Britain's 7-way electoral debate: Cameron and rivals talk recession, immigration

Leaders of Britain's main political parties took part in the leaders' televised election debate at Media City in Salford in Northern England.

Ken McKay/ITV/Reuters
(L-R) Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party; Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru; Nicola Sturgeo,n the leader of the SNP; and David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party and Britain's current prime minister take part in a televised election debate at Media City in Salford in Northern England, April 2.

Britain's economy may be growing, but the main televised leaders' debate of its election was held in the shadow of the Great Recession.

The economy, and the economic effects of immigration, dominated a showdown between Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and six rivals: Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and chiefs of the centrist Liberal Democrats, right-wing U.K. Independence Party, Welsh and Scottish nationalists and Greens.

Britain's political landscape is at its most fragmented in decades, and polls suggest no party will get a parliamentary majority on May 7. So the two-hour debate saw all the leaders battling for an edge.

Amid the clamor, some themes emerged:

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE ECONOMY

Whether the topic was health care, education, or immigration, the debate circled back to money.

Britain's economy suffered for years after the 2008 global financial crisis, and Cameron urged voters to keep to the budget-cutting course set by his government since 2010.

"Five years ago this country was on the brink," Cameron said, arguing that his government's billions in spending cuts had reduced the deficit, stimulated the private sector and turned the economy around. "Let's stick to the plan that's working."

Miliband countered that "Britain succeeds when working people succeed, but that's not the way it's been for the last five years." He said left-leaning Labour would raise the minimum wage and cut tuition fees, but still reduce the deficit by taxing expensive homes and clamping down on tax avoidance.

Nick Clegg painted his Liberal Democrats, who have governed in coalition with Cameron's Tories, as the ideal middle way, a Goldilocks party: "We'll cut less than the Conservatives and we'll borrow less than Labour."

DIVISIVE IMMIGRATION

Immigration is one of the most divisive issues in the campaign, driven to the top of the political agenda by UKIP, which wants to leave the European Union and end free movement of EU workers into Britain.

"Let's take back control of our borders," said UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who brought up the issue repeatedly.

He made his case forcefully, but was challenged by the others for what they characterized as a simplistic obsession with immigration.

"There isn't anything that Nigel Farage won't blame on foreigners," said the Scottish National Party's Nicola Sturgeon.

Leanne Wood of Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru got applause when she challenged Farage after he said that HIV-positive foreigners were costing the health service a packet.

"This kind of scaremongering rhetoric is dangerous," she said. "I think you should be ashamed of yourself."

NO FLUBS, NO FIREWORKS

No one made a disastrous gaffe, and all the leaders can claim to have achieved at least some of their goals.

Cameron largely avoided unstatesmanlike bickering. Miliband, often criticized as cerebral and awkward, delivered his points clearly. Farage, easily the noisiest participant, made his anti-EU views and what he called UKIP's "plain-spoken patriotism" heard loud and clear.

Sturgeon of the Scottish nationalists and Wood of Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) — both potential kingmakers if the election result is close — appealed to their home constituencies and held their own on wider issues. And Natalie Bennett of the Green Party outlined a set of alternative-sounding policies on issues beyond the environment.

DIVERSITY, UP TO A POINT

The debate shows that British politics, sometimes characterized as "male, pale and stale," is getting more diverse. Three of the seven leaders were women. But their parties — the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru — had 10 seats between them in the House of Commons before the election, out of 650. The four parties led by men had a total of 616.

DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

The debate on the ITV network ran smoothly, though a heckler was ejected after shouting at Cameron about the plight of homeless veterans.

There was some disquiet among the press because ITV excluded photographers from news organizations from the event, offering only handout photos from its own photographer.

Debates, a relatively new phenomenon in British politics, can transform a campaign. Clegg's shining performance in 2010 sparked a wave of "Clegg-mania" that sent his poll ratings soaring. On polling day the party took a quarter of votes, and Clegg became deputy prime minister.

But Britain's first-past-the post electoral system makes it hard to translate popularity into seats in the House of Commons. Clegg's Lib Dems won more votes in 2010 than in the previous election, but still ended up with fewer seats — though they still held the balance of power in a divided Commons.

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