02:24 - Source: CNN
Should the UK trim its foreign aid budget?

Story highlights

Audience at CNN's UK2015 election debate say economy is the most important issue

Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP and SNP politicians take part in discussion chaired by Christiane Amanpour

Editor’s Note: Join Christiane Amanpour for a Facebook chat on the election at 11:30 ET/15:30 GMT on Friday April 24, and watch CNN’s UK2015 debate in full the same day at 14:00 ET/18:00 GMT and 19:00 ET/23:00 GMT on CNN International.

Woking, England CNN —  

Almost a quarter of a century after Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid” entered campaign folklore, UK voters still see it as the key issue when deciding who to elect.

As Britain prepares to go to the polls on May 7 in the most closely-fought election in a generation, CNN asked the audience at its UK 2015 debate to pick the most important issue to them. The economy came out top by a huge margin, collecting 54.5% of the votes, ahead of healthcare (22.2%), Europe (13.1%), immigration (7.1%) and foreign affairs (3%).

“The economy affects us all, it’s our employment, it’s our future,” one member of the audience – which was carefully selected to provide a representative cross-section of British society – told hosts Christiane Amanpour and Max Foster.

All five members of the panel – Conservative Pauline Neville-Jones, Labour’s Chris Bryant, Liberal Democrat David Steel, Humza Yousaf of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the UK Independence Party (UKIP)’s Louise Bours – agreed on the economy’s central role but failed to see eye-to-eye on how to handle it.

“It’s the absolutely basic thing, without which you can’t do anything else,” Neville-Jones told the audience at the hi-tech McLaren Thought Leadership Centre in Woking, south-eastern England. “You cannot have strong defense, good healthcare, you can’t have any of the things that people want without a functioning economy.”

Baroness Neville-Jones, a former chairman of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee, put her party leader David Cameron’s inability to pull away from Labour in the polls, despite Britain’s economic recovery, down to the public’s “tendency to take the economy for granted.”

“Now that it’s functioning well, we’re not so worried about it. Earlier on, when we first came in [to government], people were extremely worried,” she said.

“The country is definitely on a better footing now than it was five years ago,” agreed Steel, whose Liberal Democrat party has been in coalition with the Conservatives for five years.

Lord Steel, a former speaker of the Scottish Parliament, insisted coalition had been “the only solution,” given the inconclusive results of the 2010 election, but admitted his traditionally centrist party was suffering in the polls as a result of its links with the right-wing Tories.

“Having gone into it with the sole purpose of getting the economy right, and having got it right, you would expect a vote of thanks, but we’re not getting that. Why? I think we’re slightly tarred with the Tory brush,” he said, adding that some of the welfare reforms pushed through by the government “have been very cruel to a lot of people.”

Labour’s Bryant, the opposition minister for culture, media and sport, said the Conservatives and Lib Dems were “living in a different world” to claim that things were looking up across the board.

“If you go and knock on people’s doors – people who work as teachers or as police officers, who’ve had no pay rise or a negligible pay rise for the last five years, who’ve seen their savings whittled away, who’ve seen house prices rise very dramatically, energy prices rise, they don’t feel as if this economy is working for them.

“We’ve got a million people a year relying on food banks in the sixth richest country in the world,” Bryant said. “People are very ground down and they want a government that’s going to be on their side.”

In keeping with her party’s fiercely anti-EU stance, UKIP’s Bours, a Member of the European Parliament, said the way to boost the British economy was to withdraw from the European Union.

“We’re tied to this trading bloc which is collapsing. We want to venture out into the world and make our economic prospects even brighter. I represent the north west of England, and people there do not feel there is any economic recovery. We’re in this bubble where everyone thinks everything is fine in this corner of London, or south-east England, [but] you forget that most people live outside of that area, and people still are finding it tough.

Yousaf, whose party polls and pundits suggest may end up holding the balance of power after May 7, insisted the SNP would only ever form a coalition with Labour, never with the Conservatives.

He called for an end to austerity politics, which he said was hurting people and not helping the economy, instead backing a “modest” increase in public spending, which he said would help the poorest and the “squeezed middle,” and allow the country to “grow [its] way out of recession.”

“The economy on paper might look great, but … we have in the 21st century, people queuing up for bread and milk … we have the poorest in our society getting poorer while the wealthiest are using legal tax loopholes to have their money in Swiss bank accounts, so not everybody is feeling that recovery. Yes, you can have an economic plan, but don’t balance the books on the backs of the poor.”

We’ll have to wait until election day on May 7 to find out whose argument has best held sway with the British public.

Join Christiane Amanpour for a Facebook chat on the election at 11:30 ET/15:30 GMT on Friday April 24, and watch CNN’s UK2015 debate in full the same day at 14:00 ET/18:00 GMT and 19:00 ET/23:00 GMT on CNN International.