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2 April 2015

7 things we learned from the seven-way TV election debate

Ed Miliband erred in taking part in the challengers' debate, Nigel Farage is a one-trick pony, Nicola Sturgeon is a classy operator - and Leanne Wood isn't.

By Stephen Bush

Miliband erred in signing up for the challengers’ debates

Just one more of these for David Cameron and Nick Clegg, but two more for Ed Miliband, who will join Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett in the opposition leaders’ debate on 16 March. Miliband held his own tonight and did creditably in the polls, but was outclassed by Wood, Bennett and Sturgeon on immigration and outbid by Nigel Farage on anti-establishment bonhomie. The four anti-system parties set their fire on the three “old parties” pretty equally. Miliband’s solo encounter with the outsiders could end badly for him. 

Nigel Farage loses… and wins

Caroline Flint dubbed David Cameron the “invisible man” but it was Nigel Farage who went missing for much of the exchanges.. Farage, who has enjoyed so much success with his one-size-fits-all approach to politics (Austerity? Stuck in traffic? The NHS in trouble? Blame immigration) looked out of his depth throughout the debate. A “one-club golfer” was the verdict of Sam Gyimah, the Conservative standard-bearer in East Surrey. But while Farage was the public’s choice for the worst performer in the debates, he also topped the poll as the winner. How? The Ukip leader has maximised his appeal with one section of the population with his obsessive focus on immigration while alienating the rest. That may well be enough for Ukip to pick up four to six MPs in May. 

Labour is careening towards a European exit

Ed Miliband promised to reform Europe so it works for Britain, particularly on immigration. But it’s not wholly clear what that means. Labour’s headline policy – of restricting benefits to those who have been in the country for two years and paying national insurance – would bring Britain into line with much of the continent. But it wouldn’t do a thing to reduce immigration, and wouldn’t have prevented the increase in migration that Miliband now says was one of the last Labour government’s mistakes.

Like Cameron in 2010, Miliband is making promises that cannot be kept while Britain is in the European Union. The Out campaign may use that against him and the pro-Europeans in the In-Out referendum, which will surely come whenever a Tory is next in Number 10.

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Plaid Cymru need a change at the top…

Leanne Wood had some bright spots – she got the first round of applause for her attack on Nigel Farage’s scaremongering on immigrants and HIV – but her contribution was limited. Her opening contribution felt closer to a hostage video than a call to arms. Her flat performances are hurting her party – which looks no closer to becoming the second party in Wales, let alone challenging Welsh Labour’s position in the Senedd – and without a better leader, they’ll remain also-rans. 

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…and so do the Greens

It wasn’t Natalie Bennett’s worst performance on television. Her speechwriter deserves a raise and she was better briefed than in those car crash interviews with Nick Ferrari and Andrew Neil. But her performance lacked passion – Labour strategists will be relieved that it will be Bennett, not Caroline Lucas, who represents the Greens in that challengers’ debate on 16 April.

Nicola Sturgeon is a classy performer

Nicola Sturgeon topped the polls after a polished performance. She looked like what she is – an incredibly capable politician leading a party on the brink of a landslide in not one but two elections. But as Ukip’s Paul Nuttall noted on Sky News afterwards, English voters can’t vote for Sturgeon, so who benefits? Natalie Bennett’s “I agree with Nicola” routine was clearly done with an eye to English voters who were won over by Sturgeon’s performance. But it could be that those Conservative posters depicting Ed Miliband in the pocket of the SNP are now an asset, rather than a hindrance, for Labour in England and Wales. 

Nick Clegg doesn’t understand what’s happened to him

A penny for Jeremy Browne’s thoughts? After Nick Clegg went missing from the Autumn Statement last year, the outspoken Orange Book MP warned that the Liberal Democrats “should not run away from the record, because we will not get the credit and continue to get the blame”. “It’s important,” he added, “that we are unambiguously associated with the government we are part of”. Clegg obviously disagrees, and spent most of the two-hour debate imitating the hit song It Wasn’t Me. In one bizarre turn he claimed he’d done “the next best thing” to scrapping tuition fees – tripling them. 

I hate to say it, but there is little future for the Liberal Democrats scrapping around for the votes of New Statesman readers. But there may well be a rich one as the party of centre-right economic values and social liberalism, for younger voters turned off by the anti-immigration and anti-modernity tone that still besets the Conservatives. But it looks like that won’t happen under Nick Clegg, even if he does survive in Sheffield Hallam.