ComRes had a poll yesterday which got some attention because it showed the NHS as the issue people thought was most important facing the country, up eleven points since they last asked. This followed a YouGov poll last week which showed the NHS in third place in the list of salient issues, but also increasing by 13 percentage points since December, putting it 6 points behind the economy and immigration.

These look like contrasting findings (first place and third place) but they really aren’t – both show big increases in the salience of the NHS and similar proportions of people picked out the NHS as a major issue (50% in ComRes, 46% in YouGov). There is a significant difference in the proportion of people picking the economy in the two polls, but that’s because of the way the question is asked: YouGov offer a single option for the economy in general (picked by 52%), ComRes offer three or four different economicy sort of options that responses were split between (promoting growth (20%), distributing benefits of growth (20%), reducing the deficit (19%), keeping down costs (25%)).

This highlights one of the challenges of asking “important issues” questions like this – they are really influenced by the options you offer. The other regular important issues tracker by Ipsos MORI doesn’t suffer from this problem as it is asked face-to-face and completely open ended – people are asked to say what issues they think are important in their own words… but Ipsos MORI still have to decide how to code them up. In December MORI found the most important issues were immigration (42%), economy (33%), NHS (33%). We haven’t had their January figures yet and if they pick up the same trend as YouGov and ComRes we should expect to see a big jump for the NHS, but it’s up there in the top three already anyway.

Exactly which issue comes “top” isn’t really that important anyway unless you are a headline writer. It’s not like an election, there is no prize that is won by being considered important by one more person than the next issue, and which issue comes “top” in a poll is largely determined by how pollsters divide up the options or categorise people’s responses. The point is that immigration and the economy have been considered important issues by very large proportions of the British public for a couple of years and, for now at least (for the ComRes and YouGov polls were taken in the immediate aftermath of some very negative headlines about the NHS), the NHS has become an issue of comparable importance.

On that issue, we should have a big lovely lump of Ashcroft polling on the NHS out tomorrow.

This week’s YouGov/Sunday Times poll is out here. Topline figures are CON 32%, LAB 32%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 18%, GRN 6%. YouGov’s average for UKIP this week has been running at only been 14%, so the 18% here looks unusually high – it could be an effect of the the events in Paris, or could just be a random blip.

Part of the rest of the poll addressed the attack on Charlie Hebdo – of course, these figures need to be seen in that context and people’s opinions may very be different in circumstances that are not so emotionally charged (it’s an issue I’ve sometimes commented on about polling about the death penalty – people only commission polls on the death penalty when there is a particularly heinous murder in the news, so polls are always influenced by a particular event).

Looking at the polling, a strong majority of people think the press should be free to criticise, mock and ridicule religion, but even in the current context a sizeable minority disagree. Around a quarter of people think the media should not be allowed to mock or ridicule religious beliefs or figures, 18% think the media should not even be allowed to criticise or question religion. More specifically, 69% of people think it was acceptable for Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, 14% unacceptable. In the aftermath of the attack, 63% think that other newspapers should have reprinted the cartoons, 71% that the media in general have an obligation to show controversial items that might offend people if they are newsworthy.

Moving back onto party politics, YouGov asked about the two issues that dominated the first few days of campaigning last week – the economy and the NHS – along with expectations and preferences for the result.

A majority of people (58%) think that the pledges and promises that Labour have made mean they would end up having to increase taxes on people like them. However, people feel almost the same about the pledges and promises made by the Conservative party – 51% think they would end up having to increase taxes for people like them. Overall 37% think George Osborne has been a good Chancellor, 44% a bad one – a net rating of minus 7. This actually compares relatively well to people’s recollections of past Chancellors – Alistair Darling scores minus 19, Gordon Brown minus 18, Ken Clarke minus 8 and minus 19 for Norman Lamont.

Labour maintain their normal lead on the party most trusted to deliver NHS services – 31% would trust a Labour government under Ed Miliband more, 22% a Conservative government under David Cameron (there was a ComRes poll late last year that showed David Cameron more trusted than Ed Miliband on the NHS, which caused some comment. I think that’s probably just a salutory lesson of not paying too much attention to single polls with unusual results – the overwhelming majority of polls on the NHS show Labour are more trusted on it even if you do mention David Cameron and Ed Miliband in the question.

Asked about their own experience of GP services, 15% say their local GP service has got better, 34% worse, 40% that is has stayed about the same. 49% of people say they are normally able to get an appointment when they need one, 36% that they are often unable to. 8% say they have had to go to A&E when they were unable to get a GP appointment. Long waits at Accident & Emergency are mostly blamed on people turning up with minor ailments, rather than funding shortages from this or the previous government. 54% blame people turning up with minor problems, 29% blame immigration and health tourism, 28% not enough social care and 27% lack of GP out of hours service.

