With six weeks until the General Election the debate season kicked-off last night with a showdown between TV political heavyweight Jeremy Paxman and the leaders of the two main parties…
During his segment with the TV veteran, Cameron was firstly blind-sided by the question how many people use food banks. The Prime Minister admitted he did not have the figures, but knew the number had gone up during his tenure.
According to Paxman, when the Conservatives/Liberal Democrats took power there were 66 food banks in operation. Over the last five years this figure has risen to 421. Paxman said 900,000 people took free food parcels last year, adding that “you talked about broken Britain and fixing it—you haven’t. It is more broken now than it was.”
Cameron responded by saying: “I don’t accept that, because if you look at what’s happened with our economy there are 1.89 million more people in work than when I became Prime Minister. We’ve got 900,000 fewer people on out of work benefits.”
Paxman was quick to jump on the fact that increased usage of food banks surely did not mean good things for a developed, rich country.
The issue of food banks is one that has come up time and time again over the last few months. Undoubtedly, the increased reliance on this service can only mean people are experiencing poverty, and it certainly does not point to the successes Cameron stated last night.
He said: “There has been an increase in food bank use. That’s partly because of the difficulties we’ve faced as a country.
“It’s also because we changed the rules. The previous government didn’t allow job centres to advertise the existence of food banks.
“They thought it would be bad PR. I thought that was a wrong decision. I thought it was a poor decision so we allowed them to point people towards food banks if they needed them.
“The big picture here is we want to get more people back to work. We’ve turned the economy around and its jobs that are the best routes out of poverty.”
This answer lead into a whole other debate about the controversy surrounding zero-hours contracts. Increasingly, this form of work is becoming the norm for many adults—not just students as Cameron repeatedly tried to say.
While Cameron pointed out 1,000 people every day find employment in this country, he also admitted of this figure one in 50 are on zero-hours contracts. When Paxman asked if he could live on type of work, the Prime Minister admitted he could not.
The government have seemingly tried to make things better for low-paid workers. Last week they announced minimum wage would increase by 20p to £6.70. However, this is still not in line with what is deemed an acceptable living wage.
Cameron was also grilled on his choice of friends and colleagues, including the head of HSBC Stephen Green, who he appointed Trade Minister, and Jeremy Clarkson who made the news last week for his ‘fracas’ with a producer.
On the issue of the economy, Cameron was pushed to admit that he had in fact borrowed more than the previous establishment, all the while defending his position that the government had cut the deficit. Cameron seemed woefully ignorant on a number of facts and had to be told that his government had borrowed “a mere £500m.”
Unlike Chancellor George Osborne, who skirted around the issue of public cuts, Cameron did discuss the scope of austerity that would need to occur. He explained the government had to save £1 out of every £100 spent. This would undoubtedly lead to services being cut back further. The other alternative, he said, was to increase taxes.
When questioned about increasing VAT after promising not to, Cameron said: “We inherited a situation where Britain’s budget deficit was forecast to be bigger than Greece’s. We had to take difficult decisions, and I will defend all of those decisions.”
He added: “There is a connection between the difficult decisions we had to take and the fact we now have the fastest growing economy of any major western economy.”
Paxman also brought up previous promises regarding immigration, in which Cameron pledged at the time of the last election to return levels back to the 1990s. Cameron blamed his inability to keep this pledge on the fact the UK had created more jobs than the rest of the European Union combined, which had led to an influx of migrant workers.
He said: “There are some key changes I’m going to make which are if you come from Europe to Britain you cannot claim unemployment benefit.
“If you don’t have a job in six months you will have to return to the country you came from.
“You have to work here for four years, paying into the system before you get tax credits or benefits out of the system, and while you are here you cannot send child benefit home to the family if they are living in another country.
“Now, those changes taken together, key welfare changes, will reduce immigration from inside the EU.”
The Prime Minister was also pulled up on how he plans to cut £12bn worth of welfare. Cameron skirted the answer, instead highlighting cuts of £20bn that had already been made. He also said he knew it was possible to make cuts based on the fact cuts had already happened.
