“Work with us to keep the Tories out of government!”
“If we work together, we can lock Cameron out of Number 10.”
“We have a chance to kick David Cameron out of Downing Street. Don’t turn your back on it, people will never forgive you…”
To watch the leaders of Labour, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Green Party plead with the audience – and each other – at last night’s BBC Election “Challengers” Debate, you would think that Britain faced the awful prospect of some fascist or totalitarian party seizing power on 8 May this year, thus requiring all decent people to put aside their differences and band together in solidarity against a visceral, urgent threat to our way of life.
But the hideous spectre conjured by Ed Miliband, Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and Natalie Bennett is not a latter-day Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin – or even a contemporary African tin-pot dictator. No, we are asked to believe that the mortal threat to Britain and her people comes in the pale, patrician form of David Cameron – who has already held the top job for five years without successfully summoning the apocalypse – perhaps propped up by the equally unthreatening Nigel Farage (Nigel being just the type of fearsome name that strikes terror into the heart of even the bravest soul).
The British left is used to preaching to the choir and percolating in its own intellectual laziness, having long ago purged from the bubble anyone who doesn’t reflexively Hate the Tories and abhor right-wing ideas. But today we witnessed Britain’s four left wing party leaders construct and imprison themselves in a bubble of their own making, right on the stage at Westminster Central Hall.
From the BBC’s account of the debate:
During the 90-minute programme the Labour leader faced repeated calls from Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood to reject austerity and form a “progressive” alliance with their parties and the Greens to keep the Conservatives out of government.
The two nationalist leaders and Ms Bennett said they would not prop up a Conservative government.
Ms Sturgeon claimed Mr Miliband was “so scared to be bold” that he was “not even doing the right thing by the NHS”, telling the audience that “if Labour won’t be bold enough on its own, I think people should vote for parties that will hold Labour to account and make them bolder”.
At times, the UKIP leader seemed uncomfortable in his role as sole champion of the centre-right, struggling to gain traction against the arrayed forces of the far-to-centre-left.
Much is now being made of the fact that Nigel Farage called out the clearly unbalanced weighting of the live audience (raucous cheers for anything redistributionist, but stony, sullen silence at the slightest mention of personal responsibility or smaller government) – a fact that the BBC’s David Dimbleby, apparently eager to focus on process over substance, was eager to rebut at length, eating into Farage’s time.
From the Telegraph’s review:
During the debate, between the Leaders of Labour, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru as well as Ukip, Mr Farage was attacked by the other participants and then booed and jeered as he sought to blame pressure on the housing market on immigration.
“There just seems to be a total lack of comprehension on this panel and indeed this audience, which is a remarkable audience even by the left-wing standards of the BBC,” he said. “I mean this lot is pretty left-wing, believe me.”
Mr Miliband told him it was “never a good idea to attack the audience,” as presenter David Dimbleby insisted the group was independent.
Calling the audience “left-wing, Mr Farage added: “the real audience is sitting at home”.
In a depressing way, Ed Miliband was right – the Labour Party leader would certainly never risk alienating the audience by telling them difficult political truths. Though he is getting better at feigning seriousness by dropping his voice a few pitches and beginning every sentence with the patronising word “Look…”, when push comes to shove Miliband would probably follow the audience even if they all lit torches and marched en masse to burn down CCHQ, flattering them and promising them free perks from the state every step of the way.
But as it happened, it was Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood who again mounted the surprise left-wing attack of the evening. From Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet’s misty-eyed review in the Guardian:
Calm, though occasionally slightly hesitant, Wood spoke with great feeling, underlining Plaid’s commitment to a post-austerity Wales, her passionate belief in the importance of the welfare state, and her obvious disdain for the divisive anti-immigration politics of Farage, or “her friend on the far right”, as she scathingly put it (I cheered).
“You abuse immigrants and those with HIV and then complain Ukip is being abused,” she told him, with fire in her voice. Like Sturgeon, she pointedly failed to shake his hand before walking off stage.
It was clear before the debate even began that whatever the four smaller party leaders might do to gang up on Ed Miliband, the real story would be the four-against-one anti-UKIP coalition which slowly formed, and finally culminated in warm hugs and self-congratulatory applause as the credits rolled.