Looking towards the next election people are split down on the middle on their preferences – 38% would prefer the Conservatives to have the most seats, 38% for Labour to have the most seats. 52% would like one of the parties to win an overall majority, 24% would prefer a hung Parliament. Asked what they think the result will actually be, 59% expect a hung Parliament, only 18% expect a majority government. The Conservatives are seen as slightly more likely than Labour to be the largest party, 42% to 35%. Asked a more detailed question about coalition preferences, Tory voters would prefer another deal with the Lib Dems to one with UKIP (48% to 37%). Labour voters would prefer a Lib Dem deal to one with the SNP or UKIP (42% Lib Dem, 29% SNP, 12% UKIP).


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.

Tables for the weekly YouGov/Sunday Times poll are now up here. Topline voting intention figures are CON 34%, LAB 39%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 11%. In the lack of any really big news stories this week, the rest of the poll was a bit of a grab bag of issues – Labour and Falkirk, accident and emergency, cyclists going through red lights…

The ongoing Falkirk story still doesn’t seem to be having a particular impact with the general public. Only 26% of people said they were following the story very or fairly closely – 48% were not following it at all or were totally unaware of it. On most of the questions YouGov asked they found a high level of don’t knows – for example, 19% think Miliband has handled Falkirk well, 36% badly, but 45% don’t know.

On wider trade union issues, 55% would support changing the law so strike ballots required the support of 50% of eligible members, not just of those voting. 65% think the “leverage tactics” used by Unite in Grangemouth were unacceptable and 54% would support a ban on trade unions involved in a dispute protesting outside the private homes of directors.

Moving to the NHS, amongst people who have used their local A&E in the past few years 82% say they received a good service. 18% thought their local A&E services had got better, 23% worse. However 41% thought waiting times had got longer. More generally 50% are confident that A&E will be able to meet people’s needs this winter, 38% are not. If they had to choose, 46% would prefer retaining A&E services even if it meant resources were stretched, 26% would prefer fewer but better resourced A&E.

Finally 44% of people have personally seen a cyclist go through a red light in the last month, 43% have not. 63% think it is fairly or very common for cyclists to go through red lights. 87% of people think this is unacceptable even when a cyclist can see the way ahead is clear and 78% think cyclists who go through red lights should be prosecuted. Amongst regular cyclists themselves (that is, people who say they cycle at least once a week), 18% say they have gone through a red light in the last six months. 24% think it is acceptable to go through a red light if they can see the way ahead is clear and 69% would support the prosecution of people who cycle through red lights.

YouGov’s weekly poll for the Sunday Times is now up here. Topline figures are CON 33%, LAB 41%, LD 9%, UKIP 10%, so a higher Labour lead than usual, but with a recent average lead of six points it’s well within the margin of error. As usual with the YouGov/Sunday Times polls there is a broad range of subjects, including the economy, the NHS, education and support for stay at home mothers.

The regular economic optimism question now shows a feel good factor (the proportion of people expecting their financial situation to get better, minus those who expect it to get worse) of minus 25. While still negative, it equals the least negative rating since April 2010.

Asked more specifically about the state of the economy, 25% think the economy is still getting worse, 34% that it has stopped getting worse but there are no signs of recovery yet. 30% now think there are signs of recovery and another 5% think we are on the way to full recovery. This is a big shift from when YouGov last asked the question in April, when only 14% thought there were any signs of recovery. Asked how much they think the government have contributed to any economic recovery, 32% of people think the government’s actions have helped the economy recover, 23% that they made little difference, 36% that they made things worse.

41% of people think that A Levels got easier over the last ten years and 53% think that the toughening up of the exam marking last year was the right thing to do (21% disagree). An Oxbridge education is seen as being worth £9000 a year tuition fees by 52% to 29%. People are more evenly split over other top universities (37% think they are worth £9000 a year, 41% do not), and almost two-thirds of people think tuition at universities outside the top twenty is not worth the money. Despite this people are still evenly split over whether it is financially worthwhile going to university – 41% think increased graduate earnings are worth more than the cost of going to university, 40% think they are not.

Labour maintain their usual strong lead on the NHS, 32% to the Conservatives’ 20%. Only 21% think that Jeremy Hunt is doing a good job as Health Secretary, 52% a bad job. Looking to the future 51% of people think it will be possible to keep the NHS free at the point of delivery, even if costs continue to rise, 38% think that the NHS will eventually become unaffordable. A majority (58%) would oppose means testing NHS services in the future.

By 39% to 14% people think the government is doing more to help mothers who go out to work than those who stay at home (15% said they were doing equal amounts and 32% didn’t know). Asked which group NEED more help, 43% say they both need support, 25% think working mothers need more support, 15% think stay at home mothers need more support. The £1200 a year allowance for childcare for working parents is supported by 49% to 34%. People are less supportive of giving similar financial support to stay at home parents, 41% would support it, 41% would oppose it.

Finally, by 67% to 20% people see zero-hour contracts as a bad thing, and 56% would support a ban on them.