An HSJ survey has revealed that NHS managers look more likely than the population at large to back Labour in next year’s general election, perhaps driven by anxiety about job security under the Conservatives. Rebecca Evans studies the findings

NHS managers’ preferences for the two main political parties are strongly at odds with those of the general population, HSJ can reveal.

The Tories and Labour are the mirror image of what you would expect in a nationally representative poll

An online survey of more than 1,000 visitors to the HSJ website found that if a general election were called now, 50 per cent of the respondents would vote Labour. Twenty-nine per cent would vote Conservative, and 16 per cent were in favour of the Liberal Democrats.

On the questions of which of the political parties participants think is most likely to safeguard their job and which they most trust to make savings to the NHS budget without damaging patient care, support for Labour comes out higher - 65 per cent and 54 per cent respectively.

Two thirds of HSJ’s survey respondents said NHS matters would be “very important” to their voting decision.

Asked which party has the best policies on the NHS, 57 per cent said Labour did, compared with 25 per cent saying the Conservatives and 12 per cent Liberal Democrat. Support for the parties’ social care policies shows a similar pattern: 53 per cent Labour, 26 per cent Conservative and 16 per cent Liberal Democrat.

Polling company ComRes chief executive Andrew Hawkins says HSJ’s survey figures are a “reversal” of those of the general public, where the Conservatives’ rating is 42-44 per cent and Labour’s is 26-28.

Mirror image

Mr Hawkins says: “The Tories and Labour are the mirror image of what you would expect in a nationally representative poll.”

Among the general public, support for the Conservatives is slightly higher - and for Labour slightly lower - among those who say they are certain to vote, which is about half of the population. Among NHS managers, 90 per cent say they are very likely to vote.

Mr Hawkins says the 90 per cent figure would be “unheard of” among the general public.

“There may be very good reasons for that,” he says. People in this group [may be] more motivated to vote because they work on the front line in public service delivery.”

Of HSJ readers who say they are very likely to vote, support for Labour is 53 per cent, with just 26 per cent opting for the Conservatives. Again, this contrasts with the general population. Of those in Ipsos MORI’s October political monitor saying they are certain to vote, 43 per cent were Conservative supporters, and 26 per cent Labour.

Mr Hawkins says HSJ’s survey shows “bad results for the Tories”, in particular the questions showing that just 18 per cent of managers think their job is safest under a Conservative government and that only 25 per cent trust the Tories most to make savings to the NHS budget without damaging patient care.

“On health, education and the economy, the Tories are now ahead of Labour [nationally] but not by a credible margin - not by the sort of margin [by which] Labour are ahead of the Tories in your questions,” he says.

“My sense of the national picture is that NHS spending is the most important area of spending for the Tories and Labour to vie [over] for the most credibility in delivery terms. It’s one thing frightening voters by saying we are going to have to make cuts because we are in a terrible state, [but] the Tories have got to avoid doing it to the point where people worry about frontline services.”

Ipsos MORI head of NHS policy research Jonathan Nicholls says NHS managers are a significant group “that are going to be responsible for delivering the Tory agenda should they get in at the next election”.

He suggests the results show an “implied anxiety” the Tories would not safeguard senior jobs.

“Their concern is both at an organisational level and a personal level and the two are playing off each other,” he says.

As a comparison, Mr Nicholls says public concern about the NHS has fallen significantly - from more than 70 per cent saying the NHS is the most important issue in 2002 to around 15 per cent saying it now.

But Managers in Partnership chief executive Jon Restell points out many managers may have reviewed all three parties’ policies and found them similar.

“It’s people thinking they are safer with Labour; I suspect it’s because it’s the incumbent government,” he suggests.

Managers may also be reacting to the hostility the Conservatives displayed to NHS managers at their party conference earlier this month.

The third factor that could explain NHS managers’ strong support for Labour is the sense that they might have more local control over spending cuts.

Mr Restell characterises their views as: “We might need to suffer the same pain in terms of switching resources but maybe we will have a little more control [than] the Conservatives were perhaps pointing to as a more centrally driven process.”

Put to the vote: respondents’ comments

  • Although I am not completely happy with Labour, the alternative, ie, the Conservatives, fills me with fear of what would happen to the public sector.
  • Liberal Democrats can’t win, Conservatives will privatise, Labour needs to admit its mistakes and focus on the needs of the service users rather than on the structures of health and social care.
  • Politicians must be honest with the public about the scale of the challenge to the NHS and depoliticise the issue - offering greater independence to the operational side of the NHS.
  • The pre-election period is likely to result in an absence of direction for this large and complex service for a year or more at a time when clarity and courage are essential.
  • Cutting the target driven culture is important, but the Conservative party is not the party of the NHS and never will be.
  • All the parties are promising me the sack, but with some it is sooner than others.
  • The biggest problem with the current government is too much talk and too much regulation.