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The party leaders' TV debate: a lot of spin but not much argument

by Simon Basketter

The media went into overdrive over the party leaders’ first televised debate. There were many inanities, including Liberal MP Chris Huhne being asked if the debate was shallow, responding with “Yes it’s shallow but less shallow than what went before.” And ex-Labour MP Oona King offering, 'The problem with television is that it's very televisual'.

But nearly ten million people tuned in. Many were hoping to hear a genuine discussion of issues, not to watch stiff overly made up men who speak. In. A. Stilted. Purposeful. Way.

First, David Cameron came across as an aloof aristocrat with few ideas. So perhaps the camera doesn’t lie after all. Gordon Brown didn’t throw a Nokia at anyone, and held his own, and Nick Clegg won mostly because he wasn’t either of the others.

But the consensus in favour of neoliberalism and in favour of cuts (but not mentioning them much) was depressing.

On the expenses scandal they were all cross at corrupt MPs, which is nice. But none of them were too keen to look at their own party’s corruption and links to the rich.

On the health service the line was more or less, “I love the NHS you love the NHS. Cut the NHS? Oh no it is about patient choice.”

Clegg attacked both Labour and the Conservatives for suggesting that it was possible to go on increasing spending on health. They all agreed the need for full-time carers to get more respite care with Brown managing, “There are six million carers in this country. I’ve met many of them.”

They also agreed that they needed to agree on funding long-term care of the elderly.

The consensus was perhaps most annoying on immigration. Cameron has been to places where poor people live and has even met “a black man” who was against immigration. “I want us to bring immigration down so it’s in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands,” said Cameron looking to the ceiling so to further look down his nose at the rest of us.

Brown boasted that immigration had been falling since he moved into 10 Downing Street. Clegg said immigrants had to be lined up with jobs in a region before being allowed in. Clegg did manage to remember to say that there were some nice immigrants.

The most animated attack on Cameron from Brown was when he accused the Tories of wanting less coppers. And so it went on.

On defence Cameron said, troops in Afghanistan did not have enough helicopters. Brown said that the issue was that the Taliban had changed tack, so demand for helicopters went up. Clegg criticised both the others for committing to replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system. Which probably did him some good. Shame he went on to say, that he was for replacing most of Trident and wanted any money saved spent on troops.

That Clegg “won” the debate, was in part because he said a couple of things which were very marginally to the left of the others on some issues. And because there is a genuine need for something “new”.

What was missing was an alternative. The staid format meant that unlike even BBC television's Question Time the no challenge could come from the audience.

Imagine if someone had been able to challenge the leaders throughout, to argue that the crucial thing is to stop scapegoating immigrants. To lay the blame squarely with the bankers and the bosses. To say cuts aren’t needed and to fully oppose Trident and war.

Now that would have led to a real debate.


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Fri 16 Apr 2010, 15:17 BST
Issue No. 2197
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