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Election debate 2015: who won the Challengers Debate?

17 April

A snap opinion poll declared Labour leader Ed Miliband the winner of last night's Challengers Debate, but some commentators suggest the absent David Cameron has cause to celebrate.

Following the 90-minute debate at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, Miliband was awarded a 35 per cent victory. SNP's Nicola Sturgeon came in second place with 31 per cent and Ukip's Nigel Farage came in third with 27 per cent.

Miliband was warned that he was making a "grave error" in joining a line-up of smaller parties, says Polly Toynbee at The Guardian. "Instead he stood there as the only prime minister in the room – and the one great loser was the man who wasn't there."

Miliband was calm, relaxed and "hit all the buttons", says Toynbee. "Attack after attack rained down on the Tories, but their leader had run from the field."

Sturgeon – who drew cheers for branding Cameron's absence a "disgrace" – was widely seen as Miliband's greatest opponent on the stage.

She reached out to the Labour party with an offer of a coalition, but was rejected by Miliband who said he had "fundamental disagreements" with her.

"We have a chance to kick Cameron out of Downing Street, don't turn your back on it. People will never forgive you," she warned.

Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood's was "overshadowed by Sturgeon at every stage" says The Independent, although the exposure will undoubtedly help her party in Wales. While several commentators said the Green party's Natalie Bennett performed better than previous outings, she won support from just five per cent in the Survation poll.

The Times awards Sturgeon the highest mark out of ten, arguing that when it comes to debates she has the "incisive edge". She received the most applause and her attack on Labour as being "Tory-lite" will be a "memorable soundbite" from the night, says the newspaper.

Farage, however, did not perform as well as predicted. At one point he attacked the audience for being too left-wing, only to be reminded that they had been picked by an independent polling organisation.

The Daily Telegraph's Toby Young thinks the real winner was Cameron because the debate gave us a "taste of the chaos" that will ensue if Miliband is in a position to form a government on 8 May.

"This is what a 'rainbow coalition' would look like – a weak Labour leader being pushed to the left by three anti-austerity party leaders," he says.

Election debate 2015: the Challengers Debate highlights

16 April

Labour leader Ed Miliband and four other opposition party leaders are going head to head in a BBC election debate tonight. The live show, dubbed the Challengers Debate, will include the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon, Ukip's Nigel Farage, the Green Party's Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood.

10pm: the verdicts

As with last week's debate, there appears to have been no clear winner in tonight's Challengers Debate. According to a "sentiment analysis" assessing positive and negative tweets, carried out by TheySay analytics, Sturgeon came out on top with a net rating of +34, while Miliband was second on +28. Farage attracted the only negative rating: -8. However, it should be noted that Twitter users are not representative of the electorate as a whole.

Nevertheless, Hugh Muir in The Guardian agrees that Farage's star may be on the wane. "Within half an hour, the [Farage] swagger had dissipated," he writes. "His citation of immigration as root difficulty in housing and health failed to rouse the audience. He reacted by complaining that the event had been politically rigged, and was slapped down by David Dimbleby." 

But Iain Martin in the Daily Telegraph described the debate as "a left-wing farce in which none of the questions were about wealth creation or enterprise". Even so, he says that Miliband came out of it the winner. "He spoke calmly and clearly and in the face of endless whining from the Nationalists and the Green leader he looked strong. His direct challenge to Cameron – 'debate me one on one' – was powerful."

The Guardian's Andrew Sparrow agrees. "Miliband also made the most of his closing statement, with his 'come and debate me' challenge," he says. "It sounded a bit cheesy, but people will remember it, and his point is a robust one."

Mary Riddell is less convinced. He "sounded self-assured, competent and sensible", she writes for the Telegraph. "But on a platform of evangelists for alternative solutions, that didn't quite suffice."

9.35pm: closing statements

The debate ends as it began, with pre-prepared statements. Here they are in digested and paraphrased form:

  • Nicola Sturgeon: We can't afford more austerity, so vote SNP for a progressive alternative across the UK.
  • Leanne Wood: Miliband will cut spending like the Tories, so he offers no real change. Plaid Cymru offers Wales a genuine alternative. 
  • Natalie Bennett: Labour's agenda is too close to the Conservatives, and no one will vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out. Only a vote for the Greens is a vote for real change.
  • Ed Miliband: The election offers a clear choice: carry on as we are with the Conservatives, or try a different plan. And David Cameron, if you believe that this election is about leadership, then debate me one on one.
  • Nigel Farage: You may not agree with me, you may not like what I say, but I talk this way because I believe in my arguments - and I will take on the established parties and their corporate backers.
9.25pm: question five - a hung parliament

An audience member wants to know what each leader would do in the event of a hung parliament. Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett all say that they would be prepared to work with Labour if Miliband's party proved that it was a better option than the Tories. Miliband, however, wants to talk about who he won't work with: Sturgeon and the SNP. He rules out a coalition with them, and says again that every vote for the SNP makes a Conservative government more likely.

