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16 April 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 6:14am

Five things we learned from the TV election challengers’ debate

It was everyone but David Cameron and Nick Clegg on the BBC's "challengers' debate" panel. Here's what it revealed.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Go abroad or go home

It was a gamble for Ed Miliband to appear in this debate. He was vulnerable to his left-wing opponents and was the only “establishment” candidate on the stage. But this format benefited Miliband when it came to foreign policy. As the only one who could feasibly become prime minister, he sounded the most statesmanlike, level-headed and informed when discussing Trident, the threat from Islamic State and the situation in Ukraine.

Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, making the very reasonable point that using Trident against IS would be useless, asked him “if you were prime minister, would you press the button?”, giving him the boost of being imagined as prime minister. Miliband also managed to mention the Iraq War and get away with it, something that revealed the second-rate reactions of his rivals (who should have jumped on such a controversial topic in Labour’s history).

Standing up for migrants

Natalie Bennett put in a steady, if rather muted, performance tonight. Considering her party has some of the most exciting and wacky left-wing policies that she could have boasted in such a lefty line-up, she didn’t make the most of it. But on immigration, she came to life. She gave her personal story of coming to the UK as an immigrant and deciding to become a British citizen and concluded: “I want to celebrate the contribution of migrants and I believe we all need to be doing that.”

She also condemned Farage for wanting to “utterly demonise those migrants”. A strong, passionate stance we sadly don’t hear from Miliband, who clearly feels it’s politically expedient to boast that he has “changed Labour’s approach on immigration” by proposing to delay migrants’ benefits and generally pander to those who think we need a so-called tougher stance.

Austerity is an easy target, easily missed

When Leanne Wood began the debate with her opening statement, she mentioned the “austerity myth” in her first breath. This is what I thought would define the debate, and would allow the three anti-austerity representatives – Wood, Bennett, and Nicola Sturgeon – to hammer Miliband for taking on a programme of spending cuts. But in spite of some half-hearted references to Labour as “Tory-lite”, the case against austerity was rather meekly made.

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From the right, Nigel Farage tried to draw Miliband into talking about Labour’s spending cuts. The only word the Labour leader managed to get in edgeways was cutting the winter fuel allowance for well-off pensioners ­– left-wing points to Labour!

When from the left, Sturgeon attempted to lure Miliband in to a conversation about austerity – “Where is the axe going to fall?.. by how much?” he managed not to fall into the trap, consistently repeating his mantra of “balance and fairness”. He even managed to get away with saying, “We’re not in principle opposed to Right to Buy” – in reference to a Tory manifesto pledge to extend Thatcher’s policy.

It’s worth noting that the most articulate candidate by far on an alternative to austerity was Wood. The others, it seemed to me, were too stuck in a rut of politicking to remember why they were against spending cuts in the first place, whereas Wood reminded us calmly and positively of the basic point that government spending can be seen as “investment in the future”.

Boohookip

What was striking about Farage tonight is how negative Ukip’s message is. Without all the buoyant excitement the party displayed last year when it was predicting double figures of MPs and mass-defections, their angle on British politics is really rather defeatist and sad.

After a long debate about the first questioner, a young woman called Charlotte, and her fear that too much spending would put her generation into debt, Farage concluded that she would inevitably end up having to pick up the tab for whichever party gets into power (other than Ukip). He also pointed out, during the Trident segment, that “I very much doubt that we would be capable of defending ourselves” in a war today.

As well as this, Farage was negative about the debate itself, insulting the studio audience and causing a stern Dimbleby intervention when he dismissed the audience as being “left-wing” and said “the real audience is sitting at home”.

As we’ve learnt from Miliband’s gloominess this parliament, before he perked up towards the end, negativity is not a good look.

Rammies and stooshies ahead

The end of the debate seemed to melt into Labour/SNP negotiations. But if they were, they were frosty ones. During a question about a hung parliament – Ed Miliband chuckled his way through this one saying “Let me just explain briefly why I want an overall majority” – Sturgeon urged Miliband to join forces “to lock David Cameron out of Downing Street”.

She repeatedly asserted “I can help Labour be bolder” and received whistles and cheers from the audience when she concluded “that cannot be your position, Ed?” when suggesting Labour would let the Tories back in. But Miliband played it extremely cool. To the point of anger. “I’ve got fundamental disagreements with you Nicola… we’re very different, we’ve got very different views… It’s a no, I’m afraid,” he said, before pointing out that he’d been “fighting the Tories all my life” in contrast to the SNP doing deals with the Conservatives in Holyrood.

Although the narrative ahead of a hung parliament so far has been that Miliband will rely on being propped up by the SNP, the dynamic seemed to change here. It looked as if Sturgeon needed Miliband more than he needed her ­­– and even if that’s an unrealistic scenario for Labour come the election result, it is a stronger way for the party to position itself. Particularly following countless attacks from the Tories about “dancing to Alex Salmond’s tune”. Oh, and talking of the Tories – Cameron was criticised I think by every candidate for failing to turn up. And seeing how Farage, as the only right-winger there, was losing out, it was clearly a wise decision for the PM to stay out of it.

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