The future of the NHS

Earlier this week the Government was defeated at the Labour party conference over their plans for more private sector involvement in the NHS. Although the anti-government motion was actually opposed by a majority of Labour’s constituency party delegates, it passed because the trade unions backed it almost unaminously.

Over the last week there have been a couple of polls on private involvement in the NHS, and the results aren’t what you’d quite expect. ICM’s monthly poll for the Guardian included a couple of questions on NHS funding – they showed that the public was split right down the middle. Asked if more choice in hospitals would drive up standards, 48% agreed while 49% disagreed. Asked if the private sector should have more involvement in the NHS, with the caveat that healthcare treatment should remain free at the point of delivery the split was again 48% in favour, 49% against.

A second ICM poll, this time for the Sunday Mirror, also asked about the NHS. An overwhelming 80% of those who expressed an opinion said they thought way the NHS was run and funded needed a radical review. When asked if they would favour a system of compulsory health insurance, those who expressed an opinion were again split pretty evenly – 50% said they agreed, while 45% said they disagreed.

This sits rather strangely with the way the NHS is seen as a sacred cow in British politics. No political party would dare enter an election suggesting any radical restructuring of the way the NHS is funded, let alone that people might have to pay directly for more NHS services. It seems that the public are prepared to be more radical than the politicians when it comes to health.

Part of this is that health service reforms have proved in the past to be very easy for opposing political parties to misrepresent. Perhaps part of the reason why politicians are so cautious on health can be also be seen by looking at the tables for the ICM/Sunday Mirror poll. The people who support compulsory health insurance are comparatively vague – they agree “somewhat” with the idea. On the other hand, most people who oppose it oppose it “strongly”. Add to that the fact that various polls in the past have shown that those people who actually care about the issue of health and say it will effect how they cast their vote, also tend to be people who prefer the Labour party’s policies on health to more radical alternatives. As a whole there might be slight majority of people who support such schemes as compulsory heath insurance, but opponents of such reforms feel more strongly and are more likely to let it effect their vote.


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