9.15pm: question four - immigration

The question to the party leaders: are immigrants putting too much pressure on public services?

Bennett and Sturgeon get their retaliation in first, attacking Farage for his obsession with immigrants and willingness to blame all society's ills on them. Farage in turn says that when people are losing an argument they turn to abuse, and that's why the other leaders are ganging up on him.

Miliband says that people have genuine concerns about immigration, and that Labour will answer them with tighter controls on abuses of the system. But he also says that Farage attempts to exploit people's fears rather than address them.

The Guardian says Farage was missing his spark in this round. "Immigration is Farage’s best topic, but I felt he was weaker on this than he has been on previous occasions," writes Andrew Sparrow, "although that is not to say that a sizeable number of people won’t agree with him."

8.50pm: question three - defence

Would the party leaders keep Trident, and should defence spending rise above 2 per cent?

The SNP has long been an opponent of nuclear weapons, and Sturgeon repeats that she would not renew Trident. Instead, she says, the country should invest in stronger conventional forces. Miliband says that the first responsibility of a prime minister is to defend the country and so he would preserve a nuclear deterrent. Miliband is then accused by Farage of planning to take Britain into an EU army. Miliband says he would not join an EU army, and insists that there is not going to be an EU army in any case.

The Telegraph says Miliband is having a better time of it now. "The Conservative bet was that the PM could sit this one out and the public would recoil at the squabbling," says the paper's political correspondent Matthew Holehouse. "The Labour bet was that Ed could look Prime Ministerial. In the foreign policy section, Miliband at the very least looked the least non-prime-ministerial - and he showed some significant leg on foreign policy. No EU army - fair enough. Sanctions on Russia may be increased - interesting."

8.35pm: question two - housing

The second question of the evening asks the party leaders to address the housing crisis, but Farage begins his answer by attacking the audience, describing it as leftist "even by BBC standards". The claim does not go down well in the studio. David Dimbleby says that audience members were selected by an independent polling company in order to be representative of the country as a whole. 

Each party leader pins the blame for the housing crisis on a different target. Farage says the shortage of homes has been caused by immigration; Bennett says private landlords have turned homes into investments; Wood blames Thatcher's right-to-buy policy and the failure to build enough houses; Bennett and Miliband say the market isn't working, and the Labour leader says he would take action against large developers who are blocking homes from being built. 

The Guardian says that the debate format is working. "The leaders are engaging with each other more than they did in the last one, and in this section they had a proper, sparky debate that took them beyond pre-rehearsed soundbites."

But the Daily Telegraph's Ben Riley-Smith says Miliband is feeling the heat. "The risk with Ed in this debate was always that without Clegg and Cameron on the stage he appeared as the austerity, Westminster, establishment candidate," he says. "And in these early exchanges that is exactly what has happened."

8.20pm: question one - debt

An audience member asks if it's fair to spend more money to leave the younger generation in more debt.

Sturgeon answers first, saying that she is prepared to spend more and allow the deficit to run on for longer, but she says the result will be faster growth, which will reduce debt in the long term. Miliband appears to agree with much of what she says, saying that the deficit must be cut, but in a fair way, so that rising incomes will lead to higher tax receipts and a reduction in the deficit.

Both Sturgeon and Miliband take the opportunity to attack David Cameron for failing to take part in the debate, and Farage gets a dig in too: the national debt has doubled on his watch, he said.

"Sturgeon, Miliband and Farage are dominant, but none of them gained a decisive advantage in this section," writes Andrew Sparrow for The Guardian. "It was interesting to hear the audience applaud when Sturgeon said Cameron should have been there, and it is possible that his no-show could work against him more than he thought."

Journalist Sunny Hundal points out that "No one has bothered to even mention Nick Clegg so far. Not even to slam him."

8pm: opening statements

The debate opens with one-minute opening statements from each of the party leaders. Here, in condensed and paraphrased form, is what they said:

  • Leanne Wood: The whole UK wants an alternative to austerity, which is not inevitable. Plaid Cymru will work at Westminster for the good of all.
  • Nigel Farage: The other parties are trying to bribe you with borrowed money. Ukip would cut spending by ending payments to the UK.
  • Ed Miliband: Labour has set out an alternative plan to David Cameron, who has not come here to defend his record, and the plan does not involve new borrowing.
  • Nicola Sturgeon: The SNP will put Scotland first, but will also work for progressive politics across the UK while they remain involved in Westminster politics.
  • Natalie Bennett: The Greens' MP has led opposition in the Commons, and the party will ensure that everyone has food on the table

Election debate: the build-up to the Challengers Debate

Who has the most to lose?

