Last night, the leaders of the two main political parties made their case before a live studio audience.
Broadcast by Sky News and Channel 4, Ed Miliband and David Cameron were grilled on their policies and personal capabilities by Jeremy Paxman in the run up to the May 7 election. Questions were also put to the PM candidates by members of the electorate from a range of backgrounds.
Didn’t get a chance to hear the leaders stake their claim to Number 10? Take a look at our Redbrick Digest:
Up first on the programme was the current Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party. The first question Paxman put to the leader was whether he was aware of the number of foodbanks currently operating in the UK. When Paxman pressed the point that the use of foodbanks had increased significantly under the current government, Cameron responded that this could be interpreted positively; the increased access to foodbanks had come as a result of increased referrals within workplaces. Moving on from this, Paxman challenged Cameron on whether he felt he could live on a Zero Hours contract. Without responding directly to this proposal, the Tory leader praised the flexibility of Zero Hours work (particularly for students), as well as stating that his government had changed legislation so that people would not be tied to an exclusive contract with zero hours. Regarding employment, Cameron emphasised that 1.89 million new jobs were created under the current government and that he would like to see a rise in the minimum wage above £8 an hour.
Not put off by a string of positive-sounding claims, Paxman put it to the Prime Minister that the current government has borrowed more than the last Labour government. Cameron responded that his administration had succeeded in cutting the budget deficit in half. The Conservative leader was less direct on his plans for making savings in the next government. Although asked several times, Cameron did not disclose details of where he would make savings in government spending if elected for a second term, but claimed that the Tories would save £1 in every £100 of government spending if re-elected. When asked how he would save £12 billion in welfare cuts, the only policy firmly stated was the pledge to freeze unemployment benefit for two years. By contrast, Ed Miliband later named at least three areas where he would make cuts.
Moving on, Paxman reminded Cameron that his government had come nowhere near meeting immigration targets of ‘tens of thousands’. Accepting this, the Prime Minister reasoned that people had been attracted to the UK by job creation.
Paxman pushed the Tory leader on his foreign policy. The former international reporter challenged Cameron on his promise to stand by the Libyan people after the deposition of Colonel Gaddafi. The Conservative leader replied that his government had put in political assistance in Libya. Turning to the discussion of Europe, Cameron was critical of its financial and structural organisation, noting that his government had opted out of the obligation to bail out the Euro. He reaffirmed his pledge for an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017.
When asked if he was prepared to introduce a cabinet minister for the elderly, Cameron replied that he would ‘think about it’, but hoped that his whole cabinet would be making policy with the needs of the older people in mind.
The audience asked the Conservative leader once more on his plans for government spending cuts, to which he replied that ‘difficult decisions’ would be necessary. Apart from citing that NHS spending would increase every year, Cameron did not specify how he planned to further cut the budget deficit.
Fielding a question on reversing police cutbacks, Cameron refused to accept an assertion from a Lincolnshire police chief that his department was ‘on the brink of collapse’. The PM responded that crime was down by 20% overall in the UK.
Another audience member noted that despite a Tory manifesto pledge of no top-down NHS reorganisation, she had been involved in legal battles to fight the closure of an A&E in her community. Another question probed the leader for his plans to help disabled people get into work, with a further querying whether Cameron would like to NHS services privatised. On this final point, Cameron praised the work of cancer care charities and stated his desire for great health care providers.
The first question from the audience asks why Miliband is ‘so gloomy’. Laughing it off, the Labour leader agrees with David Cameron’s response to the Zero Hour contract question, stating that both he and the PM couldn’t live on one. Next, an audience member asks Miliband if he thinks that his brother would have done a ‘better job’ as he was ‘better qualified and better positioned’. Again, Miliband laughs the question off before answering that he believed then and believes now that he is ‘the better man for the job’. Asked by host Kay Burley if he regretted creating such divisions within his family, the Labour leader said that ‘it’s hard’. He went on to say that the leadership contest was ‘bruising’ for both he and his brother but then goes on to say that the relationship between the two is healing. He ends his response by stating that he feels ‘deeply’ about politics.
Miliband was asked about his opinion on David Cameron. Despite acknowledging that in ‘politics it is hard’, he did praise the PM for his commitment to foreign aid and his decision to go against some members of his party over gay marriage legislation. The Labour leader accepted that his party had ‘got it wrong’ about his party’s bank regulation policy in the past.
Following the Q&A session, Jeremy Paxman began the interview session by asking Miliband if he believed Britain was ‘full’ and criticising Labour’s record on immigration. Miliband agreed that Labour had previously ‘got it wrong’ on immigration but thinks that Britain does ‘benefit from our diversity’ although ‘proper controls’ are needed. Refusing to allow Paxman to interrupt him, the Labour leader went on to say that a Labour government would not allow immigrants to receive benefits for the first two years of their stay. Paxman pushed Miliband to give an ‘acceptable’ number for immigration, but the Labour leader said he wasn’t going to get into ‘hypotheticals’.
Miliband was then questioned on where ‘New Labour went wrong’. In frank response, Miliband said that under New Labour the inequality gap got wider and lots of people were ‘left behind’.
Paxman then questioned him on Scotland and Alex Salmond. Asked if he would consider moving Trident from Scotland and if he’d consider ‘reversing’ HS2 to Scotland, the Labour leader emphatically disagreed, saying that he isn’t going to ‘get in a bargaining game with Alex Salmond’. Paxman disagreed with this, reasoning that the Labour leader must bargain with the SNP leader if he wants ‘any chance of forming a government’. Miliband responded by telling Paxman not to be so ‘presumptuous’ and that it is up to the British public to decide the election, which was met with applause from the audience. A disbelieving Paxman then asks Miliband if he seriously believes that he can get a majority, to which the Labour leader says ‘absolutely’.
Paxman tells the leader that many people think he isn’t ‘tough enough’. An indignant Miliband responds by recounting a meeting with David Cameron and Nick Clegg where he refused both them and US President Barack Obama by not accepting plans to back military intervention into Syria. Miliband goes on to state his belief that ‘standing up to the leader of the free world shows a certain toughness’. He says that whilst he is not proud of what has happened in Syria since, he is not going to repeat the mistakes of 2003 and the Iraq war and enter into a conflict without ‘strategy’. Miliband goes back to the question of toughness and says he is ‘not a pacifist’ but ‘hell yeah is I am tough enough’.
Paxman continued asking questions of the Labour leader’s character by stating that some people refer to Miliband as a ‘North London geek’. The broadcaster further added that when assessing Miliband’s candidacy some people say ‘what a shame it’s not his brother’. Exasperated, the Labour leader said that he ‘doesn’t look at it in that way’ and that ‘a certain toughness in this job’ is necessary. He tells Paxman of how people have ‘thrown everything at him’ but he is a ‘pretty resilient guy’. He then went on to warn people against ‘underestimating him at every turn’. He ends by saying that he doesn’t care what the newspapers say and that he ‘cares about what is happening to the British people in their lives’ and that he can ‘change it’. That, Milibands announces, is why he should be the next Prime Minister.