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It’s a question that has troubled this writer ever since it ended and the reactions started coming in.
The spin doctors and the hacks in the right-wing press claimed victory for the parties they support – of course. That’s why the front pages of The Sun and the Daily Torygraph proclaimed victory for David Cameron. They had been prepared before the debate had even finished because those rags were always going to make that claim.
A significant number came out in support of Nigel Farage – the UKIP party faithful and those who believed his anti-immigration, anti-Europe spiel. Of course, they might have felt differently, had they known he only plans to reduce immigration by around 28,000 a year, but it’s easy to deceive someone who doesn’t want to know the facts.
There seemed to be a swell of support for the three female leaders. A knee-jerk reaction might be to suggest that this was simply because they weren’t men; this writer does not subscribe to that view. It is far more likely that people warmed to Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and especially Nicola Sturgeon because this was their first mass exposure to the British viewing (and voting) public. They head the so-called ‘minority’ parties and are often excluded from the national conversation by reason of their size.
Not only that, but they had a message that people wanted to hear: No More Austerity. It was pleasantly surprising to see all three pounding the message home against a defensive David Cameron – and it is in this context that we should measure the public’s reaction to them. This blog has stated previously that the larger parties cannot hope to gain popular support if they are offering only what they want, rather than what the people want. Now the people have found organisations that are offering what they want. This Writer feared that they would take votes from Labour, rather than the Conservatives; now that outcome seems less likely.
Nicola Sturgeon, in particular, is to be congratulated for her performance which has eased, somewhat, This Writer’s concerns about her party gaining influence in Westminster. She came across very well and seemed to be offering an olive branch to Ed Miliband in her opening statement, which included support for at least three Labour policies. However, there remains the question of how far she may be trusted; she repeated the lie that Labour had voted to support £30 billion of Tory austerity cuts when Labour did nothing of the sort (Miliband put her straight but the accusation always receives more attention than the rebuttal). And what of the rumour that the SNP is planning a Unilateral Declaration of Independence for Scotland – whether the majority of its people want it or not – after the election?
That leaves the three ‘main’ parties. Nick Clegg was a joke. Nobody agreed with Nick this time.
David Cameron also lost traction. He did manage to crowbar into the debate the messages this blog reported yesterday but nobody seemed impressed by them; Ed Miliband debunked the claims about Labour pretty sharpish and the public wanted to believe the ladies when it came to the economy. He scraped the bottom of the barrel several times – yet again quoting Liam Byrne’s ill-advised note about there being no money in 2010 as the reason austerity cuts had to happen (in fact, the UK was never in danger of bankruptcy but Cameron likes to make that claim, even though he knows better); and once more using his late son Ivan as his ‘human shield’ against attacks about the state of the NHS. The audience didn’t groan, but the country did. Asked where the £12 billion of ‘welfare’ cuts would be made, he again refused to answer, meaning the Tories are planning something extremely unpleasant for you, if they win. And – amazingly – he thinks ‘Free’ (in fact they are exorbitantly expensive) schools are a good idea!
That leaves Ed Miliband. whose confident, fact-filled performance ensured he won the ‘snap’ poll conducted online immediately after the debate – if only by a whisker. He had plans; he described them. He apologised for the mistakes Labour has previously acknowledged; he didn’t apologise for the party’s current plans. He stared down Cameron when the Tory leader tried to accuse him of financial irresponsibility, and he had the country on his side when he did so, because Cameron’s party has doubled the national debt and failed to balance the books while inflicting a huge human cost on their fellow citizens. His narrow victory this week followed a narrow defeat last week, meaning his stature amongst the public is growing. People are starting to like this man. The more he mentions what he would do “if I am Prime Minister”, the easier it is for them to see him in that role.
So we return to the question at the top of this piece: What did people want from this debate?
Judging from the reactions as they developed, it seems people wanted something fresh and new-looking, that corresponded with their own desire – not just for an end to the oppression of the last five years, but for a reversal of it.
That’s all very well, but those aren’t the qualities that are needed to run a country successfully. A national leader needs a cool head and the stamina to see long-term matters to their conclusion, for the sake of the whole nation.
The evidence on display yesterday suggests that Ed Miliband has what it takes. Slow and steady may win the race after all.
But will the public be too dazzled by the others to realise this?
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