Saturday, 4 April 2015

Seven leaders in search of a vote

There was something a little frantic about Thursday’s seven way debate between the leaders of the parties contesting the general election. The television coverage trailed the event for much of the day with an endless parade of talking heads speculating on what might be said and how each leader could be expected to react, none of which effectively hid the elephant in the room, that the format had been messed around with so much the whole event was a risk of being a damp squib.

Matters weren’t improved by the style of the coverage; the BBC corralled a herd of commentators in its ‘spin room’ with little to do apart from state the obvious. There was also the presence of the ‘worm’, a squiggly line running along the bottom of the screen that was supposed to track the response to what was being said of fifty undecided voters equipped with key pads. In practice it proved to be little more than a distraction adding nothing of use to proceedings.

The main event got under way with the leaders each giving a short personal statement, Natalie Bennett drew the short straw of going first and made a strong start that refuted some of the snide comments made in the media about the possibility of her experiencing another embarrassing ‘brain fade.’ Her main focus was on the need to create a fairer society and a style of politics that does not trade on fear and division.

Nigel Farage (Ukip) was oddly subdued and looked sweaty as if he had wandered on stage straight from the bar, given the obvious lack of preparation he showed during the debate proper that may have indeed been the case.

Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) emphasised his awareness of the mistakes his party had made as partners in the coalition over the past five years, it was probably not such a good idea to remind voters of these and his comic apology of a few years ago that went viral for all the wrong reasons. He also attacked the Tories for their austerity policies, not a safe wicket for him to bat on since one of Chancellor Osborne’s sidekicks is a Liberal Democrat.

Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) proved to be no great orator, rather exuding a quiet competence and authority and positioning her party as still working for Scottish independence and working to make politics in Britain as a whole work for ordinary people.

David Cameron (Conservative) was as smooth as ever; this sort of event is his natural environment, which makes it all the more surprising how hard he tried to derail the whole thing. He stressed the success of his government in turning the economy round and getting more people into work, true up to a point, but how many of those people are able to make ends meet?

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) the least known of the seven even to political anoraks proved to be a good speaker and positioned her party like the Greens as an alternative to yet more cuts and the tired status quo of Westminster politics.

Ed Milliband (Labour) attacked the government for five years of austerity, the proliferation of food banks and tax breaks for bankers. On the podium he is a better speaker, far more confident than when at the despatch box, the trouble is he finds the rough and tumble of debate a bit much.

Once the preliminaries were over the gloves could come off and the debate proper could get started. In the opening exchanges Nick Clegg made a lot of flappy hand movements that suggested a nervous awareness there wasn’t going to be an outbreak of Cleggmania this time round. Leanne Wood proved to be a confident speaker with a strong grasp of detail; Nigel Farage by contrast looked out of his depth, making a lot of noise about what his party is against but saying little about what they would do instead, apart, of course, from getting out of Europe.

Asked about the economy Natalie Bennett talked about austerity as an ‘assault’ on the services depended on by millions of people and called for more spending and borrowing to invest in services. This line would also be taken by Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood, suggesting a possible alliance between the smaller parties that could make future coalition negotiations interesting in a month or so.

Caught in a three way spat on the economy both Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband sounded shrill, with the latter evoking memories of his regular poor showings at PMQ’s. David Cameron was smoothness personified, completely unruffled as he worked the line that for all the pain it had caused austerity had worked and more austerity would go on working; no really it would.

Later in the debate Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon both made spirited defences of the NHS, this looked pleasantly authentic compared to the obviously rehearsed lines about ‘tough choices’ recited with varying degrees of conviction my Clegg, Cameron and Milliband, suggesting that whatever they say what they’ll almost certainly do is sanction more cuts and covert privatisations.

At the end of two hours it was possible to identify clear who had come out of the debate well if not to name an outright winner.

Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood had all done an effective job of introducing their parties to a wider audience and proving to be eloquent spokespeople for an alternative to the tired routines of political business.

The debate was, at best, a score draw for Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg, although neither made the sort of mess of things that could derail a whole campaign, but little of what they said was memorable. Nigel Farage proved to be a huge disappointment, his ‘man of the people’ shtick might come over on the doorstep in decayed seaside towns, but in a forma political debate he looks and sounds like a bar room bore flailing around out of his depth.

David Cameron, the participant with most to lose, emerged from the debate without anyone having laid a glove on him, even if you don’t agree with what he says, and I don’t, you have to admit he has a talent for this sort of thing.

The real importance of the debate though in the way it allowed the, not so, minor parties to reach a wider audience and demonstrate that if two party politics is in its death throes then something more positive and collaborative might be about to take its place

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