Sturgeon and Farage are joint favourites with the bookies to "win" tonight's debate, followed by Miliband, Bennett and Wood.

The stakes will be highest for Miliband, who risks being "ganged up" on by the others, says BBC's Norman Smith. He thinks the dynamic between Miliband and Sturgeon will be the "most fascinating" element of the debate.

One senior Labour strategist has suggested that Miliband will be giving as good as he gets by launching a "forensic" attack on Sturgeon's policies and record in government. The insider told The Times that Miliband would focus on SNP's admission that it would borrow to offset a future Scottish deficit.

However, a number of Labour MPs appear to have concerns about their leader taking part. One told the Daily Telegraph it was "madness" for him to feature alongside the "pygmy" minor parties as it would result in Labour being categorised as a fringe party and force Miliband into an unwinnable bidding war with populist parties.

What's the format?

The leaders will make short opening statements before taking a total of five questions from the audience, which will comprise 200 voters. After every question, the leaders will have one minute each to give an answer, followed by ten minutes of free debate navigated by Question Time's David Dimbleby. At the end of the 90-minute programme, each leader will give a short closing statement.

The parties have drawn lots to determine their on-set positions, putting Miliband on the left, Farage on the right and Wood, Bennett and Sturgeon in between. Wood will be the first to speak on the show, while Farage will have the final say. James Harding, the BBC's director of news and current affairs, said the leaders will "lay out and debate their alternatives to the policies pursued by the Coalition over the past five years".

The show will be followed by a 30-minute reaction programme, hosted by newsreader Emily Maitlis and featuring representatives from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

How can I watch it?

The BBC Election Debate 2015, hosted from Central Hall Westminster, will be broadcast from 8pm to 9.30pm on BBC One, BBC News, BBC Radio 5 live and on the BBC News website.

What other debates have been scheduled?

David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg will take questions from a live studio audience in a BBC Question Time Election Special on Thursday April 30, exactly a week before the election. Miliband will also take part, but all three party leaders will appear separately.

Election debate: which party leader came out on top?

2 April

Seven party leaders have clashed over the economy, the NHS and immigration during a pre-election debate tonight - David Cameron's only head-to-head clash before the general election on 7 May.

Ed Miliband (Labour), Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat), Nigel Farage (Ukip), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Greens) and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) joined the prime minister for a live two-hour debate, moderated by ITV News at Ten anchor Julie Etchingham.

General Election 2015: Who will win?

10.25pm: instant reaction

"No clear winner emerging among the pundits," says The Independent, "though most seem to think Sturgeon did well."

The first polls, when they come through, back up that assessment. YouGov has Sturgeon the clear winner on 28.1 per cent, with Farage on 20.3 per cent, Cameron on 17.6 per cent and Miliband on 14.8 per cent. ComRes, however, puts Cameron, Miliband and Farage level-pegging on 21 per cent, with Sturgeon just behind on 20 per cent.

"The net effect," says Andrew Sparrow in The Guardian, "is that no one really made much of a breakthrough. Farage got his chance to go head-to-head with Cameron, and he did so with gusto, although some polls suggest the Ukip moment has passed. Sturgeon acted like someone on a first date with the English, and, for left-leaning England at least, she will have made a very good impression indeed. Cameron looked like a man playing for a draw.

The Telegraph's James Kirkup agrees. "David Cameron will be much happier with this week's debate than with his Paxman ordeal last week," he writes. "But was he head and shoulders above his only real rival? Ed Miliband had a decent night and attempted his own statesman act, also trying to rise above the fray and invite comparison with Mr Cameron. ... This performance won't dramatically improve the Labour leader's image, but it does suggest that he does at least believe in himself."

And he has one other conclusion. "If there's one lesson the big parties should take from the event, it's this," he says. "Next time you need a leader, pick a woman."

