By Louise Borjes and Dr Benedict Wilkinson
With the approach of the European Parliament elections in May and the General Election in 2015, the first debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage has reignited the debate about the UK’s role in Europe. The debate itself was, perhaps unsurprisingly, dominated by statistical claims and emotional rhetoric.
The UKIP leader toyed with the idea of what would happen if there were a referendum today on whether or not to join the EU. In this hypothetical situation, he claimed that the UK would not vote to join the EU owing to the ‘£55 million pounds a day membership fee’ and the fact that 485 million Europeans could move to the UK. The deputy prime minister, by contrast, focused on jobs and cross-border crime cooperation, arguing that Britain would be ‘better off in Europe – richer, stronger, safer’.
The popularity of both contrasting claims – and thus the ‘winner’ of the debate – seem fairly clear cut: YouGov carried out a post-debate poll, in which Farage stepped out as the winner with 57% of the reported by whereas Clegg only received 36%.
This has come on the back of a considerable rise in UKIP’s political fortunes: a Sunday Times survey noted 7% for UKIP in January 2013 – the same period a year later showed a rise to 14%, topped at 17% in May 2013 according to The Sun.
What then could the implications be for the 2015 General Election? Although it is perhaps too early to make any great predictions, it does point to Farage and UKIP having booked a front-row seat in the general election next year and perhaps even more so in the upcoming European Parliament election in May. In the first place, this was a significant opportunity for UKIP to be seen to have the ability, popularity and power to compete with the three major political parties. Farage demonstrated that he is more than capable of facing up to (even facing down) his competition. Also, given that David Cameron and Ed Miliband both declined their invitations to participate in the debate, Farage could claim to be the face of Britain’s Eurosceptics.
The second point is that, despite Clegg’s consistently polished debating skills, Farage’s emotional and sensationalised rhetoric works effectively when discussing divisive issues, such as immigration. Apart from relating the debate to jobs and ‘the place of Britain in the world’, Clegg took a risk in holding onto the ‘Little England v Great Britain’ card and insisting repeatedly that Farage’s claims were based on dogma and made-up figures. This was a dangerous manoeuvre as it not only publicised Farage’s political claims on a broader stage but also drew both debaters into a ‘tit for tat’ round of claim and counter-claim. Ultimately, Farage’s ability to play on popular emotions meant that his factual claims garnered greater legitimacy and authority than those of Clegg. The corollary is that, as recent polls have shown, the Liberal Democrats have dropped even further in the polls.
The third point (argued also by the Guardian’s Owen Jones), is that connecting the debate on EU membership to broader issues likely to feature in all four parties’ manifestos in next year’s General Election was an effective way of gaining support both for the European Parliament elections and UKIP more generally. Thus, his oft-repeated claim that the cost of EU membership (‘£55 million a day’) in a recovering economic climate is unfair, particularly amongst those on low incomes, allowed Farage to generate more support not only for the European Parliament election in just two months time but also for next year’s General Election. In an Opinium/Observer poll presented shortly after the first debate, UKIP had increased their stake by one percentage point to 15% whilst the Liberal Democrats remained on 10%.
Yet, the effect of this small change on the popularity of the parties and the impact of this on the upcoming elections is difficult to determine after this first debate alone. The candidates’ performances in the second debate will perhaps shed more light on what the future might hold for the UK in the EU and the 2015 General Election.