[Read in landscape if using mobile devices, owing to data graphs].

The issue of public health has the potential to overtake the economy as a primary concern for voters ahead of this year’s general election. This week, YouGov’s fortnightly polling, which tracks the prime policy concerns of the public, recorded that the issues of health and the economy were within 2% of each other, the closest the two have come this Parliament.

Whilst this seismic shift in public sentiment should be supercharging the Labour effort as we enter an election year, quite the reverse is taking place.

Although much more prone to extremes in peaks and troughs, the issue of health has trended significantly upwards within the public psyche by around +10% over the last year. This is the largest shift in public sentiment across any policy area that we have tracked during this time, with the second biggest change being an average -7% fall in public concern over the economy. Whilst this latter change likely reflects a growing sense of comfort felt by some with the economic recovery, this hasn’t been reflected in an enhanced polling position for the Conservatives in the past year, with the party stagnating at the same 32% average in voting intention that was recorded in January 2014.

However, the shift in the way that people are prioritising public concerns has not benefitted Labour in any way that you might expect. Whilst Labour this month held a strong lead of 13% over the Conservatives in who the public trust most to run the NHS, the steady increase in the importance of it as a public issue has in fact been contrasted by a decline in Labour’s voting intention in the past year. This creates a puzzle for election strategists.

So what is happening?

Let’s look at the parties that the public are placing their trust on various political issues.

On the one hand, we have issues with which the parties are neck-and-neck this month, with Labour equal with the Conservatives on trust over handling welfare and unemployment policy, and the two parties being close-to-par on Europe and education. On the other hand, however, we have issues where the parties hold what are likely unassailable leads; the policy areas which most potently appeal to their core vote, and if considered important enough by the wider public, win elections.

For Labour, this is unsurprisingly the National Health Service. Being both the brainchild of post-war Labourites and now being one of the single largest employers on the planet, Labour’s lead with trust on the NHS is as strong among the public as it is almost sacred. For the Conservatives, whose stewardship of all things fiscal has often seen them be regarded as the safer pair of hands, the party this week recorded their highest level of trust with the economy this Parliament; with a lead of 17% over Labour.

 

However, it has not always been this way, as the graph above shows.

This time last year, this lead was just 9%, and in January 2013, Labour actually obtained a 1 point lead over the Tories on economic trust. The point here is not so much to highlight Labour’s slip in perceived economic competence – this was unlikely to ever be a winning issue for them in this electoral cycle – rather we need to examine the contrast that this creates.

Conservative fortunes on what they hope to be their winning issue have improved by 18% in the last two years. This is huge. In contrast, Labour’s popularity in running the NHS two years ago saw them hold a lead of – you guessed it – around 13%.

Labour have presided over a complete stagnation in their lead on public trust with the NHS in the last twenty-four months, whilst the Conservatives have close to doubled their lead on trust with the economy in just the last twelve. Moreover, the strength with which the Labour Party has pressed their prime issue even this month in the wake of the national A&E crisis, has resulted in the party harvesting not even a percentage point more of public trust. And before it’s suggested that it takes time for political sentiments to resonate with the general public, just look at the drastic surge in concern over health policy recorded at the start of this year, and then verified by an even greater narrowing of the gap between health and the economy to just 2% in this week’s tracker results.

The bottom line here is that the Labour Party has yet to sustainably convert any surge in public salience with what should be their winning issue into actual voting intention, and this goes some way to explaining the current state of play as we charge towards the general election…

All of the mainstream parties are experiencing extraordinary downwards pressures, but it seems to be only the Conservatives that have been able to hold their position in the polls over the last year. Labour support has fallen by a sharp 6%, whilst the Liberal Democrats have sunk yet further by 2%. Meanwhile, national support for what were formaly considered periphery parties, including UKIP, the Greens and the SNP, are up by a total of 9% since January 2014.

In an election set to be dictated as much by anti-establishmentism as by actual policy, the

mainstream parties need to swim faster just to stay still. At present, even with the help of events which should act as political gifts, Labour is getting caught in the current.

 

For more historic tracking of these and many other issues, head over to Voter Behaviour.