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What each leader needs to do in the debates tonight

It's the UK general election leaders' debates. Cameron probably needs a game changer if he's going to win, while Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon are the likely stars of the show. 

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
1 April 2015

After all of the build up, the debates are finally here. All of my friends seem to be on trains travelling somewhere for the Easter weekend, so perhaps no one will see them. But assuming there's some audience, what does each leader need to do? 

Cameron

CameronNewcastle.jpg

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, Wiki

There are two ways to predict elections: you can look at the polls and you can try to forecast the changing weather. If, in the run up to the coming General Election, you do the former, then there is a simple conclusion. Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister. The collection of parties who we can be pretty sure will vote to sack Cameron - Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Greens - has between it gained sufficient support to likely secure a parliamentary majority in every poll I have seen since November 2010. There may be the odd exception, but they are the outliers. 

Every time I say this, people respond by pointing to surveys which show the Tories ahead of Labour. This is to completely miss the point. Cameron’s party doesn’t just need to get more votes than Miliband’s to stay in government. It doesn’t even just need more seats. It needs to be able to assemble a parliamentary majority for any votes of confidence and budgets. Because this likely means making up for a number of Lib Dem losses, they probably as a minimum need to do as well as they did in 2010, when they beat Labour by seven percentage points. Even then, they’d need to convince the Lib Dems to enter another pact, possibly alongside the DUP and UKIP. 

And, in fact, it’s worse than that for Cameron. Around 2% of the Labour drop in the polls can be accounted for by their 20%ish fall in Scotland since 2010. Since that’s gone to the SNP, who will almost certainly vote for Miliband, a seven percent lead may be an underestimate for the Tories to be the favourites to have the best chance of forming a government. 

Miliband, on the other hand, has much more wiggle room. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, SDLP and Greens have all either explicitly or implicitly ruled out doing anything to let the Tories in. The Lib Dems, DUP and UKIP have all said that they might be willing to work with Labour - in UKIP’s case, in exchange for an EU referendum, in the DUP’s case, in exchange for cash for Northern Ireland and in the Lib Dem’s case, presumably in exchange for hanging on to one or two of their ministerial limos.  

Of course, this could change. But if it’s going to, Cameron needs a game-changer. It may be that such a swing can just about be bought with the Conservative’s significant campaign cash, but Labour’s much bigger, younger, more computer database savvy and better organised membership should be able to match expensive posters with smiley door knockers, paid leafleters with activist delivered newsletters. 

The game-changer, then, probably has to come on the airwaves not on the streets. Osborne’s budget didn’t do it. Time is running short, and the debate is one of the few opportunities left.

 Milliband

Miliband,_Ed_(2007).jpg

Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, Wiki

The Leader of the Opposition comes into the debate in a strong position for five distinct reasons. First, he’s doing pretty well in the expectations game. Most people will still be under the impression that he can barely string a sentence together. In reality, he's probably about a match for Cameron (which isn’t saying much). Equalling or bettering the incumbent PM is a good way to answer the questions about whether he’s a credible Prime Minister, which is why Cameron was so keen to duck these debates. These expectations are despite the fact that, second, he was the clear winner last time he didn’t-quite-face-off with Cameron, which will bring with it a confidence boost. 

Third, he doesn’t have a record to defend. Unlike his older brother, he’s willing and able to distance himself from the last Labour government, which is one of many reasons that’s he’s the better candidate of the siblings. The media only insists otherwise because, like David, it’s unwilling to accept that on most questions, it’s more right wing than the majority of British voters.

Fourth, he’s in the centre of the debate - not just in the podium plan, but also politically. The inclusion of three parties to Ed’s left reconfigured the whole event and potentially the story of the election. Without Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett, Miliband would have been, as usual, on his own against three pro-austerity leaders. With them, he holds a middle-ground position - with Clegg, Farage and Cameron defending cuts, Bennett, Sturgeon and Wood opposing them, and Miliband looking like the sensible chap in the centre, wanting some cuts, but not as many as Lib Dems, Tories or UKIP. 

Finally, as mentioned above, the polls and positions of other parties mean he’s the favourite to get into Number 10. 

What does he need to do? Basically, if Cameron doesn’t run away with it, then Miliband has won. He has to match Cameron, he has, as he did last week, to show some passion and to deliver a couple of good lines. He should manage that.

Nicola Sturgeon

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  Nicola Sturgeon MSP, leader of the SNP, Wiki

The Scottish First Minister comes into this debate as the most popular party leader not just in Scotland, but also in the UK. She’ll be speaking to two audiences. The first is voters in Scotland, among whom she will want to cement her party’s stonking poll leads. The second is people across the rest of the UK.

