New Coke, the sweeter reformulation of Coca-Cola that the company launched in the 1980s, is remembered as a failure of market research or at least, of the interpretation of market research. Surveys in advance, focus groups and taste tests preferred the new version of Coke. When it actually launched there was a negative backlash. People didn’t like their Coke being messed with and Coca-Cola eventually reversed and went back to the old formula. It’s a classic example of how a product that tests well in the artificial environment of a survey or taste test doesn’t necessarily perform the same way “in the wild”, when subject to the full chaotic system of public opinion.

This isn’t going to be a post about Coca-Cola market research strategy in the 1980s – I am sure it was far more complicated than the myths that have grown up about it – rather this polling from YouGov for the Times about NHS spending. At the weekend some of the papers reported that Labour were considering an increase in National Insurance contributions to help fund the NHS. YouGov asked people directly about this – would they like to see the basic level of National Insurance go up from 12p to 13p to help fund the NHS – indeed, people would, by 48% to 37%.

Politicians have in the past tended to use National Insurance as a rise that is less noticeable to the public than income tax, even though for salaried employees it is much the same thing (obviously it has different thresholds, but it’s still essentially an extra 1% of your salary deducted at source). I was a little cynical about that – did it really work, or do people treat it just the same? Or even, would people prefer the honesty of an income tax rise? YouGov asked the same question using a rise in the basic rate of income tax. Funded from income tax its the other way around, 34% support it, 51% are opposed. It looks as it the ruse works – if the extra 1% of people’s wages is labelled a NI rise, people support it. If it’s labelled an income tax rise, people oppose it.

Of course there are technical differences between NI and income tax (the way it affects the self-employed, or isn’t paid by pensioners, or is paid by people on lower pay than income tax is) and in theory they could contribute to the difference. I suspect most of the answer is simply that people are more aware of income tax and how it works and understand national insurance less well. Hence they are less supportive of a tax rise when they understand exactly how they’ll be paying it.

To bring it back to the New Coke analogy though, what does the question tell us about the policy? Would it be a popular thing for Labour to promise? Well, I think it tells us there’s a risk there. If support for a tax rise is conditional upon people not understanding it very well it does pose the question of what would happen if they had it explained to them, or even “misexplained” to them (remember how a National Insurance rise was packaged up as a “Labour jobs tax” by the Tories before the last election?). Essentially people like spending more on the NHS, they generally dislike paying more taxes (YouGov also asked if people would support keeping income tax, NI and health spending the same – people supported that too!). In the artificial scenario of a polling question you can link those two things and force people to consider them as one, you can use a form of tax people answering the question aren’t so familiar with. If it was an actual party policy, it would be out there being debated by parties, reported by the media, discussed in the pub. Would it be a discussion about how Labour are willing to make the hard but necessary decisions on providing the funding for the future of the NHS? Or would it be a discussion about how Labour would be putting up ordinary people’s taxes? Until a policy goes out into the wild that’s not an easy question to answer.

122 Responses to “But it is popular in real life?”

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  1. site even.

  2. Now it seems that Labour can’t afford an Aye vote in September, barring some unexpected surge in England and Wales.

  3. Populus has a lot to answer for.

  4. “Now it seems that Labour can’t afford an Aye vote in September”

    Except that Cameron’s apparently said he’ll resign if there is one which will be to Labour’s benefit, at least in the short term.

  5. Roger H,

    “apparently said he’ll resign”

    I’ve heard rumours to that effect, but no hard facts.

    If Cameron was replaced by a more UKIP-friendly leader, I think that this would make Labour’s problems even worse.

  6. The Tory Party would be in chaos for months and in no fit state to fight an election. (And a UKIP-friendly replacement risks alienating more people than it appeases.)

  7. Roger H,

    Would this be because of the imminent lose of all their Scottish MPs? Or because a Labour-led campaign had failed?

    And it’s not clear how important the Tories’s relatively pro-European and pro-immigration stance is to their appeal right now.

  8. * imminent loss

  9. Though, of course, the Tories would only be in a position to leapfrog ahead of Labour in terms of MPs after 2016 at the earliest. Plenty of time for Labour to do a 100% principled u-turn on PR.

