Over the last 12 months Michael Ashcroft has been conducting a range of focus groups and polling on how the Conservative Party can build a majority in a 2015 general election. They should be required reading for all involved in understanding public opinion and the electoral terrain. His ‘Wake Up and Smell The Coffee’ study had a significant albeit delayed impact on his party encouraging it to modernise, reposition itself and neutralise a number of ‘toxic’ issues for the party.
The first instalment of Ashcroft’s ‘Project Blueprint’ report was published in May 2011, and included a range of opinion polls and focus groups of voters who had previously said they were inclined to support the Conservatives at the 2010 general election but then failed to for a range of reasons. This group effectively denied David Cameron a majority so Ashcroft has wisely sought to interrogate their views further.
The results are particularly interesting in the context of the growing opposition and Conservative nervousness to the Health and Social Care Bill. What is most extraordinary is how little care and attention appears to have been given by David Cameron to his former Party Treasurer’s findings. It is perhaps no surprise that the ConservativeHome website Ashcroft sponsors is so vociferous about the electoral risks their party is taking over health.
I have written elsewhere of the significance of polling showing doctors’ incredibly high trust levels and the difficulty this would bring the Government over their Health and Social Care Bill. Ashcroft’s subsequent findings demonstrate this to be the case:
“Many in our research believed the NHS was subject to cuts, though the government maintains its budget is being protected and increased. Most people were sceptical of the proposed reforms, and those who had noticed that some health professionals opposed them tended to take the same view. Nobody seemed to know is why the reforms were
needed and how, even in theory, they were supposed to improve things for patients.”
Worryingly for the Conservative-led Government in the nine months that have followed this study, opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill from bodies representing health professionals has increased not diminished.
Ashcroft’s research also discovered that 1 in 8 who voted for the Conservatives at the 2010 general election would no longer do so again. He rightly points out that some of this has been offset by new support however it’s worth noting what are the reasons given for these ‘deserting voters’ after just a year of Conservative-led Government:
“For half of these, the most important factor was that they did not think the Conservatives had the best approach to the economy; the great majority also felt the Tories were not the best party on the NHS. Given the other evidence, these were likely to include a high proportion of first-time Conservatives, who were worried about the cuts and had been wary of trusting the party on public services. For the other half, the strongest common factor was that they did not give high marks for David Cameron’s performance.”
The focus group reports highlight a range of voter anxieties over Conservative health policy:
“There was a good deal of uncertainty and concern about the proposed structural reforms, particularly over whether GPs were the right people to be managing such large budgets, and some were worried that the plans would involve “privatisation”. Nobody understood how the proposals were intended to benefit patients: “They’re scrapping PCTs and giving more power to GPs. I think it’s a bad idea – they’ve got a lot on their plate”; “I think they think they are improving it, but they are cutting at the rock face rather than the bureaucracy. When wards are losing beds, they are the wrong cuts”; “GPs will control the budget. It will tie them up with things that are not their job”; “They’re talking about putting GPs in charge of everything. It’s OK if you’ve got a good GP, but what if you’ve got a rubbish GP?” “In the end it was because of the NHS. When I hear the Conservatives are going to reform the NHS it sets alarm bells ringing, because I think ‘privatisation.””
Project Blueprint reveals that even ‘Conservative voters tended to think the NHS was a higher priority for them than it was for the government’. Returning to the business of building a majority in 2015, Ashcroft ominously concludes that ‘for many potential Conservative voters who doubt the party’s intentions, the NHS serves as a litmus test.’
That is why Michael Ashcroft was worried about the Health and Social Care Bill in May 2011 and why David Cameron should be very worried about it in February 2012. The Prime Minister would be wise to read Project Blueprint findings again and look closely at fresh NHS opinion polls due in the coming days.