The health election: Is anyone winning?

326: The magic number for a majority come May.

Don't mention the NHS, says Andrew Harrison
Don't mention the NHS, says Andrew Harrison
Yet with fewer than 100 days to go, Populus gives only a 10 per cent chance of an outright majority by any one party.  

The NHS is among the top three issues for voters (even number one in some polls) but it has polarised roles in Labour and Conservative campaigns.

Traditional January pressures on A&E put an ‘NHS crisis’ on the front pages, with Labour seizing on this as evidence of Tory health service mismanagement.  

Labour’s strategy to lead with the NHS seems sound. 

The recent Ashcroft poll shows half of voters believe the NHS has worsened in the past five years, and that Labour is by far the most interested in protecting and improving the NHS. 

Labour has also built a narrative that the Conservatives are privatising the NHS and wish to ‘sell it off’. 

While four out of five voters are ‘fine’ with the use of private providers in the NHS, half do not want greater private provision, and support for the private sector is soft.  

But despite this, Labour’s attempt to make the NHS the key election issue has not yet translated into a rise in support.  

The party’s share of the vote is stuck in the low 30s, only fractionally ahead of the Conservatives.
Indeed, after a month of attack, Labour’s NHS electoral strategy appears in danger of simply talking to itself, and being weakened by infighting, rather than reaching the floating voters it needs to win.

Some claim Labour’s NHS strategy helps rouse its core support, which need rousing in a tight election as they are less likely to actually vote than Conservatives. 

Yet despite a range of strategies – using NHS history and legacy, quoting new statistics on system pressures, unveiling personal stories of inadequate care – Labour has so far been unable to land a political game-changer. 

Labour should also be careful – pollsters say the NHS is more akin to a set of precious values in voters’ minds than a physical service, and therefore pedalling negative stories can actually be a turn-off.  

Meanwhile, the Conservatives want to avoid the NHS altogether, still scarred as they are by Andrew Lansley’s reforms. 

Any mention of it is considered a negative. 

The NHS was not listed as one of six Conservative election priorities, and they proactively refer to the NHS only in the context of economic growth – saying a strong NHS needs a strong economy. 

However, sustained Labour attacks have forced David Cameron to come out fighting at PMQs, replaying Ed Miliband’s embarrassing claim of "weaponising" the NHS, and highlighting poor Welsh NHS performance under Labour, to deflect from his own vulnerability.  

Labour claims to have won the first month of the election simply by keeping the NHS in the spotlight, but this will be harder in warmer months, and it is unclear whether either side’s strategy will translate into votes.  

This ‘health election’ may well reflect the expected overall result: a near stalemate.

Andrew Harrison is director of global healthcare at Hanover

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