Leaders’ debates featuring Nicola Sturgeon seem to be on TV as much as Coronation Street these days. After her well-reviewed turn in last week’s seven-way UK leaders’ debate, she has spent the last two nights on Scottish television sparring with her opponents north of the border, before returning to the UK stage next week for the five-way ‘challengers debate’ with Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage et al.
The soap opera analogy seems appropriate for this years’ TV election debates in so many ways: a large ensemble cast of characters, explosive shouting matches, failed courtships, sub-par gags, largely predictable storylines, but the occasional genuinely shocking moment – come to think of it, can we just go the whole hog and schedule a debate on the Corrie cobbles? Maybe not. Ken Barlow would never allow it.
Back to Sturgeon, the First Minister is probably the best-rehearsed debater in UK politics at the moment. In the Scottish referendum campaign she took part in countless head-to-head and panel debates, including TV clashes with Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, his predecessor Michael Moore and former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. She is a Question Time regular nowadays, not to mention the fact she now faces weekly duels in Holyrood at First Ministers Questions. She has certainly had no shortage of time to hone her arguments and her delivery.
This was very evident in last week’s UK leaders’ debate, with the SNP leader coming out on top of YouGov’s snap poll, being judged the winner by 28%. She also punched well above her weight in other pollsters’ snap verdicts, easily eclipsing her fellow members of the ‘anti-austerity alliance’, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett. Pitching herself beyond her core audience of pro-independence viewers in Scotland, Sturgeon was able to present her party as an antidote to the Westminster establishment, whilst engaging constructively with ‘progressive’ forces across the UK.
Having fared so well in the UK debate, it was tempting to assume that this week’s two Scottish leaders’ battles would be a breeze for the First Minister. And indeed, for the most part, she performed with her usual aplomb. But there were enough uncomfortable moments for her to provide Scottish Labour with some glimmers of hope for the final month of campaigning.
During Tuesday night’s STV debate, Sturgeon allowed herself to be drawn on the possibility of the SNP seeking a second independence referendum. While the result this May will have no bearing on that, she said, the 2016 Scottish elections are “another matter”. Having said during the referendum campaign that it was a once in a generation (or even ‘once in a lifetime’) decision, Sturgeon’s indication that a second referendum could be on the table as soon as 2016 unsurprisingly dominated much of the media coverage of the debate – not least because it drew groans from the live studio audience. Last night she seemed to clarify her position on this matter, stating the SNP would only seek another referendum if something “material changed”.
However, potentially more significant still was Sturgeon’s admission in last night’s BBC Scotland clash that the SNP would vote to introduce ‘full fiscal autonomy’ for Scotland next year if given the chance – a move that could cost Scotland £7.6bn according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Recently, Sturgeon has sought to portray full fiscal autonomy as something she supports in principle, rather than something she believes to be in Scotland’s immediate best interests. That she went further last night was immediately seized upon by her political opponents, in particular Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who is desperate to dent Sturgeon’s credentials as Scotland’s leading anti-austerity voice.
Scotland remains the most crucial battleground in this General Election. With most current seat forecasts predicting the Tories to emerge as marginally the largest party in the UK, Labour’s best hope of defying this is to hold on to as many of the 50+ seats forecast to go to the SNP.
Scottish voting intention polls have remained remarkably consistent in recent months, with Labour seemingly locked on around 29%, around 15% behind the Nationalists. If Labour can push their number up closer to 35%, they will stand a chance of keeping a whole lot more of their Scottish seats.
Whether this weeks’ two Scottish leaders’ debates will have any impact in and of themselves is questionable. But Sturgeon’s commitment to ending redistributive taxation across the UK in favour of a Scottish tax-base which would be highly exposed to the fortunes of the North Sea gives Labour a useful line of attack for the final stretch.
Will it have any impact? It’s a cliffhanger worthy of Weatherfield.