Anastasia Knox: Voters still don't trust the Tories with the NHS

Written by Anastasia Knox on 5 July 2018 in Opinion

As the NHS turns 70, Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt have their work cut out to show they care.

In the week of the NHS’ 70th birthday it found itself fighting for air space with some unusual and unexpected competition: the English national football team. Fortunately for the NHS, it is one of the few institutions with a chance of rising to the challenge.

In new BritainThinks focus groups with swing voters, the World Cup was quickly forgotten as participants enthused over the NHS, its “dedicated and passionate staff”, and its position as “one of the best health services in the world.” All our focus group participants agreed that it will be in the top two or three issues they consider when deciding how to vote. 

This enthusiasm for the NHS is nothing new, of course.  For some years it has been topping polls as one of the institutions that makes us most proud to be British.  However, over the last 18 months or so we have also seen growing concern about the state of the NHS.  In the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey the proportion of respondents saying that they are satisfied with the NHS fell to 57%, down six points from the previous year. At the beginning of 2018, in BritainThinks’ own research, 70% said that they felt pessimistic about the NHS.

In focus groups, meanwhile, participants talk about problems accessing GPs, long waiting times in secondary care, inconsistent quality of care and over-stretched, underpaid staff.  Strikingly, in our most recent groups there was widespread agreement that the NHS is in, or is approaching, crisis. 

Is the Conservatives’ promised cash injection enough to allay fears?  Our focus groups suggest not.  Whilst participants welcomed the principle of more funding, (£20 billion “feels like a good sum” as one said), there is an historic distrust of the Conservatives when it comes to the NHS that is hard to overcome.  They are seen as "frosty". One person says that "they talk the talk, but they don’t feel it, they don’t see it as a priority, and they talk about funding but make cutbacks elsewhere". Following on from these sentiments, our participants questioned whether the promised money will ever materialise. 

Labour, in contrast, has traditionally been stronger on the NHS, and our groups suggest that that is still the case.  Participants said that the Labour party is more caring than the Conservatives, and that it is "more in touch with the people who use the NHS.”  As a result, Jeremy Corbyn’s pledges are well received, despite some scepticism about his ability to balance the books. 

Importantly, however, both political parties suffer from the same entrenched cynicism in relation to politics: "It doesn’t matter who says it, I’ll believe it when I see it.  We’re tired of being promised things and no one delivering."

What then would convince this dubious audience that Theresa May’s pledge is credible?  Demonstrable improvements in patients’ ability to access both primary and secondary care would help, as would better utilisation of technology to improve the patient experience.  More hospitals, although unlikely, would be popular. The way in which the money is divided across the system is also important: cancer remains an important focus for the public, but they are also keen to see more money spent on care for the elderly, and on mental health provision. 

The advice offered by one participant – that politicians should donate 70% of their July salary to the NHS to celebrate its birthday - might be a step too far for Theresa May, but ultimately the Conservatives will need to find a way to prove their commitment to this cherished national institution.  The advice for Corbyn, meanwhile is simple: “Say where the cash is coming from.”



Anastasia Knox is research director at BritainThinks.


Photo credit: PA


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