Friday, 17 April 2015

British election: the second leaders' debate

In this latest post on the British election I will write about the most recent leader debate, televised last night. This was again dominated by the format. Because of the complex negotiations over these debates neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg were present. Instead, it was a debate amongst the ‘opposition leaders’: Natalie Bennett, Nigel Farage, Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood (see previous post for party affiliations). This made for some odd dynamics. All were opposed to the absent leaders, and could freely attack them, although interestingly only Cameron was attacked; Clegg was not even mentioned. Within the five, one could configure the alliances as the four on the left versus Farage; the three women versus the two men; Farage and Miliband as the only pro-nuclear arms leaders versus the rest; Miliband as the ‘mainstream’ leftist versus Bennett, Sturgeon and Wood; Miliband as the only potential Prime Minister versus the rest; and many other permutations.
The prime axis of debate and the dynamic of most interest was between Miliband and Sturgeon as the increasingly likely pairing to form the next government. Both had a difficult task. Sturgeon had to show electors in Scotland that they can still avoid a Conservative government even if they don’t voter Labour, and that there is a deal to be done with Labour if they do, but that it won’t involve too much compromise. Miliband had the even harder job of trying to appeal to left-wing Scottish voters without frightening floating English voters; and frightening the Scottish voters into thinking that he won’t do a deal with the SNP whilst leaving open the door to such a deal given that it is probably the only way he can become Prime Minister. The consequences of the Scottish independence referendum, which I wrote about at the time, are still evolving in complex ways.
One consequence of this is that whereas many people, including me, though that the main issue to watch in this election would be how UKIP fared in fact that is beginning to look like a sideshow. There is no UKIP surge in the polls, if anything a slight falling off, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that they will win many seats or will have a role in the post-election negotiations. In the debate, Farage made little impact and was consistently outgunned, especially by Wood, Sturgeon and Bennett. And he made one enormous, but revealing, error when he attacked the audience as being left-wing and reflecting what UKIP regard as BBC bias. In fact, as David Dimbleby, the chair of the debate, immediately pointed out, the audience had been selected on a proportional basis by an independent organization, not the BBC.
Apart from being a tactical error, this reflected two other important features of UKIP. One is their propensity for paranoia and victimhood, fed by their belief that they speak for a ‘silent majority’ and its collision with the fact that, as the opinion polls suggest, they only speak for something like 10-15% of the population. The other is more interesting and hasn’t been picked up in the media discussion about the debates. It is that UKIP have made big play of their claim to speak for, and be supported by, the traditional Old Labour Left. They are to some extent right in that, which is not surprising because there has always been an element of the Old Left that is nationalistic and anti-immigrant. But if that is their pitch, then attacking the audience on the basis that it was left-wing seems contradictory. Either you are beyond such distinctions or you’re not.
For me, as in the previous debate, Nicola Sturgeon was the most impressive performer. She has a clarity that the others lack, and seems at once on top of the facts and figures of political debate but also human and empathetic. Farage seemed out of his depth and uncomfortable, and although he will surely have appealed to his core supporters, as he would come what may, he didn’t make the break out from that group that he would have wanted to. He seemed isolated and marginal. Leanne Wood again stuck mainly to her Welsh credentials, which was surely sensible tactics. She has done well in these debates, without dominating them. Bennett made lots of interesting points, and as in the last debate didn’t collapse in the way that her performances earlier in the campaign might have led people to expect. But the fact is that it is difficult for her to be the alternative voice when that ground is occupied so effectively by Sturgeon and, anyway, it is highly unlikely that the Greens will have many - or even any – seats in the next parliament. Miliband I thought was wooden. There has been much talk that he has been having media coaching and, if so, it shows. In a way he has become a better presenter, but at the expense of appearing synthetic. I also thought that he seemed uncomfortable when challenged from the left about being too close to the Tories because I suspect that, in his heart of hearts, he agrees. He has shifted Labour just a tiny fraction to the left of where New Labour was, but he dare not go further because (to be charitable) he knows that this would led to him being destroyed by the right-wing press, by sections of his own party, and losing votes in key English marginal seats.
Maybe the most interesting moments came right at the end, when the three left of centre women embraced, and then went to shake Miliband’s hand, whilst Farage stood alone, sweating and tired-looking, at – with an obvious symbolism - the far right of the podium. There was a sense here – if we leave aside the positioning of post-election negotiations – of a new kind of politics for the UK. For the first time in ages a confident Left, cautiously approaching a cautious Labour Party emerging from the shell of New Labour; an absent, patrician landlord in the form of the Conservatives; and a resentful, baffled split-off from the Conservatives in the form of UKIP standing alone, moaning about bias.
I should say that the polls on the debate disagree with me. The Mirror/Survation poll immediately after scored Miliband the winner, with 35% saying he had won, 31% saying Sturgeon, 27% Farage, 5% Bennett and 2% Wood. A CityAM study of the social media response ranked the participants in this order: Wood, Sturgeon, Bennett, Miliband, Farage. It’s worth saying that Survation polls routinely over-estimate UKIP support compared with other polls whilst CityAM, because of its London demographic, might likely to underestimate UKIP (I am not sure what methodology is used).
As for the election opinion polls, these continue to show Labour and Conservative neck and neck, and the probability is still that there will be a hung parliament. At that point things will get really interesting. My take at the moment is that there will be a minority Labour government supported by the SNP. Actually, there’s nothing controversial about that as a prediction, although if it happens it will surely lead to claims that it is somehow 'illegitimate'. But I also think that Miliband will be pleased with such a scenario, as it will enable him to pursue the agenda he wants and to sideline the New Labour elements. If this happens, then the Tories are likely to fall into crisis and shift to a strongly Eurosceptic stance, I would guess under the leadership of Liam Fox. This will neuter UKIP and make the main political faultline in the 2020 election one between Labour/SNP and Tories pursuing an EU Referendum. It’s crazy to look so far ahead of course but if Labour are smart they will hold a referendum themselves and would in all likelihood win it on a stay-in ticket. All pure speculation of course!

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