  10. @Peter Crawford

    Quite right regarding the inbuilt Labour lead due to the failure of boundary redistribution. Tories really ought not to have put saving the present make-up and appointment of the House of Lords above suggested changes – at least, not if they ever wanted to govern on their own again.

    Those of us who are old enough remember the days when a similar failure to implement boundary changes produced a situation in 1974 (?) where Newcastle Central had an electorate of 20000, whereas High Wycombe, or Amersham or somewhere in that amorphous area had 108,000.

    Is there anything to be said for the Boundary Commission being able to impose its will, whether the Westminster Parties want it to or not?

  11. @PC

    I was responding to yours of 11.09.

  12. @BP

    “Though, of course, the Tories would only be in a position to leapfrog ahead of Labour in terms of MPs after 2016 at the earliest. Plenty of time for Labour to do a 100% principled u-turn on PR”


    “Except that Cameron’s apparently said he’ll resign if there is one which will be to Labour’s benefit, at least in the short term.”

    It’s more complicated than that. Post No referendum result we have no idea how Scottish Labour will respond. There are already signs of internal fighting over “what next”. I’m not sure what authority Milliband will be able to wield in such circumstances. And that is assuming that post Referendum manifestos give a clear picture of the next stage of devolution. If they don’t, then there may be a backlash over ‘broken promises’. If there are, then the English will demand reductions in Scots mps’ powers at Westminster. And that’s all before we start to take into account any continuing UKIP pressure for a referendum on Europe.

    And would Labour be happy to reward the LibDems with PR after all that has been said over the past four years?

  13. Obviously not a “crossover”, as Lab and Con would need to cross over for that to be the case.

    We obviously need some jargon for when the two leading parties are at the same score in a poll.

    May I be the first to suggest using butt?

  14. sine nomine


  15. @JOHN B

    “I suspect that what your Continental friends and you were forgetting is that a UK first degree does not take a student to the level of many Continental first degrees. Whilst in Italy I was often referred to as “Dottore” – not quite PhD level but certainly a Masters or above – on the mistaken assumption that my professional qualification from a UK University was of that level. I did not disabuse the mistaken – but I did get a Masters later on returning to the UK……”


    Lol, typical John. “UK friend” is a nice way of underplaying the fact I was referring to an Oxford Don. From a department that at the time produced more high-level research than the rest of the world combined in its discipline. You get a Masters automatically from Oxford… the fact they call themselves Doctor abroad is neither here nor there. What matters is the curriculum. Have you compared them? Be interesting to know how many institutions abroad had entrance exams requiring the students to do partial differential equations aged 17 or even 18.

  16. @John b

    We have tended to punch above our weight in the league tables comparing the universities too. In the Times list we have 3 in the top 10… The only one from the continent in the top 20 is Swiss. Italy doesn’t even have one in the top 200…

  17. Go on Carfrew, tell us how many more Nobel prizes Cambridge has got than France ! That’ll show ’em.

  18. Lol, Ewen, John b was putting the Italians above us, I was just evening things up. France’s first showing is in at number 65, which is quite good, all things considered. Dunno if you get called doctor there though…

  19. p.s. Ewen

    Cambridge? Yes, they have a university too, don’t they? Not much cop at boating though. And they punt from the wrong end…

  20. new thread

  21. I’m guessing that a least some of the 37% would argue that there is already enough money in the system to pay for the NHS, and that rather than raising more revenue, we should just excise some of the private companies that have been inserted into the process for no reason other than to leech public money.

    I wouldn’t take “would you support a raise in tax to pay for the NHS” as an indicator of whether people support it as an institution. I suspect many of its most staunch supporters would not support that, since they will be more aware than most of the extent to which it is being milked for profit.

  22. “(And a UKIP-friendly replacement risks alienating more people than it appeases.)”

    I agree.

    If Tory supporters wanted to vote for UKIP, they’d probably just do it. After all, it seems to be generally accepted that the Coalition is not going to make it past 2015 either, so there’s really nothing stopping them taking a big stand on principle if they want to.

    My instinct tells me that anyone who is going to quit the Tories for UKIP probably already has done.

    It’s possibly worth pointing out also that a big part of the reason Tories were defecting to UKIP was over imminent same-sex marriage laws. Now that those laws have been introduced, and the predicted plague of incest and horse-marriage has failed to materialise, I think many of them will be quietly returning to the fold.

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