10pm: closing statements

And now the debate ends with the party leaders' closing statements, digested here into tweetable proportions:

  • Nicola Sturgeon: If Scots vote for a stronger Scotland, the whole UK will benefit from a new politics
  • Nick Clegg: Don't let the UK lurch left or right, but keep it strong, stable and fair.
  • Ed Miliband: I believe Britain succeeds when working people succeed. If you believe that too, vote for me.
  • Leanne Wood: To end austerity and make Wales as strong as Scotland, vote for Plaid Cymru
  • Natalie Bennett: Vote for what you believe in: Green MPs can deliver change at Westminster.
  • Nigel Farage: All the other parties are the same, but Ukip stands for plain-spoken patriotism.
  • David Cameron: I came to power to clean up the mess left by Labour. Stick with the plan. It's working.
9.50pm: the future of Britain

A big question with which to end: what will the party leaders do to make young people feel more positive about the future? The debate turns first to housing, with Miliband saying that he will intervene in the private rental market to introduce longer tenancies and Clegg talking up his rent-to-buy scheme. Farage says the housing shortage has been caused by the rise in immigration.

After an interruption from an audience member protesting that former members of the armed services have been reduced to living on the streets, Miliband says that he, like Cameron, would struggle to live on a zero-hours contract, but only he would "do something about it". Cameron retorts that 70 Labour MPs are employing staff on zero-hours contracts.

9.40pm: education

Education has not featured heavily in the election campaign so far, and the temperature of the debate drops as the leaders discuss apprenticeships. Clegg comes under predictable fire for his U-turn on tuition fees, but tries to pick a fight with Cameron over education budgets. Cameron attempts to smother him in a bear hug: the PM says the Lib Dem leader should take more credit for the policies that he and the Tories have introduced. "They're blaming each other," says Miliband, "and they're both right."

Sturgeon is on comfortable ground here, happy to talk about free university education in Scotland. She is "able to deliver a clear, compelling answer on the right to a free education," tweets Jonathan Freedland. "Bet Miliband envied her." But John Rentoul is unimpressed: "Rare applause for Sturgeon doing the easy free university," he says, "paid for by people on average poorer than the beneficiaries." Nevertheless, the SNP claims that it is seeing a surge in membership enquiries.

9.25pm: immigration

The question asked is "what can we do as EU members to control immigration?" Farage has the simplest answer: "Nothing." He argues that only by leaving the EU can the UK gain control of its borders and cut immigration. Cameron disagrees. By negotiating within the EU, he says, we can change the way immigration is managed - and the reason immigration has been high is that economic growth is strong. He also describes Ukip as the "back door to a Labour government, which would introduce open-door immigration".

Miliband admits that Labour got immigration wrong, and says that a Labour government would act to prevent an influx of people undercutting low-paid British workers.

Clegg attempts to draw a distinction between good immigration and bad immigration, and says the UK should remain "open-hearted". Bennett appears to agree. She says Britain should shoulder its international responsibilities and take in more than the 147 Syrian refugees that it has so far accepted. 

Unexpectedly, the section of the debate on immigration includes the most agreement: Wood agrees with Farage that EU membership means people can move freely across the continent (but she thinks that's a good thing) and Miliband agrees with him that Labour has made mistakes in the past.

"Farage was predictably triumphant," says The Guardian, "but perhaps overly so. Miliband came out with one of his best soundbites of the evening, when he picked up on Cameron saying that work paid, and said it did not. ... And Cameron was rather disengaged."

9.10pm: half-time verdict

A snap poll from ITV and ComRes finds that Farage is in the lead, with Miliband, Cameron and Sturgeon not far behind him:

  • Nigel Farage, UKIP: 24 per cent
  • Ed Miliband, Labour: 21 per cent
  • David Cameron, Conservative: 19 per cent
  • Nicola Sturgeon, SNP: 18 per cent
  • Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat: 10 per cent
  • Natalie Bennett, Greens: 7 per cent
  • Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru: 2 per cent
9.05pm: the NHS

Another familiar topic, particularly for Miliband, who has sought to draw attention to the NHS at every opportunity. He warms to his theme, saying that Cameron has said before that he would protect the NHS and yet waiting times have increased. Cameron says that unlike the Labour leader he views the NHS as a public service and not a political weapon.

Ed Miliband's approach "is rather similar to Mr Cameron's", says James Kirkup of the Telegraph. He is "very deliberately pitching himself as the Tory leader's equal, a PM-in-waiting. At one point he even tried patronising the lordly Mr Cameron, echoing a Ronald Reagan put-down: 'There you go again'."

The most striking exchange once again comes courtesy of Nigel Farage, who says that 60 per cent of people treated for HIV are foreign nationals, and that their drugs cost £25,000 each a year. He says that money should be spent on Britons instead. Wood describes his comments as dangerous scaremongering; Farage says they are a fact. The Guardian says the audience applaud Farage, but the Telegraph say the applause were meant for Wood. The Independent says Farage's intervention "will reinforce the Ukip vote but will repel many, many other people".