Indeed, prior to the debate, even Ed Miliband’s traditional left-wing antagonists like Dan Hodges were baying for him to rip chunks out of the UKIP leader in a bid to shore up his left flank, as though this would demonstrate Miliband’s swaggering virility:
Labour supporters are hungry for Miliband to take Farage on, especially after Leanne Wood bravely confronted him over his policy on HIV sufferers. But Miliband is cautious of alienating potential Ukip switchers. Included amongst the “happy warrior” notes he left in the studio after the previous leader’s debate was the lukewarm put down “I’m not going to call him [Farage] a racist but I am going to call him ridiculous”.
No. What’s really brave is walking into a hostile room where the majority of people despise you and everything you stand for, and still daring to suggest that if we are to have a national health service, it should perhaps be run for the benefit of the citizens of the country who have paid into that system with their taxes, and not for the benefit of non-citizens and health tourists.
Was it necessary to use the example of HIV sufferers, whose plight both Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell strongly empathised with during (or in Carswell’s case, afterwards on Question Time) last night’s debate? Perhaps not – indeed, Farage himself reflected that it might have been less controversial, though also less effective, to use the example of tuberculosis. But the point stands, even if it was inartfully made.
It’s very easy to walk into a receptive room of people and sound compassionate by making extravagant promises to spend other people’s money – any old fool can do that. It’s much harder to walk into a hostile room, knowing that it is unlikely your viewpoint will be given a remotely fair hearing, and still dare to speak your mind, telling people difficult truths.
Over half of British citizens currently receive more in benefits from the state than they contribute in taxes. Promising to tax the other 48% even more to stop that 52% from colliding with reality is the political path of least resistance, eagerly trodden by Ed Miliband, Leanne Wood, Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon. Agree with him or not, Nigel Farage has more political courage in his little finger than all of them put together.
When will this anti-Tory, anti-conservative hyperbole end? Probably never – for as long as there are well-meaning but uncritical people eager to flaunt their humanitarian credentials by spending other peoples’ money without putting in much effort of their own, there will be left-wing politicians lining up to whip them into a frenzy of righteous indignation.
But we may, at long last, be reaching a point where anti-conservative hysteria and scaremongering ceases to pay such huge political dividends, or win elections quite so handily. After all, the British love an underdog and the sight of one man being treated like a political piñata by an alliance of left-wing zealots will have stirred some sympathies, even among those not normally receptive to the Conservative or UKIP message.
This can only be a good thing. The British left is not without good ideas and admirable qualities, but these are frequently tarnished or overshadowed by the ugly enviousness and uncritical sanctimony that too often take the place of reasoned argument and respectful disagreement.
In the penultimate debate of the 2015 general election campaign, the British people sat and watched the unedifying spectacle of Britain’s left-wing party leaders jostling with each other for the coveted title of Most Anti-Tory Zealot, while being only too happy to malign the character and motivations of anyone whose political compass leans even slightly to the centre or centre-right.
But conservatives are human beings, too. Many of them are just as concerned with the plight of the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged as their fellow citizens on the political left – though their proposed solutions and vision of the model society are radically different. Their failure to jump on board the Labour, Plaid Cymru, Green or Scottish National Party bandwagons is a case of simple, honest political disagreement – not shocking evidence of selfishness or moral turpitude.
For all the shrill rhetoric about UKIP scapegoating immigrants or the Evil Tories hounding the destitute, there is indeed an increasingly intolerant group of Britons, convinced beyond all reasoning of the righteousness of their cause and only too quick to despise and malign the “other”.
You’ll find them proudly voting against “Blukip” on May 7.
I’d just like to say that the 10-15% you keep quoting is wishful thinking……approaching 40 is possibly nearer the truth…(based on actual recent elections and online polls by partisan newspapers)
tactical voting is pointless this time around, practise it and be disappointed or Vote for common sense.
If UKIP gain a massive popular vote but few seats…at least it’s a hammer to bang on the door of Proportional Representation.
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Someone pointed to this blog from the Spectator, and I thank them. Impressive commentary. But the tragedy is that Cameron was allowed to engineer this farce and force us to swallow it. If he expects his core vote to return from UKIP, he will be disappointed.
