Ed Miliband is now the most trusted leader on the NHS and the health service may well tip the balance in the marginal seats that will decide the election, according to a tracker poll
The Incivise Health exclusive tracker poll reveals that Labour has extended its lead on health and – for the first time – Ed Miliband is the most trusted leader on the NHS. HSJ also found this in its exclusive survey, published yesterday.
Health has always been a strength for Labour, even when the party trailed on other issues.
‘The party has not only sustained its lead on health but has more than doubled it since February’
This position of trust, combined with the controversies over health reform in the last Parliament and the performance difficulties experienced by the NHS last winter, made it a no brainer for Miliband to place health at the heart of his election campaign.
Call it “weaponisation” or just straightforward politics, Labour always stood the best chance of winning if it made its case to the electorate on the basis of the NHS.
What was more surprising was that Labour allowed itself to be manoeuvred into committing to spends less on health than all its rivals. As we have described before, trust on the NHS was gambled in an attempt to win wider trust on public finances.
New Incisive Health polling suggests the gamble has paid off – so far, at least – for Labour, in terms of the battle for health. The party has not only sustained its lead on health but has more than doubled it since February.
What is more, Miliband – who has consistently trailed Cameron as the leader the public most trusts to run the NHS – now leads on the issue, enjoying a 4 per cent lead on the back of a 7 per cent increase in his ratings since February.
Labour has more than doubled its lead on the NHS in the past two months (see graph, below).
Despite Labour’s progress in our tracker poll, it is striking that the Conservatives’ and Cameron’s ratings on health have remained relatively stable. It is not that the Tories are losing support on the NHS, but that the undecided appear to be breaking towards Labour and Miliband.
Labour’s arguments on the NHS seem to be cutting through more effectively with members of the public who are yet to make up their mind on health (see graph, below).
Historically, Miliband’s ratings on health have reflected wider perceptions of him, and he has trailed Cameron. The fact that he now leads on health – which should be one of his strongest attributes – for the first time in our tracker will be seen by many as a minimum requirement for a Labour leader.
It does nonetheless support arguments that the greater exposure of the campaign has helped Miliband.
The Conservatives never thought they could win on health, but they did hope to neutralise it, and shift public attention to other, more favourable, issues.
The £8bn promise was made without specifying where the money be found – it was a gamble that spending some accumulated trust on the economy would win some more support on health.
Strategists hoped to take the pledge and move on, shutting debate on the NHS down much in the way they had done in 2010.
The pledge has worked in one respect: Labour has found it difficult to get past questions on spending with the media, potentially blunting other attacks on health.
However, the pledge alone has not so far been sufficient to convince more voters to place their trust in the Conservatives on health.
There is still time for the dynamics to change again. Like any poll, our latest tracker is just a snapshot.
Fieldwork was conducted during Labour’s self-declared “health week”. If the public even noticed this, it may have had a short-term impact.
However, the scale of change – and the change on Mr Miliband’s personal ratings – will no doubt give many Labour activists cause for optimism. When we released the findings of our December poll showing Miliband slipping back, it was greeted with despondency and indeed some anger.
‘The Conservatives do need to do something to check Labour’s apparent momentum’
The mood in the Labour camp will now be considerably more upbeat.
With roughly a third of the public yet to side with any of the main parties or leaders, there is still everything to play for.
However, the Conservatives do need to do something to check Labour’s apparent momentum. The public is beginning to make up its mind (and cast its postal votes) and our poll suggests more people are turning red than blue.
Some Conservatives will feel that it is little wonder that Labour is cutting through with the public given that the public rarely hears their party speak about the NHS.
Cameron, who continues to outpoll his party, remains the Tories’ biggest asset on health.
The pressure will now grow for him to take a more prominent role on the NHS, speaking out on the issue more than he has done in the first part of the short campaign and directly appealing to those voters who have yet to make up their minds.
Of course, this election is about more than just the NHS and voters’ decisions will be based on a complex mix of their assessment of the issues, factors such as leadership, and their hopes and fears for the country over the next five years.
Health remains the big issue
We have tested voter attitudes on health, which is a Labour strength. Polling on a Conservative strength such as the economy may tell a different story.
Health remains the issue the public is most concerned about. It seems likely that the NHS will play some role in swaying voters’ decisions. The question remains: how much?
‘There is movement in people’s views on the issues’
Although the overall polls have shown little change, our tracker suggests that there is movement in people’s views on the issues.
Winning the battle on health could well tip the balance in some of the English marginals that will determine who will be the next prime minister.
Mike Birtwistle is a health policy consultant and a founding partner of Incisive Health
The ComRes poll for Incisive Health interviewed 2,051 British adults online between 22- 23 April. Data were weighted to be representative of all British adults aged 18 and over.