Donald Macintyre's Election TV Debate Sketch: A confusing night with the Magniloquent Seven


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Indy Politics

You had to hope it wasn’t an ITV ad booker’s joke to run a commercial for “” in the break. Because there was quite a lot for the viewer to be puzzled about. Seven party leaders attacking each other from whole different political directions is hardly what we’re used to.

And at least some viewers in England must have wondered why so much air time was being given to two parties they couldn’t vote for. And what was striking was that a kind of alliance between the three women changed the tone – perhaps even of British politics – and steered the debate in a somewhat more leftward direction.

In the Borgen model – which is the only one British TV viewers have to go on for this seven-headed debate – the Prime Minister either breaks entirely out of the politician-speak model and wins the people’s hearts – or crashes and burns, depending what episode you’re watching. Here, nobody did either. Natalie Bennett didn’t brain fade; on the contrary, she had some crisp soundbites – like the main parties presenting a choice between “austerity and austerity light”; and she boldly – if not necessarily popularly – called for overseas aid actually to be increased.

This was a folksier Ed Miliband, staring directly in the camera, moving determinedly in on the viewer’s living room with lots of “I want you at home to think…. You at home will have to decide.” Most rivetingly folksy of all, he used the line on David Cameron made famous by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 TV debate with Jimmy Carter: “there you go again”, adding: “you can’t talk about the present, you can’t talk about the future, so you talk about the past.”


But what’s striking is how some of the lines that go down a treat in the House of Commons don’t quite work in the TV studio. Cameron’s reference to Labour weaponising the NHS fell curiously flat, with Miliband actually responding by saying electors should “use your votes as a weapon” about the NHS.

And despite Cameron’s highly personal – and, to judge by the BBC worm, pretty convincing – pledge of support for the NHS, Miliband was passionate back: “You’ve failed the British people... they believed you... it’s gone back on your watch.” At moments like this you couldn’t help thinking that Cameron, though never less than competent, had been right by his own lights to ensure this debate did not come later in the campaign. Miliband seemed more comparatively effective with Cameron than he often does in the Commons.

One of Cameron’s lines on Farage of being a “back door to a Labour government” will obviously resonate. But possibly because he’s under pressure – and at times he rather looked it – Farage was at the more primitive end of his spectrum, raising, for example, his latest spectre of foreign Aids patients costing the taxpayer £25,000 a year. Farage’s basic pitch was “that they all agree with each other” And on the whole they did as far as Farage himself was concerned, by spending as much time as possible not engaging with him at all, so much so that Natalie Bennett was the only one who really took him on over the fairly negligible drain on the NHS caused by health tourism.

It wasn’t, on the whole, that dramatic – the heckling of Cameron by a woman deeply concerned about the homeless the unruliest moment, the Farage attack on public school politicians the most personal. Nick Clegg, though among the easiest in style, was caught between wanting to attack the Tories and having been in coalition with the for the past five years. It was a crazy combination  – Scottish and Welsh Nationalists but no one from Northern  Ireland. Yet all of that said, it worked.