2020 Vision: 2010s Election Debate Revisited
Daniel Priestley- Writer
Before “the first election debate” in 2010, party leader debates attached to a general election were unheard of in the UK. What now feels like a staple of general election season was then something new and exciting. In this debate we saw Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg take on a series of questions from an audience, attempting to pitch to the public why they are the right person to lead the country. This debate was also overshadowed by two big issues: the MPs expenses scandal and the 2008/9 economic recession.
The opening statements set the scene for the entire evening. Clegg comes out with a strong speech on moving away from the old ways of doing things, arguing that this time the country can do something different. Brown focuses on stressing fears of a double dip recession, fears of important services being cut and explains that Labour is in the strongest position to prevent both of these things. Finally, Cameron chooses to focus on the expenses scandal, arguing that politicians and Britain can do much better. He takes a more hopeful angle than Brown, arguing that we need to build a bigger society and that if we join together we can bring about strong change.
This was the last election in which I was not politically aware as I was only 10 at the time. The opening statements demonstrate a complete shift in narratives to how the Conservatives and Labour campaign today. For most of the debate, Cameron focuses on hope for the future, coming together, rather than leaning into the idea that the Conservatives are more fiscally responsible then Labour. At this moment in history, the Tories have been out of power for 13 years and they clearly are trying to demonstrate that they have changed from elections prior and can be the party of hope and prosperity. Meanwhile Brown is using fear tactics about the economy, which today is an argument used against Labour. The main reason for this shift is based on who is sitting in Downing Street at the time of the election, but it also speaks to a political landscape where party policy was, in a lot of ways, very similar.
The first question of the evening asked about immigration policy. Intrinsically tied to the European Union. This is an issue that moved heavily into the limelight in the years following this debate, with the rise of UKIP and eventually Brexit. Brown answers the question by focusing on the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals but argues against both the narrative that immigration is out of control and that an arbitrary cap is needed. Meanwhile Cameron explicitly states that immigration is too high and made a promise that would haunt the coalition government: immigration should come down to the tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. Finally Clegg argues there is good immigration and bad immigration, using the classic example of foreign nationals working within the NHS. However, Clegg also goes on the attack, pointing out that successive Tory and Labour governments talk tough, but fail to reduce immigration.
On separate questions about the prevention of crime, education and the army, the different approaches of the politicians become clear. Cameron states that the system is currently failing and too much money is being wasted within the current system; focusing on middle management. Meanwhile, Brown attacks Cameron, stating that the Conservatives will refuse to provide a guarantee that they will protect police, education and other services from substantial budget cuts. He also attempts to use his current government's record to prove that he can be trusted to look after the services. Finally Clegg repeatedly focuses on trust and argues that the government needs a new approach. He argues that what we need is new ideas and politicians we can trust to come through on their promises. He focuses on strategies for rehabilitating young offenders, looking at other countries' education systems for new ideas and needing different equipment in the army.
Another question asks explicitly about how the party leaders propose to deal with the budget deficit without damaging growth. Here a classic Labour and Conservative conflict comes to light. Cameron argues for smaller government and reducing spending, relating this to the voter by arguing every family and business in the country has had to reduce its budget in difficult times. Meanwhile Brown argues that we can’t afford to take money out of the economy as it could cause a double dip recession, damaging growth long term. He argues for additional taxation to meet the shortfall in the budget. Meanwhile, Clegg focuses on the Liberal Democrats having a fully costed plan in their manifesto. The plan includes 15 billion pounds of saving but an increase in capital gains tax targeted at the banks. He makes the emotive argument that the banks got us into this mess so they should take some of the financial burden. 10 years on, we know the coalition government failed to hit this balance between dealing with the deficit and maintaining growth, with austerity policies damaging economic growth and stagnating to the economy. However we will never know what effect Brown’s plan of increasing taxation would have done.
Finally the last two questions of the debate centered on the NHS with a specific focus on social care. The debate on how to create a fair system for social care is one that still lacks a clear solution from the government today. It was particularly discussed in the 2017 election when Theresa May announced, and then U-turned on a policy that was dubbed the Dementia Tax. The discussion in this debate is surprisingly productive, with Clegg arguing that none of the three men have a perfect solution and that they should all get in a room together and find a solution. The three agree that a political consensus is needed to ensure the sustainability of whatever plan is decided on. This sort of political conversation is one that seems impossible in our current, divisive political landscape. These politicians don’t appear to have the same sort of contempt for each other's ideas the way we saw during the EU referendum or the 2017 & 2019 general elections.
In terms of debate persona, Clegg definitely comes across the most appealing, a view shared by polling after the debate. He is at ease in front of the audiences and comes across human and likeable. Meanwhile, Brown feels a bit too ‘doom and gloom’ to inspire any enthusiasm and whilst Cameron occasionally dabbles in a message of hope, it never seems to land. Following the election, Cameron and Clegg went on to form a coalition government, with Clegg keen to show that the Liberal Democrats can be a party of government, not just protest. This eventually sunk the momentum of the Liberal Democrats with them failing to gain many seats in the following election. The call to vote for a third way loses some of its appeal, when it too is resting on a record of broken promises and coalition compromise.
Clegg, Brown and Cameron have all since disappeared from frontline politics but the consequences of what the coalition government implemented are still being felt.