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Opposition leaders in UK general election battle it out in final TV debate

With three weeks to go before the UK general election, the leaders of the five main opposition parties took part in a final live TV debate. A snap poll gave Ed Miliband a win, just ahead of Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP.

Taking part in the one-hour-and-a-half debate, presented by British journalist David Dimbelby on Thursday evening, was Labour's Ed Miliband, UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, the Greens' Natalie Bennett, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood of the Welsh party, Plaid Cymru.

A Survation poll for the Daily Mirror newspaper published after the 90-minute debate
reported 35 percent of a sample of people who had watched the debate judging Miliband the winner, with Scottish nationalist leader Sturgeon second on 31 percent. The Daily Mirror has traditionally supported the Labour Party.

Missing from the line up was Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron as well as his coalition partner, Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

Ahead of the debate Clegg had bemoaned the absence of the two current government parties, claiming that the debate would be "lopsided."

"I find it very odd that the debate tonight doesn't have anybody from one of the parties that have actually been trying to govern our country," Clegg said.

Cameron said that it was part of a deal to "unblock the logjam" over debates. The Labour Party accused the Prime Minister of "ducking" questions on how the Tories plan to fund various intentions set out in their manifesto.

In his opening speech, Labour's Miliband was quick to remind voters of Cameron's absence from the debate, saying he had "chosen not to come tonight to defend his record," before later challenging the PM to a one-on-one debate.

Grand openers

Ed Miliband and David Cameron

Ed Miliband has challenged David Cameron to a one-on-one debate

Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said the Welsh party offered an alternative to the "austerity myth," adding that the party's MPs would work with other "progressive" parties.

Controversial UKIP leader Nigel Farage said his was the only party that was "prepared to talk straight" and was not afraid to upset the "politically correct" consensus. Farage pledged to cut the UK's deficit by cutting foreign aid and contributions to the EU.

The SNP's Sturgeon told voters that she wanted to be a voice not only for Scotland but for "new progressive politics at Westminster to benefit everyone" in the UK, by "working with other like-minded parties to bring about an alternative to austerity."

The Greens' Natalie Bennett brought the opening statements to an end, describing her party as the "real challengers" who would offer an alternative to austerity and fighting against the controversial process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside, known as 'fracking.'

'A nation of emigrants as well as immigrants'

The topic of immigration was mentioned several times during the evening, trickling into answers regarding spending cuts as well as housing and long-term planning.

Nigel Farage

UKIP's Nigel Farage proposes cutting foreign aid and EU contributions to cut the UK deficit

Asked what the parties planned to do about immigration, "which is putting public services at risk,"Australian-born Natalie Bennett said she strongly disagreed with the premise of the question saying that migrants' contributions should be "celebrated."

UKIP's Nigel Farage, said the UK should "take back control of our borders" by quitting the EU.

The SNP's Sturgeon argued that the UK was "a nation of emigrants as well as immigrants," and called on Farage to stop "scapegoating" immigrants. She also argued that EU migrants currently contribute more to the UK's public finances than they take.

Another hung parliament?

In response to the question, "what kind of a deal would you be prepared to enter into in the event of a hung Parliament" Miliband said that he wanted a majority Labour government.

According to a recent You Gov survey in Scotland, Sturgeon is currently leading on 62 percent, with Cameron and Miliband following behind on 29 and 19 percent, respectively, meaning that Labour could be forced into a a post-election deal with the SNP.

Last month Miliband appeared to rule out such an alliance with the SNP.

"It will not happen," Labour's Miliband told supporters in Pudsey in northern England. "Labour will not go into a coalition government with the SNP. There will be no SNP ministers in any government I lead."

Nicola Sturgeon

SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said Labour's Miliband isn't strong enough alone

Sturgeon also argued at Thursday's debate that recent polls showed Miliband was "not strong enough to get rid of the Tories on his own," adding that she would be able to work with Labour, with the Greens and Plaid Cymru "so that together we can get rid of the Tories."

The Green and Welsh leaders agreed with Sturgeon, both emphasizing their desire to bring an end to the UK's Tory government.

Returning to the issue of the UK's membership in the EU, Farage said "the most important constitutional question this country faces is whether it's an independent self-governing nation or not..."

Like the Conservatives, UKIP also plans to hold a referendum on staying in the EU if the party is in a position of influence in the next Parliament.

Strong nuclear opposition

During the debate, leaders of Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the SNP all opposed the renewal of the UK's Trident nuclear weapon program, with the Welsh party leader arguing the £100 billion (139 billion-euro) cost of replacing Trident could not be justified. Defense spending in the UK between 2013-14 was £36.4 billion - some 5.1 percent of the total managed expenditure. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said the UK should invest in "strong conventional forces" instead of nuclear options.

Miliband backed renewing Trident but warned that the UK must learn lessons from the 2003 Iraq War. "You need a prime minister who's willing to say 'no'," Miliband said, adding that the UK needed to cooperate with allies but not be led by them. His argument was followed by a short fracas with Farage who questioned, "Would you sign us up to an EU army?"

"No," Miliband replied, "There's not going to be a European army."

"Yes there is," responded Farage.

Close to call

Recent polls show the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck on about 34 percent. Prior to Thursday's televised debate, among the five appearing opposition leaders, Miliband was in first position with 37 percent, followed by Sturgeon in second place with 34 percent. Farage came in third on 30 percent and the Greens and Plaid Cymru in joint fourth position, both with 22 percent.

The UK's last general election in 2010 was among the closest on record and led to the formation of a coalition government in a country whose voting system generally encourages clear-cut results. The previous coalition government was Conservative-led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill between May 1940 and May 1945.

As a result of the 2010 election, the left-leaning Liberal Democrats agreed to ally with the Conservatives, despite their policy pledges diverging on almost every major issue prior to the uneasy alliance.

For many critics, the ensuing coalition has been the downfall of the Liberal Democrats who won 22 percent of the popular vote in 2010. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's party is now polling at just 7 percent.