For Scots, she needs to see off the Jim Murphy line that voting SNP lets the Tories in. That’s not hard, because his line is nonsense, and voters aren't as stupid as the Scottish Labour leader seems to think. Secondly, she has to be seen by Scottish voters as a more effective slayer of Cameron than Miliband is. Again, that shouldn’t be too hard. She is. Third, as with her recent conference speech, she will probably want to persuade the English electorate not to fear the coming of the SNP. Her party’s approach to winning independence has for years been to play the long game, to appear serious and to aim to govern responsibly. 

Another thought about Sturgeon. She’s clearly the most impressive of the party leaders, and articulates a left politics that many south of the border yearn for too. How many English voters will come away from the debates wishing they could have her as Prime Minister? I imagine quite a few.

Nigel Farage

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Nigel Farage MEP, leader of UKIP, Wiki

It’ll be interesting to see the UKIP leader on a stage with one of the few people in British politics who is consistently a better performer than he is: Nicola Sturgeon. I enjoy the thought that she might turn on him, but I suspect she’ll give him as much attention as he deserves, and ignore him. With the balance of the debate to the left of what’s usually found in the London media, I imagine he’ll revel in looking like an outsider once more, and come out with a bit of a bounce. Which is probably more bad news for Cameron.

Nick Clegg

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Nick Clegg, leader, Liberal Democrats, Wiki

It feels like the worst of both worlds for the Deputy PM: does he defend the government record, or distance himself from it? Does he join in attacks on Cameron, or hold the line with his boss? Likewise, after the Cleggmania of four years ago, expectations will be high. That said (and despite his hammering during the Euros) he’s still an impressive performer and, frankly, polls don’t just show Lib Dems losing most of their MPs. They show him behind in his seat. He has nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Leanne Wood

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Leanne Wood AM, leader, Plaid Cymru

When I interviewed the leader of Plaid Cymru last summer, she did her best to downplay my high hopes for her party at this election. Leanne Wood must be pretty surprised that she was invited in to these debates, and for her, that’s already a victory. The least well known of the leaders (other than in Wales), she has a huge opportunity to look like a normal (if very articulate) woman from the Valleys holding to account these bully-boy men. I imagine most viewers will never have seen her before, and, with her warm smile, twinkling eyes and calm yet passionate TV manner, many will like her very much. 

Significantly, she has the opportunity to make a unique bid to her specific electorate. While Ed Miliband will be chasing Middle England, Leanne Wood can make a direct pitch for Mid-Wales - or, specifically, voters in key Plaid marginals like Ceredigeon. A good performance could even bring a seat like Ynys Môn within their reach, delivering Plaid their biggest ever group. Also she’s got a little strife in her party at the moment, and a tough constituency race for the Welsh Assembly next year which could see her collecting her P45. Being catapulted onto the UK stage with a good performance tonight could make her the best known Plaid leader in history (can you name her predecessor?) and bring a significant boost to her support.

Natalie Bennett

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  Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, image, the Green Party.

If the first half of the debate is the expectations game, then Natalie Bennett has scored a resounding victory. The only non-parliamentarian and the least experienced person on the stage (Cameron’s been leader of the Conservative Party for longer than Bennett’s been a member of the Green Party), it will certainly be tough for her. However, she tends to perform better in these contexts than in the head-to-head interviews she’s struggled with recently, as solid performances on Question Time and Any Questions since the LBC brain-fade have shown. In my experience, she tends to have a pretty good grasp of relevant facts and stats, and a few good lines for this sort of occasion. 

Likewise, on many key questions, she will be in the same corner as Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon, and her party is the only one in England that people who agree with the three of them can vote for. This is likely to introduce an interesting element to the debate, and one which may well benefit the Greens in England.

Finally, it’s worth noting that being there at all is a significant victory for Natalie Bennett, and while Cameron may have helped, the huge mobilisation and willingness to keep fighting will have certainly contributed to that. In 2010, there’s an argument that Cleggmania was in part a product of people simply being reminded that there was another option. It seems reasonable to expect that, so long as Bennett’s performance is credible, Greens will see a small boost from the same effect after the debates, or may stay steady where they would otherwise have been squeezed as the vote approaches.

What does she need to do? Remember what it was that delivered the Green surge: be a clear voice to the left of Miliband. Explain Green ideas on the biggest stage the party has ever had. Break the stereotpe of the environmental party. She doesn't need to be the slickest performer on stage, she just needs to hold her own. 

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