Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville may have coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid”, but he didn’t have to reckon with the British public’s devotion to the NHS. Indeed, former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson called the health service “the closest thing the English have to a religion”.
Health has been a more contentious topic than ever in this election, for a couple of reasons. One of these is the legacy of the coalition’s Health and Social Care Act 2012, which introduced budgets for GPs and other professionals to buy care for their communities, and created a regulator (“Monitor”) to guard against “anti-competitive” practices. The bill was heavily modified in parliament following widespread criticism, but campaigners such as the Unite trade union and the 38 Degrees campaign group maintain that it amounts to a “privatisation” of the NHS.
The other factor is the severe funding challenges facing the NHS. A blueprint drawn up by NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens last year warned that even if the health service can successfully make efficiency savings of £22bn a year, the next government will need to provide an extra £8bn per year of funding over and above inflation. The Conservatives and Lib Dems have both committed to this figure, while Labour has not.
One of the more successful viral videos of this campaign has been an interview conducted by the BBC’s Andrew Marr, in which the Chancellor George Osborne refused 18 times to confirm where he would find the money to pay for his £8bn NHS pledge. Labour’s press office took the opportunity to add a counter to the video, in order to tally the number of times Osborne was asked the question, along with some faintly comical music. They were rewarded for their efforts with 1,103 retweets.
Despite the question marks around Labour’s own plans for funding the NHS, Ed Miliband wants a major focus of this campaign to be health, as he knows his party has a good reputation in this area. David Cameron, by contrast, wants to stick to the economy, where Labour is weak. So who is winning this battle on social media?
ElectUK, the app built by Tata Consultancy Services to monitor Twitter conversations in the run up to the general election, records what percentage of political tweets have been devoted to a range of topics, from health and the economy to immigration and employment. It finds that Labour has successfully pushed health up the agenda, with this subject accounting for 28.1 per cent of topic-related tweets in the past 30 days, only just behind the economy on 28.5 per cent. Furthermore, over the past month health has at times overtaken the economy as the most talked about topic, as the focus of election coverage shifts between the two issues.
That Labour is attempting to drive this discussion is apparent when looking at individual tweets. Ed Miliband and the Labour Press Team’s Twitter accounts are responsible for all five of the most retweeted health postings in April. Three of these came on the day after the seven-way leaders debate, including the most popular – Milliband received a massive 10,043 retweets for his response to Nigel Farage saying that immigrants with HIV are coming to the UK for free treatment.
Elsewhere, Miliband achieved traction for two tweets accusing Cameron of failing to defend his record in the debate, while another tweet five days later linked the NHS to tax avoidance: “We all use the same roads. We’re all protected by our police and armed forces. We all rely on the NHS. We should all pay taxes by the same rules,” he wrote.
Whether Labour’s strategy on health will lead to electoral success remains to be seen, but the party is certainly managing to keep the issue at the top of the agenda, helped by the continuing fallout from the Health and Social Care Act. David Cameron and his advisers may have hoped that their £8bn funding pledge would close the issue down and allow them to move onto other terrain, but they may have reckoned without the British public’s devotion to their religion.
Designed, built and delivered by Tata Consultancy Services, ElectUK turns your smartphone into an advanced social media analytics tool, giving you the ability to identify and share online trends around the upcoming election.
Please note: the ElectUK app is analysing the data and helping to identify trends in online conversations around the election, it is not promoting or criticising any party or political view.