Polls have exposed the limits of party conference pledges alone as platform for communicating policies, and all the major parties have a way to go before they convince the public and media and have a decisive breakthrough, argue Mike Birtwistle and Ben Nunn

For health policy, this year’s party conferences will be remembered as one of the most expensive in terms of spending commitments in recent history.

The party leaders read the same polls including Incisive Health’s that the rest of us do. And those polls are unambiguous: the public wants more money to be spent on the NHS and they even appear prepared to pay for it.

‘No party scored a decisive breakthrough with the public on the NHS’

Yet the parties appeared to have cancelled each other out.

Despite the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour parties lining up to make spending commitments on the NHS, our exclusive polling, undertaken by ComRes, shows that no party scored a decisive breakthrough with the public on the NHS.

More of the same

Ed Miliband will be relieved to see that he has closed the personal gap that saw him trailing David Cameron on trust to run the NHS.

Mike Birtwistle

Mike Birtwistle

Mr Miliband’s week in Manchester may not have been a happy one, and he continues to be outperformed by his party on the NHS, but at least he no longer trails the prime minister on an issue he will need to score a decisive victory if he is to secure the keys to Downing Street next May.

As far as the parties are concerned, the polls are very much more of the same.

Public trust in Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems has all increased, with a substantial reduction in members of the public who say they don’t know who they trust the most.

‘The polls are very much more of the same’

Labour’s lead remains intact, but they do not appear to have made a breakthrough. Despite his high profile commitments on mental health, Nick Clegg continues to trail Nigel Farage on trust to run the NHS, as does his party with UKIP.

Sobering sight

So what of the parties health commitments? Our polling shows that the Conservatives’ pledge for seven day GP access received the most public cut through of all the health autumn conference announcements, with over a third of people correctly identifying this as their policy.

Ben Nunn

Ben Nunn

Just 29 per cent of voters were able to identify Labour’s promise to increase spending on the NHS through a “mansion tax” and just under a quarter of people recognised Cameron’s pledge to protect the NHS budget in the next Parliament.

One in four people identified the clampdown on “health tourism” as a UKIP policy, overtaking Mr Clegg’s announcement to introduce waiting time targets for mental health treatments.

And just 8 per cent of people were able to identify the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to increase NHS spending for the first two years of the next Parliament.

These figures will make sobering reading for all of political parties, and expose the limits of party conferences alone as a platform for communicating policies and messages.

‘The polls expose the limits of party conferences alone as a platform for communicating policies’

If the public has a one in four chance of randomly guessing which policy belongs to which party, then our figures show that party strategists have had little short term impact. Winning the battle for health will take longer than a few weeks in the autumn. Expect sustained campaigns on the issue between now and May.

Far to go

Politicians, of course, have another factor to deal with. Having lined up to agreed with NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens on the NHS Five Year Forward View, now they need to actually decide on whether to act on NHS England’s ideas.

From action on public health, to heeding the warning about further reorganisation of commissioning structures, claiming your plans have received the endorsement of NHS England is somewhat different to actually being aligned.

And that is before we get to the money.

‘No party can credibly claim their conference spending pledges come close to bridging the funding gap’

Despite the cost of their party conference commitments, no party can now credibly claim that their conference spending pledges come close to bridging the funding gap.

In the immediate aftermath of the forward view’s publication we have seen some further movement in the debate. George Osborne has said finding the additional £8bn the NHS needs by 2020 is “conceivable” while MP Liz Kendall told Newsnight that more money “will need to be found”.

Party leaders deserve credit for breaking the silence on the future of NHS funding. But if they are to meet the aspirations for the NHS laid out by Mr Stevens and reap the electoral success, they cannot allow the issue to go quiet again.

It seems doubtful that the public or media will let them. There is much work to be done before any party can feel comfortable with their position on the NHS. 

Mike Birtwistle and Ben Nunn both work for Incisive Health