Last night on BBC1 the first televised EU referendum debate took place. It was entitled ‘How Should I Vote? The EU Debate’. 150 young voters, aged between 18 and 29, questioned four politicians. The debate took place in the Briggait Arts Centre in Glasgow; the host was Victoria Derbyshire.
Alan Johnson (Labour) and Alex Salmond (SNP) argued that the UK should stay in the EU; Liam Fox (Conservative) and Diane James (UKIP) argued that the UK should leave.
Alan Johnson radiated goodwill like an affable old uncle, and his London accent added to his ethos, making him seem down to earth. He managed to make some telling points on the subject of immigration, asking Mrs James and Mr Fox how they would distinguish between Polish tourists and Polish economic migrants without introducing some form of visa system. And he pointed out that in the event of Brexit it would be extremely difficult to control the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He also pointed out in Europe they spend an average of 9% on their health systems. This was the case in Britain until 2010, but now NHS spending in England and Wales has gone back to 6%. At the same time, Mr Johnson showed little interest in reforming the EU.
Alex Salmond was clever and funny as usual, conjuring up the image of Boris Johnson spraining his jaw and being treated by an Eastern European doctor. Mr Salmond also emphasised the importance of delivering a positive campaign and avoiding fear tactics: for example, he said that low mobile roaming charges within Europe were a modest, but positive achievement of the EU.
Diane James never wavered from her key message which is that leaving the EU is the only way to prevent ‘uncontrolled migration’ into Britain. When Alan Johnson raised the question of how border controls would operate if the UK left the EU, Diane James admitted that she did not know, pointing out that David Cameron has said that ‘there is no plan B’. The fact that she had not thought through the implications of her own policy was a reminder that because UKIP is a protest party, it does not need to work out its policies in detail. All it needs to do is use the issue of migration as a battering ram against the other parties. This battering ram has proved extremely successful but it did not play very well with one audience member: when asked by Victoria Derbyshire if her question about the NHS had been answered, the woman replied: ‘I don’t think Diane really answered my question to be perfectly honest, I just think it was just more of the same.’
At this point Liam Fox intervened and said that ‘from the very beginning the NHS has never really trained enough doctors and we need more doctors, I’m all for having more doctors, even if we have to get them from abroad.’ He then suggested that the current NHS deficit could be covered by cutting the money which Britain contributes to the EU. In this way, Mr Fox deftly suggested that leaving the EU would solve the NHS crisis. The manoeuvring was skilful but arguably disingenuous given that Mr Fox represents a government which has moved the NHS into private hands and taken it to its biggest funding crisis since the 1990s. Having said that, Mr Fox was able to make his points with considerable assurance and finesse. No doubt his previous experience as a GP enables him to project a reassuring bedside manner.
As for the audience, they were seated in three separate groups, with those undecided in the middle, and the Leave and Remain voters on each side. Although one member of the audience criticised the ‘tit for tat’ points-scoring tactics of the politicians, there were some lively exchanges between audience members themselves. One audience member on the Remain side was interrupted several times whilst trying to discuss mobile roaming charges. Another undecided audience member was concerned that if Britain left the EU, she would not be unable to study in Europe because of the costs. At this point a leave supporter declared that most young people choose to study in the UK, and that they have no interest in studying abroad. She became emotional, saying: ‘you don’t want to, because our universities are better, we’re better than the EU’. Interestingly, one of the Leave voters admitted that she was put off by her own campaign group’s constant emphasis on immigration.
At the end, Victoria Derbyshire asked the undecideds if they had made up their minds during the debate. Lots of people put their hands up. One young woman with a Northern Irish accent said that the first question on jobs had made up her mind, she had decided to vote to remain in the EU. Then Ms Derbyshire asked if anyone had made up their mind the other way and decided to vote to leave. Tellingly, only one young man put up his hand. He said that the Remain campaign hadn’t given him any idea about what reforms would need to occur within the EU and how long it would take for these reforms to happen. He received a burst of applause, but the show of hands was telling: it suggested that the majority of undecided audience members who were persuaded by the debate had decided in favour of staying in.