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Many thanks for taking the time to read, I hope you’ll come back to read more commentary as the general election campaign unfolds.
I think you’re right – the evidence certainly suggests that once a Conservative voter defects, they are highly unlikely to return to the Tory fold. And why should they, when the leadership of the Conservative Party is stubbornly pro-European and seem desperate to jettison any small government policies in their scramble for the centre ground?
UKIP’s polling does seem to be receding from the heights of autumn 2014, but my personal hope is that they will win some of their main target seats and come second in enough other constituencies to position themselves well for the next general election. I no longer trust the Conservative Party to follow conservative principles, so I now look to UKIP as a permanent force in British politics, a bulwark against the bland left-of-centrism of all the other parties.
Such was Farage’s reception by the studio audience in the debate that if he’d said the every five year old was to be given a fluffy kitten he’d have been booed.
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You’re not wrong! If Nigel Farage had been giving out kittens at Westminster Central Hall last night during the BBC debate, Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon would have accused him of discriminating against adorable puppies and abusing dolphins…
Many thanks, Sam, for a very well written piece and I think you’ve summed this up perfectly. I did find the self-congratulatory tone of this feisty TV ritual (shall we call it a smug-fest?) at times rather difficult to behold (and that’s putting it mildly); if any two pictures could cristalise the whole spirit of the occasion it would have to be the two snapshots chosen by you. Very well done, my best regards
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I think you hit the nail on the head – there was a very self-congratulatory air to the whole event, with Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett flaunting their supposed “compassion” (paid for with other people’s money) and strongly implying that anyone who leans toward the Conservatives or UKIP is somehow morally defective.
To me, British politics is rapidly becoming an unappetising choice between Fifty Shades of Red (Ed Miliband and his disciples in Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Green Party) or what I recently called “Coke Zero Conservatism”, the wishy-washy, half-hearted adherence to small government pursued by David Cameron:
Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, it’s much appreciated.
…oh unbelievable, I just typed out 4 whole paragraphs of what was (I thought) an extremely eloquent reply, but they have just been eaten by the computer!
One thing I will say is that the BBC is constantly accused of left-wing bias by the right, and of establishment bias by the left. It is, by its very nature as a state-funded institution, inevitably guilty of both. Have we still not got past this, 93 years after its founding?
It is also highly unlikely that the audience were carefully pre-selected for their antipathy to Nigel Farage’s views, so perhaps it is worth considering that there might be other reasons why they seemed not to like him – such as the fact that his party still only represent about 10% of the electorate. As always, the problem with democracy is that other people vote…
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I hate those computer gremlins! Thanks for persevering and replying anyway!
I think you make a very fair point about the BBC, and I’ve never been one of those people to rant about the “Biased Broadcasting Corporation”. I think the quality of their political output is mostly puerile and childish, but not part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. So I hope that the thrust of my piece didn’t suggest I was obsessing over that.
It was more the fact that it felt to me (as someone who leans – fine, tilts significantly! – to the right) like a rather unseemly spectacle by the end, the way the four other party leaders repeated the same tropes about the Evil Tories and bickered together about how best to keep Cameron out of Downing Street. Less about why people should vote for them, but more about the best way for voters to screw the Conservatives.
You’re right that UKIP represent only about 10-15% of the electorate, though enough people are clearly comfortable enough with UKIP policies that they propelled Nigel Farage to victory in the European elections in 2014. But UKIP’s policies on tax, government spending, Europe and the size of the state are also attractive to many Conservatives, and yet the response from the audience to Farage was so incredibly muted.
I don’t think this was because the BBC stacked the audience, but I do think (and can testify from personal experience) that there is a chilling effect in many places and social situations where people are hesitant to admit that they hold even fairly mainstream centre-right opinions, so successful have been the attempts to paint the Conservatives and UKIP not just as wrong, but as dangerous and extreme. Maybe it happens sometimes with left wing opinions too, but I have never seen or heard of it.
I think that’s what we really saw last night – a powerful form of groupthink seize the room, where the composition of the debate panel led to the expression of so much left-wing orthodoxy and confirmation bias that the other side became hesitant to make themselves heard.