Paxman ended with a question about the Prime Minister’s statement earlier this week in which he said he would not stand for a third term. The news caused controversy as many saw it as presumptuous that the Conservatives would even get a second term. Cameron said he was not stupid enough to think he was indispensable and that he thought it was right to tell the public his plans.
The Labour leader’s segment kicked-off with a question on immigration. Ed Miliband was very forthcoming in admitting the previous Labour government “got it wrong”.
However, he said allowing immigration to continue was important for the country.
“We benefit from our diversity. Immigrants over the years have made a big contribution to our country, but we do need proper controls.”
He added: “A Labour government would say if immigrants come here they can’t get benefits for the first two years.”
This differs slightly from the Conservatives stance, which puts the figure at four years.
Miliband also said he wanted to reduce the amount of low-skilled migration, and stop this from undercutting wages in the UK. However, he refused to get into the hypothetical debate on how much immigration was too much.
On the issue of the economy and if the previous government had spent too much, Miliband said the financial crisis pushed borrowing too high. He added that while there were spending programmes that maybe were not as efficient as they could have been, he didn’t think the former government had spent too much.
“Governments make mistakes,” Miliband admitted. “There are always inefficiencies in government—of course there are inefficiencies. There are probably too many reorganisations of public services, which wastes money.”
Miliband also noted that under the current government people were significantly worse off, as wages had fallen. This was reported recently in a publication from the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
He said: “We are based too much on low wages. I think work is insecure. I think our young people are burdened down by lack of opportunity, and that is what has to change about the country.”
When asked what he would cut to save money, Miliband answered his party would cut winter fuel allowances for pensioners earning over £42,000 per year, that the police and local government would have to look at becoming more efficient, and that child benefit would be capped at one per cent.
Paxman took Miliband to task about his spending plans, and said he was confused about some of the policies in place, in particular his energy policy and the mansion tax.
When questioned about the fact taxes raised from property in the south east would be spent in Scotland, Miliband explained that was how funding in the UK worked, adding it was part of being a united kingdom.
On the controversial issue of Labour and the SNP, Miliband said he was “not going to get into a bargaining game with Alex Salmond” before the election. He also said he was not planning to make an SNP deal to get into power and added he was confident that he could get a majority win when the time came.
Miliband told Paxman: “You don’t get to decide the outcome of the general election – you’re important Jeremy, but not that important.”
In comparison to the Prime Minster, Miliband was subjected to more personal attacks, in particular his relationship with his brother, David. The two slugged it out for the position of Labour leader in 2010, with the title passing to Ed. In fact, the number of questions on Miliband’s relationship with his brother was frankly bizarre, not to mention irrelevant to the political debate taking place.
Paxman was forthcoming in telling the Labour leader he was disliked by his own party and that he was not as popular as his brother. He said people see him as a “north London geek”.
Miliband said he had developed a resilience and that what people thought of him was “water off a duck’s back”. He added: “I’ve been underestimated at every turn. People said I wouldn’t become leader and I did.
“People said four years ago I can’t become prime minister: I think I can. You’re saying I can’t win a majority, but I think I can.
“So let people underestimate me, but what I care about is what’s happening to the British people in their lives and I think I can change that.
“I know I’m the right man for the job—that’s why I’m sitting here and that’s why I believe I’m the best choice to be prime minister.”
Who came out on top last night is a difficult one to answer. A poll of who the public thought won the debate was carried out by the Guardian/ICM. It put Cameron ahead at 54 per cent, with Miliband trailing behind at 46 per cent.
However, there seemed to be far too much focus on sibling rivalry in the Miliband household than politics. Some of the questions about Cameron just being ‘a rich man’ also added little to the political debate. It was the policies and what the leaders plan to do for the nation that should have remained the focus of the discussion.
In six weeks time the public will have the final say on who will lead the country for the next five years.
In the meantime, the next debate will take place on Thursday 2 April.