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.

Every poll of the general public so far has shown Ken Clarke to be the most popular candidate for the Conservative leadership. Every poll asking how people would vote with various potential Tory leaders has shown that Clarke would put on the most votes. However, every such poll has also had to be hedged with caveats saying that Ken’s lead may just be down to him being easily the most recognised of the candidates. People don’t pick David Cameron, say, or Liam Fox because they have very little real idea of who they are.

There is a YouGov poll in today’s Spectator (registration required) that tries to deal with this problem. Instead of just giving respondents a list of names to chose from, they were asked how likely they were to vote Conservative, then shown a photo of one of the candidates, along with five statements about them – things about their background and things they’ve said during the campaign – and asked to say, based on the things they’d just read, how likely they would be to vote Conservative with that person as leader.

Once the candidates were put on a level-playing field, Ken Clarke was no longer the leader who would increase the Tory vote the most. In fact he increased it the least. On average people currently rate their chances of voting Tory at the next election as 3.3/10. With Ken Clarke in charge it would go up to 3.6/10, with Liam Fox in charge 4.0/10, with David Cameron or David Davis it would rise to 4.2/10.

Exactly how much weight you place on this obviously depends upon how well the information given to respondents in the poll actually reflects the candidates’ positions. Since candidates haven’t issued nice neat one page statements of where they stand on issues this is far from easy, and to get a rounded picture it is also necessary for potential negatives about candidates to be pointed out (such as Cameron’s background at Eton and Clarke’s links with BAT). Most of the statements are actually culled from candidates’ speeches in recent weeks, but even then there is the question of what things to include. Liam Fox, for example, has spoken about human rights in China, rebuilding the “broken society”, mental health, abortion, Iraq, the European Union and so on – with each candidate getting only 5 statements, only a few of them can be mentioned.

So while the relative positions of the candidates are only as accurate as you think the statements summing up the broad thrust of their campaigns are, the more important finding of the poll is that Ken Clarke’s lead really is just down to increased recognition – tell respondents about who the other candidates are, what they look like and some of the things they stand for, and they too can be just as popular.

As to the particular strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, there are no great surprises. Ken Clarke’s anti-war stance and his general ordinary-bloke image are his greatest strengths, his experience in government is a positive and his links with BAT a negative. David Davis’s personal narrative – growing up on a council estate to a single parent family before going on to forge a successful business career was, predictably, a strong positive, as was his support for low taxes. People were less sure about his support for bringing more competition and choice into public services. It’s probably worth noting that the was a particular gender difference with David Davis – amongst women voters likelihood of voting Tory went to up 4.4, amongst men it only went up to 3.9.

David Cameron’s family background – his young family, his personal experience of looking after a disabled child and resultant campaigning for the disabled, was a positive (although his own priviledged background and Eton schooling was strong negative), as was his support for a more inclusive party. His most positive score (and the most positive score for any of the statements in the survey) was for his statement that the Conservative party should change its attitude to public services, and start seeing government spending on things like education and transport as a positive good, not a necessary evil.

People liked Liam Fox’s background as a GP, and his emphasis on the family (although David Davis and David Cameron made similar comments and got similar positive reactions), and his Euro-scepticism was a plus, but his closeness to the US and support for the war were a strong negative.


Welcome to old readers and new. Some people here will be my regular readers from elsewhere, other people will be entirely new and will probably be asking themselves exactly what UK Polling Report is, what it’s doing here on YouGov’s website.

Polling Report exists to report the latest opinion polls and to discuss what they mean, and how they work. Regular posts here will analyse all the latest polls, look at what the polling evidence says about particular issues of the day and demystify some of the mechanics behind how opinion polls themselves work. It’s also an opportunity for people to discuss what the polls mean in the comments sections.

The second conference of the season, and a fresh round of conference polls. Populus and ICM both have new polls in this mornings papers.

