Nicola Sturgeon won Thursday’s seven-way Leaders’ Debate.
The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader won the debate comfortably in the eyes of the Election Debates’ judging panel by engaging and challenging her opponents and by broadening her appeal beyond Scotland.
Election Debates’ judge Colm Flynn said that Ms Sturgeon was “the strongest in the open discussions as she did not rely on scripted answers and instead engaged with what the others had been saying.”
The SNP leader also challenged the prevailing economic strategy of both major parties. In her adjudication Mai Mokhsein noted that “in what was a three-way pack of Sturgeon-Miliband-Cameron carrying the most persuasive material of the debate, Sturgeon stood out by challenging base assumptions of Cameron and Miliband’s case for austerity by refusing to cut spending whilst the two men battled out the means of implementing austerity.”
The SNP leader’s stark alternative went unchallenged, with Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband so focussed on each other that they ignored Ms Sturgeon’s position. That was a tactical mistake from the major party leaders. In doing so they allowed her to broaden the SNP appeal beyond Scotland; as an alternative to the Lib-Dems.
Indeed, throughout the debate Lib-Dem leader Mr Clegg seemed compromised: wanting to be the outsider and reprise his 2010 hope and change message (same yellow tie too?) while at the same time defending his party’s role as junior Coalition partner.
Ms Sturgeon was able to “lead” the left-wing opposition in the debate. Election Debates’ Nick Bibby said that the “tag team” approach taken by Ms Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett (Greens) and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cmyru) worked better for the SNP leader who was confident and clear throughout the 120 minutes. On the other hand, Ms Wood was effective but parochial, while Ms Bennett simply failed to grasp the debate and advance the Green agenda.
Two of three judges gave second place to Mr Cameron. Colm Flynn felt that Mr Cameron edged Mr Miliband on the basis of his manner, appearing more statesman-like, mature and control. Mai Mokhsein disagreed, preferring the Labour leaders “impassioned and inspired” style.
Nick Bibby thought that Mr Cameron had a strategic advantage, locking Mr Miliband out of the debate. Mr Miliband, the alternative Prime Minister failed to offer a compelling vision for a Labour Government.
Mr Cameron’s constant attacks on Labour debt worked too: Mr Miliband failed to defend properly the previous Labour Government, instead rolling over on most challenges. It made his claims about balancing the budget difficult to accept and enhanced Mr Cameron’s message that he was the one to make the difficult calls.
In the world of populist politics, Mr Farage’s sound bites work. His repetitious attacks on the EU and immigration would please the spin doctors, but he showed no ability to make his arguments relevant to the questions put. Colm Flynn noted how his tenuous linking of immigration and the NHS was easily countered by the other speakers. Staying relevant is an important part of debating.
He did possess a clarity and confidence though, and he must have particularly enjoyed Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband towing his immigration line. But he wasn’t there to engage as much as he was there to spin his lines and he failed to respond to Ms Sturgeon, who repudiated him by arguing that immigration was a net financial benefit for Britain. That’s a big failure given the UKIPs claims about the costs of immigration and the narrowness of its agenda.
In the end it was a good win for Ms Sturgeon and competent performance from Mr Cameron. But it wasn’t such good news for Mr Miliband, whose animated style failed to dispel doubts and offer a compelling Labour vision for Britain. Beyond this leading three-way pack, Mr Farage and Ms Wood underlined their sectional appeal while Ms Bennett failed to advance the Green’s agenda.