The NHS looks likely to be a defining issue in this year’s general election, with undecided voters in marginal seats ranking it as important to their choice, according to HSJ’s latest pre-election poll.

The joint HSJ/FTI Consulting survey suggested that in marginal constituencies the health service is a more salient issue among undecided voters than for those who had made up their minds.

Our research found that, with less than three months to go until polling day, only 46 per cent of the electorate had decided who they were going to vote for. Nineteen per cent of respondents said they were undecided about who they would vote for, and a further 30 per cent said they could still be persuaded to change their allegiance.

FTI survey big numbers

Our poll suggests the health service may be particularly important to election success because of its relevance among undecided voters in marginal seats.

We asked voters to describe as a percentage how important the NHS was in determining how they will vote. The national average figure given was 63 per cent.

Among respondents who said their constituency was marginal, the average score for the importance of the NHS was 64 per cent for undecided voters, compared with 55 per cent for those who said they would not change their voting choice.

Meanwhile, the survey revealed voters said their opinions on the NHS were influenced much more by personal experience and the testimony of friends and family than by politicians or the media. Voters tended to believe government politicians underplay challenges in the NHS, while opposition politicians were seen to exaggerate its challenges, even more than tabloid newspapers.

Across the country 60 per cent said personal experience influenced their opinion of the NHS, and 33 per cent said friends and family did. Among undecided voters in marginal seats this rose to 68 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively.

King’s Fund policy director Richard Murray said although the worst winter related pressures on the service appeared to be receding, he did not believe the NHS would decline in importance between now and the election.

He told HSJ: “We’re all expecting the numbers for the [2014-15 financial] year to look quite scary. Even if the public don’t respond to that, it’s hard for the politicians not to. They will have to explain what they are going to do about the money.

“It’s going to be a bumpy road down to the election.”

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