Despite a somewhat robotic demeanour at Leaders Live last night, if politics is more about policy than image (which it undoubtedly should be), then Miliband certainly gave a robust performance. His crowning announcement was the pledge to implement votes at 16 if Labour is elected to office. This was accompanied by a perceptive discussion of political education and voter engagement, a very apt debate, given the interests of Bite the Ballot.
From mental health, to the NHS, to immigration, Miliband will have come away generally pleased with his presentation of Labour’s case to the young nation, even if he still needs to work on coming across as more ‘like a human’.
On jobs, Ed Miliband tactfully started by pointing out that the level of unemployment remains dangerously high, and that the jobs young people manage to secure are both unsecure and low-paid – indeed a recent clash with Sports Direct over the issue of zero hour contracts perhaps riled him up enough to make this his first point in the Q&A. His solution to create jobs for young people is a tax on bankers’ bonuses – certainly a method that will no doubt have many Old Labourites jumping for joy – but perhaps one seen as impractical and a tad fanciful by others.
The first tweeted question threw Ed Miliband back somewhat – asking why every Labour government has left office with higher unemployment. Miliband responded by not answering the question, instead saying “I think the question people want to know is what’s actually going to happen in the future.” That may be the question people want to know, but it wasn’t the question he asked. Perhaps he should have checked out this fact check from Backbench’s Sam Bright before the debate.
Banking was a heavy theme in this segment – specifically bankers not paying their fair share. Miliband said that he will impose a tax on bonuses whether bankers like it or not. Tough words, and indeed ones that will no doubt be welcomed by many young people.
This writer was also relieved to hear Miliband call PMQ’s “ridiculous” - it’s all too rare to hear a politician, especially a leader, attack this pointless shout-fest that masquerades as a political debate. Although how this related to jobs is not too clear.
Miliband started his discussion on health by, naturally, considering the National Health Service. With the spectre of Mid-Staffs still looming over the Labour Party, Ed tackled this issue in an interesting way.
The Labour Leader stated that we need to start a debate on mental health, and ensure that it’s treated just as importantly as physical health in the NHS. Certainly, this is greatly welcomed. As commentators including our own Rory Claydon have stated, mental health provision needs to be increased, and urgently. Miliband also called for better mental health awareness not just in the health service, but also in schools.
Asked whether he had ever taken drugs, Mr Miliband looked unruffled. Indeed, one can imagine that the Labour Leader would have rarely been drawn into drug use during his time nerdishly stalking the corridors of the Bodleian Library at university.
Inevitably, the issue of health service privatisation confronted Miliband towards the end of this section. Wary to show distinction from the coalition, and yet defend New Labour’s record, Ed presented a rather unconvincing middle ground philosophy: “some level of NHS privatisation is OK, just not the particular sort initiated by the Tories.”
Democracy was where Ed Miliband came out strongest, laying forth some concrete pledges and discussing surrounding issues adaptively.
Indeed, Miliband announced the pledge to bring in votes at 16 by 2016, if he wins the next election. This was definitely the most important part of this debate, and judging by the media response the one that is currently being most talked about, and welcomed by young people.
Naturally, questions regarding political education were thus drawn up. Bite the Ballot, the group behind the #LeadersLive debates, are doing great work to increase political awareness, and Miliband pledged to support their efforts. But the Labour Leader also said we should go beyond external action, instead proposing that schools should be obliged to educate students on politics. A review of citizenship education was proposed. This is certainly much needed, and such a debate will hopefully draw up the merits of potential new avenues – the introduction of ‘Modern Studies’ into the school curriculum, for example.
In an interesting twist, GCHQ and NSA surveillance also came up during the debate. Unfortunately, Miliband gave a lacklustre response, seemingly wanting to dodge a profound discussion of the issue.
Immigration was the final topic. Miliband again attempted (with perhaps more effect than health) to distance himself from the anti-immigration rhetoric of other parties, yet acknowledge people’s “real anxieties”. After the Thornberry debacle, no doubt Miliband wanted to present himself as more in touch with current working-class sentiments.
With an unspectacular performance from Miliband, Labour has certainly not cemented its position as the vanguard of youth political action in the UK. Support for the Greens amongst young people has risen by 12% since January, and Labour must be wary of leaking support to their socialist neighbours. Yet, Ed’s performance contained no embarrassments, no spectacular mishaps – it was a solid performance. And for this he must surely be glad.