Another day, more rather over-exaggerated reporting of public opinion on the NHS. The HSJ headlines some MORI polling as showing “Public split over use of private firms in NHS as Labour doubles poll lead on health”. It’s behind some big paywall so perhaps the article itself gives a much better picture (it would be far from the first time that a headline makes a story seem more exciting than it is), but essentially it shows Labour’s lead on the NHS is double what it was at the election. However, it shows very little change since the last time MORI asked the question in June 2011. As we’ve seen in the more regular issue polling from YouGov, the big drop in people preferring the Conservatives on health happened in late 2010 and early 2011, it isn’t a recent thing.
Here is what we actually *know* about attitudes to the government’s health policy, stripped of all the exaggeration and hyperbole.
1) Amongst people who actually have an opinion it isn’t popular. If you ask whether or not people support the government’s health policy based on what they know, more people are opposed than support the policy. However, an awful lot of people don’t seem to know enough about the policy to have any opinion. The last time YouGov asked at the end of last month only 14% supported the policy, 48% were opposed, but 38% didn’t know.
2) Questions about the actual contents and principles behind the Bill also generally show public opposition. When YouGov asked last year about GP consortiums in May last year the public were opposed by 55% to 25%, more recently they found that people thought more competition in the NHS would make things worse rather than better (by 46% to 18%), as would giving doctors more control over their budgets (albeit, by a smaller margin – 36% worse, 26% better, 17% no difference)
However, the Ipsos MORI poll today showed a more even divide on whether people agreed with the statement “as long as health services are free of charge, it doesn’t matter to me whether they are provided by the NHS or a private company” – 44% agreed, 41% disagreed.
3) What little evidence we have suggests most NHS workers don’t support it. There have been a large amount of voodoo polls and claptrap cited as evidence of NHS workers not liking the NHS reforms and an almost complete absence of any proper polling of them. There was a proper poll of doctors commissioned by the Kings Fund, but that was back in 2010. More recently there was a YouGov poll of NHS staff in general for 38Degrees which found 66% of staff questioned thought the reforms would make the NHS worse.
4) It hasn’t necessarily damaged government support, nor further damaged people’s trust in the Conservatives on the NHS. We have seen Labour move ahead in the polls of late, but as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, this is just as likely to be the unwinding of the European veto effect, or Ed Miliband getting less bad coverage than in January.
On the NHS Labour re-established a strong lead on the issue of the NHS back in 2011, since then there has not been any obvious trend in the data on which party people prefer on the NHS in YouGov’s regular tracker (graphed in this post). The MORI data today also showed little movement since they last asked in June 2011 – back then Labour lead the Conservatives on the issue of the NHS by 37% to 21%, the figures are now Labour 37%(nc), Conservatives 19%(-2). Essentially not many people trusted the Conservatives much on the NHS anyway, they don’t have much of a reputation to lose.
(While I’m here, it is worth noting that “best party on issue” questions tend to move in tandem with one another, if a party becomes less popular overall the proportion of people preferring them on crime, immigration, the economy, health, etc tends to go down at the same time – hence even the big drop in people preferring the Conservatives on health since 2010 isn’t necessarily anything to do with health. They’ve also dropped on all the other issues, and a significant part is just a more negative perception of the Conservative party overall)
This is not to say the issue of the NHS could not do more damage to the Conservatives in the future, that it isn’t doing deeper damage to perceptions of whether the Conservatives care about public services, or that not being trusted on the NHS isn’t preventing the Conservatives gaining support they might otherwise be getting. All these things are perfectly plausible… we just don’t have the evidence to confirm or deny them.