Populus’s poll looked at whether or not Tony Blair has managed to permanently change the public image of the Labour party. While we’ve already seen that Gordon Brown is seen as more left wing than Tony Blair, do people think that he will drag Labour back to the left when he takes over?

70% of people think that Labour has “really changed from its old Labour past and won’t go back even when Tony Blair retires”. However this doesn’t mean people think Brown won’t make any difference, opinion on that is far more divided – 52% think government policy will significantly change when Brown takes over, 44% think ti won’t. This suggests that, while few people think Gordon Brown will transform Labour back into a 1970s, unilateralist, beer-and-sandwiches version of itself, over half the population do think he will change the party, and I doubt many believe the change will be a move to the right.

The government’s attempts to emphasise that Gordon Brown will continue to govern in the same way that Tony Blair has seems to have had some effect though, the same question asked a year ago found that 61% thought that Brown would be significantly different to Blair. However, given how much more popular Gordon Brown is than Tony Blair, this is not necessarily good for the government.

On broader questions of the Labour party’s image Tony Blair also seems to have succeeded in changing the public’s perception of Labour. Throughout the 1980s the Conservative party revelled in its role as “the natural party of government”; now around 50% of voters see Labour as the natural party of government, while more than two-thirds think that “Labour used to be the party for the working class and the unions; now it is a party for the middle class and business”.

Meanwhile, ICM concentrated on whether people though Labour had delivered on the pledges they made way back in 1997. With one very important exception people thought they hadn’t.

Less than half of respondents thought that Labour had got more people off welfare and into work (42%) and governed for the many not the few (41%) while only around a third thought they had delivered “education, education, education” (34%), saved the NHS (34%) or brought an ethical dimension to British politics. Only around a quarter of respondents thought they had been “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” (26%), brought an end to sleaze (25%) or produced an integrated transport policy (25%).

The exception to the rule, however, was arguably the most important issue of all; 56% of respondents thought that Labour had indeed delivered a strong economy. Even 39% of Conservative supporters thought that Labour had delivered on the economy. Not that Tony Blair seems to have been given much credit for this – his net approval rating has fallen back to -19%.

Left vs Right

The Times’s report on Populus’s conference polls at the weekend included a question asking people to put themselves on a left/right scale, ICM did a similar thing on Monday in the Guardian, and the Times also referred to a YouGov poll published in a paper by Peter Kellner in the Political Quarterly. As promised I’ve got the paper from Peter, but the actual left-right scale questions are already available online here anyway.

Now a straight left-right scale is pretty meaningless as a representation of parties policies these day. Despite that it is still a good way of looking at how people view the images of parties, and how close they feel to them.

Now, while Populus used a numerical scale (and found slightly different results – Labour, for example, were seen as being slightly right of centre), YouGov and ICM used almost identical wording in their questions, meaning we can compare the figures (On ICM’s tables they use a scale of -3 to 3, but so I can compare I’m using Peter Kellner’s method of changing this into a numerical average for both polls, very left-wing is counted as -100, fairly left-wing as -67, slightly left of centre as -33, centre as 0, slight right of centre at +33 and so on).

Bear in mind that even using almost identical wording there are obvious differences – YouGov’s fieldwork is online, while ICM’s is done on the phone, not to mention the fact that they were done a couple of months apart. This means there are some differences: the primary one being that people are more likely to describe themselves as being in the centre in the ICM poll.

The average voter in both polls puts themselves almost bang in the centre of the political spectrum (on YouGov the average was -2, on ICM it was +2). The average Tory voter in both polls puts themselves slightly right-of-centre (YouGov +35, ICM +27), while Lib Dem and Labour voters put themselves slightly left of centre in YouGov’s poll (-23 and -22 respectively) and slightly less so in ICM’s poll (-8 and -10). Already there is an obvious lesson here – current Labour and Lib Dem voters are almost interchangable ideologically. They are currently appealling to exactly the same ideological demographic.

