Election Debate: Party leaders clash as student issues side-lined

On Tuesday November 19 the leaders of the two front-running parties went head-to-head on ITV for the first leadership debate.

This comes after a legal challenge brought by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, demanding their parties were represented in the debate, was defeated on Monday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were both expected to wring out their parties’ set piece manifesto pledges with catchphrases like the Tories’ “Get Brexit done” and Labour’s being for the “Many, not the few.”

As predicted, Brexit was at the forefront, with each leader putting forward his party’s proposal on how to achieve an end to the issue. Johnson pushed for his October deal “to get Brexit done” and Corbyn said Labour would strike a new deal with the EU upon achieving power and would put it the public in a second referendum.

Other topics covered included funding for the National Health Service, the trustworthiness of politicians and whether the monarchy, and specifically Prince Andrew, was ‘fit for purpose,’ following the latter’s BBC interview on his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein earlier this week.

The hour-long debate included made-for-TV moments, including when the debate adjudicator Julie Etchingham had the two leaders pledge to clean up politics and shake hands, and when one voter asked what each would buy the other for Christmas.

While Johnson’s clearer stance on Brexit may be popular with voters, Corbyn’s comments on Prince Andrew and Epstein’s victims seemed to touch the right note of sympathy with the audience. Both men also elicited laughter from the audience: Johnson when he said he believed the truth was important in the election, and Corbyn when defending his Brexit policy.

At one point, as Corbyn mentioned how the climate crisis would affect the poorest in society, he was met with jeers: “oh, here we go.”

Students may have been disappointed at certain points during the debate. Corbyn at one point mentioned Labour’s pledge to abolish university tuition fees, and both candidates vaguely promised vast injections of investment into public services. Yet, despite hundreds of thousands of university students facing disruption by the UCU strike next week, neither leader mentioned the state of education funding or infrastructure.

The effects of Brexit on young people’s prospects, including the end of freedom of movement, was similarly avoided as a topic.

Fourth Year English student Sam commented to The Student, “Neither of them came out looking victorious.”

Of the 6.7 million viewers of the debate on Tuesday, around 1 million of them were in the 16-34 age bracket, suggesting that young people are taking a growing interest in this election. Whether this surge in youth engagement will be reflected in the future leaders’ debates remains to be seen.

Later in the evening, ITV hosted back-to-back interviews with the other party leaders, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Lib Dem Jo Swinson, Nigel Farage of the Brexit Party and the Green Party co-leader Siân Berry. All suggested that they were unimpressed with both Johnson and Corbyn, with the Labour leader’s equivocation on Brexit coming under particularly sharp criticism.

Image: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor via Flickr

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The Student Newspaper 2016