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Polling Observatory #12: Impact of the NHS Reforms?

This is the twelfth of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls.

By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it.

British politics in February has been dominated by debates over the Coalition government’s proposed NHS reforms, which have attracted furious opposition from many groups within the NHS. Such opposition was probably expected by Cameron and his health minister, Andrew Lansley. More surprising was the intervention by editor Tim Montgomerie, who argued in a widely read editorial that an unpopular NHS bill could cost the Conservatives the next election. In his article, Montgomerie focuses on the long term impact of the reforms, but we may wonder if a month of media dominated by attacks on the proposed reforms have depressed support for the Coalition. Several commentators have pointed to shifts in individual polls to claim the Conservatives are being hurt by the NHS, but often such small shifts simply reflect random variation.

Our aggregate polling estimate brings together all the polling information, and provides a more reliable guide.

We find some limited evidence that the protracted debate is exacting a toll in polling. We estimate Conservative support at 37.2% at the end of February 2012, down 0.5 points from last month. The Liberal Democrats are also down, by 0.4 points to 8.2%.  However, these estimates place both parties pretty much back where they were in late autumn, so it is too soon to tell if this is the start of a decline in Coalition support rather than a reversion to a previous equilibrium. A plausible alternative story in the Conservative case is the waning of any polling “bump” from Cameron’s veto of the new EU treaty proposal in December. There is also no evidence of any gain for Labour from the past month’s events, in fact they are also down 0.6 points to 37.2%.

The main winners from February would thus seem to be minor parties or “none of the above”. We do not currently estimate minor parties’ vote shares, so we do not know which, if any, are currently gaining. In future months we will examine this issue is a consistent trend becomes apparent.


Robert Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup

Published inBritish PoliticsPolling Observatory

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