By Louise Borjes
The second EU debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage was somewhat of a repetition of the first one, as the leaders yet again clashed over jobs, immigration, and trade. Statistical claims and emotional rhetoric circulated, although the former to a lesser extent as personal attacks played a more central role this time. YouGov snap polls presented Farage as an even clearer winner than in the first debate, obtaining 68% with Clegg only receiving 27% of those asked.
It is clear where these two politicians stand in the question on EU membership – Clegg wants in, Farage wants out. It is less clear what the two biggest parties want. By not participating in this debate, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are visibly taking the backseat in this question. Since the second debate, YouGov has noted average figure of 13% for UKIP, compared to 11% before the debates. Does this point to a fundamental shift in British politics, and has this second debate offered greater clarity to what the implications could be for the 2015 General Election?
The answer to this is reflected by complexity and uncertainty. First of all, surveys have shown that EU membership is not important to many voters for the next General Election. This seems to be one of two possible reasons Labour and the Conservatives decided to take a step back and not focus on this. The second reason could be that they are internally divided, and that this causes them to focus on other issues on which they are unanimous.
The advantage of being unison in this question gives Clegg and Farage the opportunity to link it to other issues already on the agenda for next year’s election, such as the economy and immigration, subsequently adding EU membership to it.
What was even clearer in the second debate than in the first, was that Farage was more successful in doing so than his counterpart. Farage claimed that EU membership has only made it ‘good for the rich: cheaper nannies, cheaper chauffeurs, and cheaper gardeners’, by being able to employ foreign labour as a result of the free movement of people and that the membership has left a ‘white working class effectively as an underclass’. This rather explicit focus on the negative impact on EU membership in other issues could be seen as an attempt to pluck votes from both sides of the bigger Labour/Conservative camp to vote against EU membership and effectively supporting UKIP.
Although it is yet too early to pin down the exact implications, the debates between Clegg and Farage were an attempt to prove that the EU does matter, the latter appearing to be more successful in doing so than the former – given the results of recent polls showing an overall increase of support for UKIP and their opinions.
However, it seems that UKIP’s sophisticated ability in these debates – that is, being politically correct just enough to combine EU membership with other issues without losing face – has proven at least a short-term success. The disadvantage of being internally divided in this question is a weakness the big parties, particularly the Conservatives and David Cameron, most likely will continue to experience. The result of the complexity this combination of political dynamics demonstrates could therefore pose a fundamental shift in British politics. What is possible to conclude, though, is that the EU does matter. To what extent it will affect the political composition in Whitehall is yet to be seen.