3 min read

Editorial Monday 26 September 2011: Ashcroft polling finds NHS country’s Number 2 political priority; still a Tory distrust area

We have previously written about Lord Ashcroft’s electoral polling on marginal seats, and the role of the NHS for voters.

Today, on the Conservative Home website, Lord Ashcroft outlines his latest psephological research.


Click here for details of 'PFI in the sky; not NPfIT for purpose - DH magics up money without menaces', the new issue of subscription-based Health Policy Intelligence.


Lord Ashcroft commissioned polling in 41 Tory marginal seats held with a majority of less than 5%; and also a national poll, to produce a direct comparison between what this keen military historian calls ”Britain as a whole and the defensive battleground”.

The poll summary can be downloaded here.

Top public priorities - the economy and the NHS
The findings of the polling about the public’s top two priorities juxtapose the obvious – the economy at Number 1, with an average of 65% of respondents – with the startling.

The NHS comes out at Number Two, with an average of 45% of respondents. The NHS’s spending is being maintained, with funding growth offset by inflation to give a vestigal rise in the level of spending.

There are currently some un-encouraging signs over waiting times, as summarised by Rob Findlay of Gooroo Ltd for HSJ, but there are currently no highly explicit problems in the NHS.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that even post-pause, significant public concerns remain about the current plans for NHS reform. As Lord Ashcroft’s ‘Project Blueprint’ report in May observed, “nobody seemed to know is why the reforms were needed and how, even in theory, they were supposed to improve things for patients”.

Who’ll do best on the NHS?
Respondents were asked to pick the party which would do the best job of dealing with the NHS.

Nationally, 23% of respondents thought it was the Conservatives; 52% thought it was Labour; and 13% thought it was the Lib Dems.

In the Labour target marginal seats, this split 24% (C) – 53% (L) – 11% (LD).

In Lib Dem target marginals, the split was 26% (C) – 42% (L) – 17% (LD).

These are significant leads for Labour, at a time when it is unlikely that many members of the public could clearly define Labour’s health policy - other than in its opposition to the Coalition’s plans.

Given the importance of the NHS in PM David Cameron’s repositioning (and detoxifying) the Conservative Party’s brand, Labour’s NHS lead is likely to be a source of concern. As Lord Ashcroft’s commentary for Conservative Home points out, “Labour had opened up a 29-point lead in their own target seats on the NHS – particularly disappointing given that we had come within striking distance on the issue in the run-up to the general election”.

Cutting public spending
The polling next asked ‘Thinking about the government’s proposed cuts in public spending, which of the following statements comes closest to your view?’
- The cuts are too deep and are being made too quickly (nationally 48%; Labour target marginals 49% Lib Dem target marginals 42%);
- The cuts are necessary and unavoidable and are the right thing for the economy (nationally 40%; Labour target marginals 37%; Lib Dem target marginals 44%);
- The cuts do not go far enough – the goverment should do more to reduce spending (nationally 10%; Labour target marginals 12%; Lib Dem target marginals 13%)

It then asks ‘Thinking about Britain’s economy, which of the following comes closest to your view?’
- Although things are difficult now, the right decisions are being made and things will improve significantly over the next three or four years (nationally 46%; Labour target marginals 45%; Lib Dem target marginals 50%)
- In three or four years’ time, the economy will be no better, or even worse than it is now (nationally 51%; Labour target marginals 52%; Lib Dem target marginals 46%)

Finally, it asks, ‘Overall, would you say Britain is going in the right direction, or the wrong direction?

Nationally, 47% said Britain is going in the right direction (Labour target marginals 45%; Lib Dem target marginals 53). 49% said Britain is going in the wrong direction (50% Labour target marginals; 43% Lib Dem target marginals).

Opinion polls are a snapshot of one moment in time. They are an inexact science.

This set of findings suggest that, when considering the current government’s economic and public spending policy, there is a rough balance between pessimists and optimists.

Lord Ashcroft succinctly concludes that ”we need the Conservative voting coalition to expand if we are to win an overall majority at the next election”. He is quite correct.

If the NHS remains regarded by the electorate as being a strong second behind the economy as a top policy priority, this will increase the pressure on the transitional and new system to deliver a minimum of stable performance in the four years leading to the next election.

During these four consecutive financial years, ‘The Nicholson Challenge’ is seeking efficiency and productivity gains worth £4 billion a year in each year.

No pressure, then.