Ten depressing things about the seven-leader election debate last night
From the viewpoint of a committed Labour party supporter, here are ten things about last night’s television debate that depressed me:
1. The commentariat treated it as a beauty contest, with numerous polls declaring winners, losers and rankings (all mutually inconsistent and therefore meaningless) instead of an opportunity to assess the competence, values and personalities of the seven party leaders. Virtually every newspaper declared a clear victory for the leader of the party supported by that newspaper, a wretched commentary on the objectivity of our organs of information. (I make no pretence of objectivity on this blog, of course. I offer opinion, rarely information.)
2. Ed Miliband did extremely well for Labour, making several devastating points, but he was easily outclassed by the three women leaders – Natalie Bennett (Greens), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) and especially Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), who all spoke the language of real people instead of the speak-your-weight machine auto-pilot clichés reeled off by all the men: Nick Clegg (LibDem), the worst; Nigel Farage (UKIP), the most shameless; David Cameron, who had most obviously learned his coaches’ scripts off by heart, and to a much lesser extent Ed Miliband himself.
3. Miliband inexplicably failed to nail the lie, repeatedly thrown at him by Cameron and most viciously by Clegg, that the Labour government had “crashed the economy” and caused “the mess that the coalition inherited.” This was a golden opportunity to confront Cameron with the reality that the crash was caused by the international bankers, the Tories’ friends. It was left to Bennett and Wood to make this elementary but crucial point.
4. Miliband committed a tactical error in repeating his apology for New Labour’s “failure adequately to regulate the banks” (although he did confront Cameron with the Tories’ record of complaining that the banks were being over-regulated!). This is like the police accepting the blame for a burglary because they didn’t have enough bobbies on the beat in the relevant street. It appears to validate the unscrupulous but effective Tory and LibDem attribution of blame for the global banking crash and recession to the then Labour government.
5. Similarly, it was and is a serious tactical error for Labour to accept any blame for Labour governments’ “failure to control” (i.e. reduce) immigration, another issue on which Miliband unnecessarily apologised last night. Labour should instead explain the economic and social benefits of immigration, stressing the absence of reputable evidence that immigration depresses native workers’ wages, and pointing out the benefit to Britons of freedom to live and work anywhere in the EU. The shortages of housing and of school and hospital places associated with areas of high immigration are failures of government planning and provision, not a justification for limiting immigration.
6. Clegg repeatedly asserted the need for the next government to “finish the job” of “balancing the books”, eliminating the deficit and continuing the economic recovery – with the clear implication that if, or when, there’s another hung parliament after 7 May, the LibDems will again throw in their lot with the Tories, probably (depending on the arithmetic) condemning us to five more years of Cameron, Osborne and Duncan Smith and the completion of the wreckage of the welfare state, and opening the door to Brexit. That at any rate sounds like Clegg’s intention: will the LibDem rank and file allow him to commit another such betrayal? Is that what Tim Farron and Vince Cable want?
7. It was left to the three splendid women to attack the whole philosophy of austerity, insisting that further cuts would hinder the recovery and increase the already intolerable burden on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Aggregate demand needs to be revived, not further squeezed. Miliband’s insistence that a Labour government would have to make further cuts in public spending to balance the books and eliminate the deficit, just doing these things ‘more fairly’ than the Tories, encouraged the false impression that there’s not much to choose between him and Cameron.
8. How refreshing if Miliband had explained that borrowing is needed for essential investment in our decaying and inadequate infrastructure, that borrowing by government is no worse than taking out a mortgage to buy a house or borrowing to expand or modernise a factory, that the level of the national debt is perfectly manageable, indeed rather low by historical standards, and that while interest rates are so incredibly low it makes excellent sense to increase government borrowing for capital spending. Alas, it was left to two of the women to make this basic point. (Clegg actually demonstrated his level of economic expertise by denouncing Labour policy for planning to “borrow money that they haven’t got”, one of the evening’s few gems. Or did I mis-hear him? I don’t think so.)
9. Labour really ought not to encourage the Tory obsession with the budget deficit. It makes good sense to run a deficit while the economy is still in slow and unbalanced recovery from recession. There are much more serious problems that need to be more urgently addressed, such as the deplorably low level of productivity and the potentially disastrous external trade deficit.
10. How depressing that according to several opinion polls, Farage’s disgraceful performance was rated a success on a par with that of Miliband and Sturgeon, along with Bennett and Wood, the true successes of the event. Farage was consistently xenophobic, cheaply populist, anti-Europe, bad-mouthing immigrants and HIV sufferers, appealing to the worst and most ignorant national prejudices. It was left to Leanne Wood to tell him he should be ashamed of himself. Cameron’s sole complaint was that UKIP risked a Labour election victory by taking votes from the Tories. If only!