8.35pm: the economy

"The territory is familiar," says the Daily Telegraph. The first week of the campaign has dealt largely with the economy, and none of the party leaders strays from the party line. Cameron says his plan is working, Miliband says he would cut the deficit in a fairer way. Clegg says he would cut less than Cameron but borrow less than Miliband. Farage lands the only blow of the exchange, says The Guardian. When Wood says the Tories have been balancing the books on the back of the poor, the Ukip leader retorts: "The books aren't balanced."

The Guardian's political blogger Andrew Sparrow says "the two leading nationalists are winning - Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon". The PM is looking a little "beleaguered"' he says.

The Telegraph disagrees. The economy is "strong ground for the Conservatives who rightly identify Labour's record on the deficit as a weak spot," the paper says. "But both big parties need to give much more detail about their fiscal plans after the election. Voters deserve to know just what they are voting for here."

8.15pm: opening statements

The election debate starts with opening statements from each of the party leaders giving an opening statements. Here, in tweet-sized chunks, is what they said:

  • Natalie Bennett: We start with hope, not fear, and want a fair society in which the poor don't pay for the fault of bankers.
  • Nigel Farage: The other parties all support EU membership and Ukip doesn't. Immigration should fall and border controls get tougher.
  • Nick Clegg: I've made mistakes but the Lib Dems will offer grit, resilience and justice throughout the UK.
  • Nicola Sturgeon: The SNP wants to change not only Scotland but also Westminster, pushing for progressive politics.
  • David Cameron: The government's plan is working, the economy is growing and none of the other parties can be trusted.
  • Leanne Wood: Plaid Cymru will represent Wales in Westminster, but also be a voice for young people.
  • Ed Miliband: The economy is not working for ordinary people. I will cut tuition fees, rescue the NHS and cut the deficit.

Election debate: how it works

What is the format for the leaders' debate?

Etchingham will chair the debate at the ITV studios in Salford in front of 200 members of the public, carefully selected to reflect the mixed views of the electorate. The debate will address four "substantial election questions". These will be selected by an "experienced editorial panel" from a pool of questions submitted by the studio audience and members of the public, and will not be seen by the leaders in advance. For each of the four questions, every leader will have up to one minute to answer, before an 18-minute open debate on the issue. Each leader will also be allowed to make short opening and closing remarks.

Producers are taking careful measures to ensure the debate is fair and balanced to all seven party leaders, even drawing up a "podium grid" setting out the order in which leaders can speak. Lots have been drawn to determine the podium order and leaders were reportedly asked to email their preferred podium heights to ensure nobody was disadvantaged by a podium that appeared to high or low. 

Who will come out on top?

Bookies are predicting that the "winner" will be Farage, followed by Cameron and then Miliband. According to the Financial Times, the PM has been busy using role-play to prepare after last week's "lacklustre" performance. (Jeremy Hunt has been playing Clegg, while Cameron's Scottish adviser Andrew Dunlop took the role of Sturgeon.)

The newspaper says Miliband will find himself in the unusual position of being attacked from the left, while Bennett will be "hoping to erase from the public mind some of her recent media performances". Clegg, who was propelled to first place in the polls following the first leaders' debate in 2010, has already said he will "not triumph" tonight.

Jonathan Freedland at The Guardian says the debate is likely to be a "disjointed, incoherent cacophony, simultaneously turning off the voters and belittling the politicians, reducing them to seven dwarves behind lecterns". But this, says Freedland, is "why it'll be a perfect reflection of the state of British politics in 2015".

How can I watch it?

'The ITV Leaders' Debate' will be broadcast from 8pm to 10pm tonight on ITV. It will also be streamed live on the broadcaster's internet and mobile platforms.

Why won't Cameron go one-to-one with Miliband?

Because he is "chicken", according to the Labour leader. The prime minister has faced widespread criticism for attempting to stifle the debates, particularly as it was he who described them as "vital to the democratic process in the modern media age" back in 2010. The Conservatives claim broadcasters bungled the negotiations and have complained about the proposed timetable of debates, as well as the parties considered for inclusion. But political commentators suggest their real fear is that Cameron has nothing to gain and everything to lose by facing the opposition leader one-to-one.

What other debates have been scheduled?

Another debate featuring all of tonight's candidates – except Clegg and Cameron – will be broadcast by the BBC on Thursday 16 April, moderated by David Dimbleby. Clegg and Cameron will, however, take questions from a live studio audience for a BBC Question Time special on Thursday 30 April, exactly a week before the election. Miliband will also take part, but all three party leaders will appear separately. The prime minister and Labour leader took part in separate Q&As with Jeremy Paxman and members of the public on 26 March.


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