A new poll ahead of the Greater Manchester mayoral elections offers some wider hope and pointers to Labour, writes Mike Birtwistle

The national opinion polls in 2017 have made uniformly grim reading for Labour Party strategists and activists. It is true that opinion polls can be wrong, but you would be hard-pressed to invent a margin of error that is wide enough to give Labour any comfort. Even the most diehard of activists hold little hope that election day will see a Labour majority and Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10.

The gloom even extends to the NHS, which is traditionally a policy area of Labour comfort. Although the NHS is seen by voters as one of the most important issues at the election (70 per cent list it in their top three issues), Theresa May has a three point lead over Jeremy Corbyn on trust to run the NHS (in fairness, this is not a new phenomenon, David Cameron also outpolled Ed Miliband on the issue), although her party still trails Labour on the issue.

So the Incisive Health / ComRes poll ahead of the Greater Manchester Mayoral elections will offer some comfort to Labour. Admittedly, Labour should win in Manchester by a metropolitan mile, but what can party strategists learn from public attitudes in the Northern Powerhouse about carving a winning position on health?

Labour has a strong lead on trust to deal with the NHS in Greater manchester (37 per cent to 24 per cent for the Conservatives). Andy Burnham also outperforms his own party on the issue (41 per cent of respondents chose him, compared to only 15 per cent who chose Sean Anstee, the Conservative mayoral candidate). Name recognition is clearly a big factor here. Andy Burnham is a nationally recognised figure with a long track record on health and care.

Top three challenges

Yet key pillars of Labour’s health platform are failing to resonate with voters in even Labour-leaning Greater Manchester. Less than one in 10 (9 per cent) adults in the region chose “removing private sector involvement in health and care” as the most important health and care priority (among 2015 Labour voters the figure was only 12 per cent).

We can assume the salience of the issue will be even lower in more marginal areas of the country. Putting an issue which matters little to voters at the heart of your campaign makes little electoral sense.

Conversely, “shortages of doctors, nurses and other clinical staff” is seen as the biggest challenge facing the NHS in Greater Manchester, with two thirds (68 per cent) of respondents listing the issue as one of the top three challenges.

“Patients being denied access to treatments because of cost” (50%) and “increasing waiting times” (43%) were the next most significant. There appears to be far more electoral mileage in these issues, but whether Labour prioritises applause lines from the party faithful over the issues that matter more to the public remains to be seen.

For candidates struggling to save their seats in the face of dire national polls, there will be a growing determination to bolster their credentials as a local champion

The Incisive Health poll findings also suggest that it will be difficult for candidates to resist the temptation to campaign against service reconfigurations. Nearly four in five (77 per cent) respondents agree or strongly agree with the statement that “the Mayor of Greater Manchester should oppose any future closure or downgrading of hospital departments, including A&E, even if this leads to cuts in other public services.”

The public’s attachment to hospitals is undiminished, at least in Greater Manchester.

With STPs under extreme financial pressure and contemplating far-reaching and controversial changes to services, this issue will be front of mind for many voters.

For candidates struggling to save their seats in the face of dire national polls and a hostile reaction to their leader on the doorstep, there will be a growing determination to bolster their credentials as a local champion. The temptation to leap to the defence of bricks and mortar will be strong. This will not be a quiet election for those NHS managers tasked with pushing through changes.

If, as the polls suggest, Labour faces electoral wipeout on 8 June, many will look to Greater Manchester as a key test of whether the party can rebuild from a base in local and regional government.

Electorally meaningful

Those seeking to do so would do well to remember that, in Manchester at least, the public wants the directly-elected Mayor to focus on health and care. Four in 10 (41 per cent) cite improving the NHS and social care services as their top priority for the Mayor, compared to only 21 per cent for growing the regional economy and creating jobs. If Labour is to have a future as a viable party of government, then its policy on the NHS will be critical.

However, it will need to focus on what matters to the public if it is to convert its historic association on the NHS into something which can once more be electorally meaningful.

Mike Birtwistle is a founding partner at Incisive Health, a specialist health policy and communications consultancy.