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Leaders’ Debate: What We Learned

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By Josh Dimond

On Thursday night, ITV broadcast a less than thrilling ‘debate’ between the seven main party leaders. Hosted by Anne Robinson look-a-like Julie Etchingham, dressed like she had just come from performing dentistry, the debate was billed as the first chance to see what each party had to offer. The participants included David Cameron (Conservative), Ed Miliband (Labour), Nick Clegg (Lib-Dems), Natalie Bennett (Green), Nigel Farage (UKIP), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru).

Within the first minutes it was clear why Cameron was reluctant to do the debates, as he, like most of the others, appeared nervous and uncomfortable. Hard-hitting questions on issues such as tax-avoidance, food banks, climate change, party donors etc. would all increase the levels of perspiration on the stage. However, the leaders were spared any blushes as the questioning was tame. Focusing on the same topics, which for some reason seems to be the continuous rhetoric of our societies woes, the leaders were questioned on the deficit, the NHS and immigration. The pre-selected questions had no doubt been fed to the leaders’ before the debate. Although, given that they have answered these questions hundreds of times before, not much preparation would have been needed.

So, what did we learn?

Not much really in truth. The ‘debate’ lacked any real passion and felt more like an extended party political broadcast. Each party spin-doctor, who no doubt recognised this was a beauty contest rather than a serious scrutiny, had prepped their leader accordingly. Cameron and Clegg took the approach of addressing the studio audience and repeating the name of the questioner in their answers. While Miliband decided to look straight down the camera, uttering the phrase ‘people at home’ in all his replies. Farage continued to be the joke, playing his regular ‘man of the people’ guise. His answer to each question was ‘blame it on immigrants’. In one controversial moment, Farage stated that the NHS was being strained by the number of foreign immigrants with HIV.

Bennett and Wood were the more rational and moral voices in the debate, attacking the Conservative and Labour approach towards austerity. However, it was the performance of SNP leader Sturgeon, who was a particular highlight. Sturgeon articulated all her points excellently and came across as a thoroughly likeable and trustworthy character.

Who won?

Unsurprisingly, the right-wing press headlines stated that Miliband was the loser in the debate, with Cameron and Farage coming out on top.

Averages taken from the four polls after the debate concluded that Miliband and Cameron were joint winners on 22%, Farage second on 21%, Sturgeon third on 20%, Clegg fourth on 9%, while Bennett and Wood trailed last on 4% and 3% respectively. I must have been watching a different debate, as Farage certainly didn’t deserve to be second, while Bennett and Wood’s performances should have earned them higher ratings.

An analysis of twitter traffic during the debate offered a different view. It concluded that Sturgeon was the clear winner, with Wood and Bennett in second and third. Cameron was bottom and Farage came second last.

This data is not representative of everyone who watched the debate and overall there was no clear winner on the night. Etchingham kept a tight leash on proceedings, halting the leaders’ in their tracks when it seemed they were building momentum into an impassioned speech. The one moment of the debate when a woman from the audience heckled Cameron, jerked the collective concentration of the nation in an otherwise unexciting night.

Overall, the debate was a waste of time. It was a popularity contest bogged down in political speak and any undecided voter can be excused for still being none the wiser. Here’s hoping the next debate will be more worthwhile.

Josh Dimond is a third year history student. Twitter profile: @Diff89

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