Now let’s look at the parties and their leaders. On average the Labour party is seen as only slightly left of centre at -16. This is actually to the right of Labour’s average voter, putting themselves in the enviable position of being situated nicely between the mass of their vote, and the mass of voters clustered around the mid-point on the scale. Labour voters themselves see the Labour party as being at -6 on the scale, again an enviable position to find themselves in; their supporters see them as being on the middle ground, but not quite to the point where they cross over into being a right-wing party.

Looking at YouGov’s data, Tony Blair is seen as only slightly right of centre on +7. Vitally though, he shouldn’t entirely alienate Labour voters because they place him exactly on 0. Conservatives view him as slightly right-of-centre at +6. Blair is still in the position of being seen as a centrist by Labour supporters, but slightly right-of-centre by Conservative voters – it is an almost perfect position. The problem comes when we look at Lib Dem voters – the most left wing group on YouGov’s polls; they consider Blair to be right of centre at +15.

Come the next election of course, Gordon Brown will be in charge of the Labour party and YouGov found that people perceive him as being far more left-wing, with an average rating of -20. In his article Peter Kellner suggests this illustrates one of New Labour’s strengths – the combination of Blair, who appeals to those on the middle ground and centre-right, and Brown, who traditional Labour voters see as one of their own.

When Brown takes over as PM of course, the Labour party will no longer have Blair’s middle-ground appeal, and suddenly they will be a party that is perceived as left wing, led by a Prime Minister who is perceived as left wing. Many people argue that Brown isn’t actually anymore left wing than Blair, that he is right at the heart of the New Labour project and believes the same things as Blair does – that isn’t really the point though; people’s perception of him is left wing, and that’s what matters.

Now, this may not be a bad thing for Labour – it will help them get back the support from those Lib Dem voters who see Tony Blair as unacceptably right wing, but it also risks driving away support from those on the soft right who are currently perfectly comfortable with Tony Blair, but may be scared off by a more left wing figure.

Gordon Brown is also part of the problem facing the Lib Dems – they have clearly gained from left wingers who are ideologically opposed to Tony Blair. What happens when Blair goes? Labour themselves are still placed on the ideological scale to pick up Lib Dem votes, without Blair to scare them away, will they go back to Labour?

If they do, the Lib Dems have begun to move out of the territory where they can also gain disillusioned Tory voters. ICM’s figures show that people now perceive the Lib Dems to be a party of the centre-left on -13. Given the Liberal Democrats reputation for portraying themselves in a different manner to different audiences, you might expect them to have managed to sell themselves as being more centrist to Tory voters, but they haven’t – Tory voters see them as even more left wing on -17. Moving to YouGov’s data, Tory voters also find Charlie Kennedy left wing, in fact, with a score of -30 they think he is more left wing than even Gordon Brown. Unless the Lib Dems move themselves back towards the centre, they are going to face an ideological barrier to winning extra votes from the Tories.

Finally we come to the Conservative party. Whereas Labour voters consider the Labour party quite centrist, and Lib Dem voters consider the Lib Dems quite centrist, even Conservative voters consider that the Tory party is firmly right of centre, with an average score of 31. Amongst voters as a whole the figure is 34. While they are quite well aligned with their voters, who on ICM’s poll averaged at 27, they are both a long way from the political centre, and on the “wrong side” of their voters, i.e. Conservative voters consider their party to be further to the right than themselves. Dragging them out even further rightwards was the figure of Michael Howard – YouGov found that Conservative voters put him on average at 42, while Lib Dem and Labour voters put him at an increasingly extreme 62 and 65 respectively.

Replacing Howard with a leader who is seen as less extreme should help the Conservatives move people’s perception of them closer to the centre ground, and once Labour’s leader is a figure who is percieved as being on the other side of the psychological left-right divide they may be in a better position to win support back from Labour amongst right-of-centre voters, but either way you cut it they are still as by far the most extreme of the three main parties.