March 30, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
After all the bluff and bluster, this was the start of the election campaign proper. Expectations were low, given the format. David Cameron had refused to debate head to head with Ed Miliband so we had this rather convoluted way of going about things. Cameron was to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman first, then questions were thrown over to the audience for Cameron to answer. Miliband, having won the coin toss on this, got to go second, which was notionally an advantage, given that he could address his answers to what Cameron had already said, which to him would be the next best thing to a debate, with the added advantage that Cameron would have no way to rebut what Miliband then said.
I had applied to be in the audience. Not that I thought there was a good chance to be selected, but so I could understand how the audience were selected. The questions asked were partly demographic (age, ethnicity, where you live, occupation etc), and the you could put in your voting intention at the next election, along with how you voted at the last election. You could then submit one question to Cameron and one to Miliband. They asked you to categorise your question, with the aim obviously of trying to make the system as fair as possible in terms of what got asked, and by whom, and who was in the audience. These systems don’t always appear to work over the television, as the seemingly clearly overwhelming pro-Yes presence at the Scottish debates showed (although much of that can be down to the respective passions of the two sides in that debate). One could argue that the fact that Ed Miliband was the only leader who received applause for his answers suggests the same had happened here. But, as I’ll explain, there is a pretty simple reason for that.
As Jeremy Paxman reminded us, the two men were the only two men in the country who could possibly be Prime Minister in the next few months. Even though we don’t have a Presidential system in this country, our vote can lead to one or the other being Prime Minister, and so for those who had only heard about each of them but not seen them really answer questions for a long time in the flesh, the interviews were useful. Far more useful for Ed Miliband though, as Cameron had expected. It is he who, as the smoke cleared over the weekend, has made the most positive steps from the programme.
Cameron, as the incumbent, had to be naturally defensive. He was defending a record for five years. On the one hand, he had some very good macroeconomic figures he could use, what with decent growth happening at the same time as inflation is non-existent and unemployment is falling. On the other hand, as Miliband could point out, there have been some losers during this period of growth. Cameron was at his weakest when trying to defend the growth of food banks and zero hours contracts. He was also weak when trying to explain how he would achieve the extra £12 billion cuts in welfare, without seeming to want to go into specifics. He was at his strongest when bringing everything back to the economy, as he tried to do with every single question.
As expected, Miliband was much weaker on the economy, because he is up against a government that has done pretty well on it. But also because he still can’t bring himself to admit that the country went into the global recession with a deficit after 11 years of economic growth. It happened because they had spent a lot of money, which they had to do to fix public services after 18 years of Conservative underinvestment, but he is not even brave enough to admit that. Therefore, the feeling that we are giving the keys back to the driver who drove our economic car into the ditch, and he hasn’t been on any driver improvement courses, still remains.
But, and it is a very important but. Miliband gave a VERY good account of himself as a person, he deflected all of the questions on his image very well, saying he doesn’t care and neither should the electorate, and he addressed the questions about his brother by saying that the party couldn’t move on politically from New Labour if David had won and he felt it was important for the party to do so. Yes, I still can’t get the image out of my head of a helicopter arriving at the White House during a time of global crisis and Ed Miliband coming down the steps to represent the UK. But others will feel more comfortable with that now as they have seen him perform well under a great deal of pressure on the programme, particularly under questioning from Paxman. The polls over the weekend have shown that, with quite a few people saying that they might change their vote to a labour, and his personal deficit against Cameron on leadership falling.
If only he could come up with some sensible policies now!