great unspoken issue

The UK's vast income inequality has a negative impact on every policy issue mentioned last night. But not one of the party leaders chose to highlight it.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.