Britain's leadership debates should be opened up to involve the minor parties, even at the cost of giving more publicity to the far-right, Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, said last night.
At a packed Independent Live event within the dramatic setting of Brighton's Royal Pavilion, Ms Lucas said that parties should be forced to "deal with the causes" of any rise in support for parties such as the BNP, "rather than closing down democracy". She said the boom in support for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats following his strong performance at last week's debate demonstrated that all parties should be given a fair airing.
During a lively debate which saw candidates take questions from voters in the Brighton Pavilion seat, representatives from the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Green parties were quizzed on Afghanistan, the economy, voting reform and Britain's nuclear weapons programme. They were also confronted about whether or not they knew what it was like to live on the minimum wage. However, the effects of the first British leaders' debate were still the main talking point of the evening.
"Nick did do really well, but he wasn't that different from the others," Ms Lucas said. "If 90 minutes can catapult someone 13 points in the polls, it ought to be shared a bit more equally." The Greens have targeted Brighton Pavilion as the seat most likely to give them their first ever Westminster MP, with Ms Lucas, who is already an MEP, contesting the constituency. Britain remains the only major European nation never to have returned a Green Party candidate to its main legislature.
Charlotte Vere, a businesswoman who is contesting the seat for the Tories, was the only candidate to oppose lowering the voting age to 16 when responding to a question from the audience. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Bernadette Millam, revealed that her priority if elected would be to fight for improved care for the elderly. She said that the leaders' debate had allowed her party to "introduce Nick Clegg to the country".
Ms Lucas said that the Trident nuclear weapons programme "should be scrapped" immediately. "Replacing Trident is all about double standards," she said. "We would have a better chance of other countries giving up weapons if we did not replace it." When asked if they had any experience on living on the minimum wage, Ms Millam said she was currently surviving on benefits and had worked as a cleaner in the past to put food on the table for her children. Ms Lucas said her party had pledged to fight for a "living wage" of £8 an hour.
Ms Veer was questioned on the voting record of Tory MEPs, who have been accused of opposing equal rights legislation. She was also asked to defend David Cameron's decision to take his party out of the main centre-right group in Europe and to ally with more right-wing parties instead. "We absolutely do not believe that Europe should be involved in social policy in individual countries," she said. "We have the most radical manifesto that the Conservatives have ever had. We want to embrace climate-change and social policies."
The Brighton seat is currently held by Labour, but its 5,500 majority is well within striking distance of its rivals. Recent polls suggest the seat is a genuine three-way marginal, with the Tories, Labour and the Greens all in with a chance of winning the seat. Past polling earlier in the year suggested that the Greens had a lead in the constituency, though the increase in support nationally for the Liberal Democrats, who had been a distant fourth, may have dented what was an eight-point lead at one stage for Ms Lucas' party.