Ed Miliband called for responsibility over the deficit as he came under under pressure over his attitude to austerity and spending cuts from the nationalists and Greens in a five-way BBC challengers election debate spurned by David Cameron.
In a live contest hosted by David Dimbleby in Westminster, the nationalist parties led by a strong performance from the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, demanded Miliband set out the scale of the public spending cuts he was planning if elected as she accused of him being Tory-lite.
Sturgeon called for modest spending increases in the next parliament, saying that a couple of years longer to end the deficit was a price worth paying. “I am not saying there is no difference between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, I am saying there is not a big enough difference between David Cameron and Ed Miliband,” she said.
She added she wanted to see the back of Cameron, but did not want to see the Tories replaced by Tory-lite. “If Labour won’t be bold enough I think people should vote for parties that would hold them to account.”
Miliband hit back at Sturgeon by saying that she had not given up on her principled commitment to the breakup of the UK, adding there was a danger that she was denying the need to answer difficult questions.
With Cameron absent, Miliband tried to use Farage as a means of attacking Cameron and rightwing ideology. He said: “The real danger in this country is a re-elected David Cameron, who doubles the spending cuts.”
The only voice on the right in the debate was Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, buoyed up by a £1.3m donation from Richard Desmond, the publisher of the Daily Express and Daily Star, a newspaper that has long supported Ukip values.
Isolated on the platform, Farage lashed out at the BBC saying it had selected a leftwing audience for the debate. “They are trying to bribe you with borrowed money. Only Ukip is prepared to talk straight and I feel I am the only one that will be saying to talk straight,” he said.
“I’m not frightened of upsetting the very politically correct class who are afraid to touch difficult issues. I’ve got a feeling I’m the only person here saying what a lot of you are really thinking.”
The Ukip leader was challenged directly by Sturgeon who accused Farage of blaming everything on immigration. She described his conduct as “astonishing” in an exchange between the two.
Sturgeon also attacked David Cameron saying it was a disgrace that he had refused to defend his record by failing to turn up to the debate at all.
The debate was always a calculated risk for Miliband, since he faced being portrayed as a stale establishment Westminster figure defending phased spending cuts against the radicalism of Greens and the nationalists.
His aides argued that Miliband could not spurn any platform to make his case to be prime minister to the British public. Equally he could not leave the SNP unchallenged.
Wood said people across the UK are looking for an alternative to “grey stale politics” as usual: “People are seeing through the austerity myth. Plaid has a vision for a post-austerity society. Our MPs will work with other progressive parties to deliver prosperity ... Austerity and the old politics are not inevitable.”
She added Labour was letting the Tories off the hook by committing to the Tory spending plans, and pressing him to back an emergency budget to reverse the cuts.
Bennett also rounded on Miliband: “You want to cap child benefit for two years. In a classic Labour half-way house you want to cut university tuition fees by a third. You also haven’t committed to putting enough money into the NHS.”
Labour felt they had damaged Sturgeon in the two Scotland-only debates, but this was not reflected in polls, which have shown the SNP still surging.
Ahead of the debate, Miliband accused Cameron of applying to be prime minister and then failing to turn up for the job interview.
Cameron declined to take part, having agreed only to do one debate with seven participants on ITV two weeks ago. This meant the broadcaster barred the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, from taking part as well, since he was also from a party of government. Clegg has complained to the BBC about not being invited.
The Conservatives said the exchanges in the debate showed the extent to which Miliband would be under relentless pressure from the SNP, and revealed what the “coalition of chaos” between the SNP and Labour would look like.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010