We’ve had the Leaders’ Debate, the Challengers’ Debate, two Scotland debates and countless televised interviews, but last night was the turn of Londoners to ask the questions.
Gathered in a packed Guildhall were Natalie Bennett (Greens), Chuka Umunna (Lab) and Lynne Featherstone (Lib Dem), all standing in London, Grant Shapps (Con) standing in Hertfordshire and Mark Reckless (UKIP) parachuted in from Rochester and Strood. A straw poll showed that the audience were overwhelmingly Labour voters, with equal scatterings of Greens and Conservatives, a few Lib Dems and a solitary but determined hand up for UKIP.
In keeping with other debate formats, the panel each had 90 seconds to convince us to give them our vote and they stayed true to party lines. Bennett heralded the end of Westminster’s two-party system and called for people to vote for change. Featherstone said that the Liberal Democrats would prevent a Tory or Labour government lurching to the right or left. Shapps gave a potted history of successful Coalition policies and did his best to link them to how they’ve worked for London. Reckless said that UKIP would take London out of the EU. Umunna spoke about London’s widening gap between the rich and the poor, and scolded UKIP for its anti-immigration stance.
The questions centred on housing (which dominated half of the debating time), the economy and inequality, the environment, immigration and healthcare.
The economy and inequality unsurprisingly elicited the most fervent debate and helped Umunna land one of the best blows of the night. Shapps pointed out that the Coalition Government had brought 300,000 children out of poverty, and Featherstone chimed in to defend its record, saying that unemployment was down in London (though she fluffed the numbers). Bennett as ever was heavy on statistics, setting out the Green Party’s promise to legislate for a living wage, as well as a wealth tax on people worth over £3m. Reckless said that UKIP would increase the personal allowance, and as he went on to condemn the bedroom tax, Umunna snapped back ‘so why did you vote for it?’. Reckless had no comeback, and the room erupted in applause.
Housing dominated the majority of the debate, with all debaters in agreement with the need to build more houses for London. Bennett set out her opposition to Right to Buy, while Reckless made the case that it should not be available to foreign nationals.
Bennett prompted the biggest cheer of the night when she highlighted the Green policy to renationalise the railways. She was also strong on housing, though sharply attacked by Umunna for ‘politicising’ the redevelopment of a social housing site in south London.
Umunna performed particularly well. Away from his smooth operator persona as shadow Business Secretary, he was convincing and impassioned about the benefits of immigration, recalling his father arriving into the UK as an immigrant in the 1950s and going on to forge a successful business.
This was never going to be Reckless’ night, though he did surprise and confuse the audience by calling for more social housing, more spending on healthcare and more cycling in London.
Shapps kept a low profile, but surprisingly Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson came in for some praise, particularly for Boris Bikes (which Featherstone claimed artistic credit for) and the ‘Boris Superhighway’ planned for London’s Embankment.
Perhaps the format did not suit Featherstone, but this was not one of her best performances. Her poorer grasp of statistics for Coalition policies and praise for Boris was openly mocked, and she confused all with an unexpected call for immigration controls.
The loudest groan of the night came during a question on immigration and the European Union, reflecting London’s reliance on immigration and positive attitude towards the EU. Reckless insisted that London would prosper outside of EU membership, though Umunna said that it would be very difficult as it is London’s key to emerging market economies.
The evening almost went by without a mention of the SNP’s role in the now almost-inevitable hung parliament the UK expects on 8 May. Featherstone snuck one in during the closing statements, once again beating the Lib Dem drum of being the antidote to a ‘Blukip’ or a Labour/SNP government (the latter of which prompted an audible shudder across an otherwise left-leaning audience). Bennett’s call for the audience to ultimately vote not for the Greens but for what they believe in came across as the most honest soundbite of the evening, though it did not pass without a dig at the Liberal Democrats, as Bennett said the Greens will not ‘be in the middle…wherever the middle is’.
Notwithstanding a few party political sideswipes, the debate managed to remain on the key issues for London, though a final straw poll showed that it did little to sway the undecided voters in the room.