Why do people trust Tories over Corbyn on the NHS?

May's party spent less on the NHS but slips the blame


A poll in the Independent shows that voters think Theresa May and the Tories would do a better job than Jeremy Corbyn of managing the NHS.

Which poses the question: how can Labour be so weak on what should be its core strength?

Let’s start with the statistics. Since 2010, real spending per person on the NHS has grown by just 1.3 per cent per year. That compares to growth of 6.3 per cent per year under the 1997-2010 New Labour government.

This relative squeeze means that, as NHS England chief Simon Stevens says, there are ‘clearly substantial funding pressures’ on the NHS. It’s surely plausible that, in the absence of policies to greatly improve efficiency, this reduced spending growth might have contributed to the ‘humanitarian crisis‘ in the NHS.

Why, then, isn’t the government being blamed more?

One reason is that these statistics aren’t sufficiently well known. They’re quite hard to find: I got them from publicspending.co.uk. One reason why they’re not is lies with the atrocious standard of political reporting. This usually consists of ‘he says, she says’ claim and counter-claim in which clear facts and ground truth are effaced.

The result of this is that austerity has been presented as an abstract concept which is a matter of debate within the Westminster bubble rather than what it is – an act of vandalism which does real harm to real people.

Closures of Sure Start centres, prison riots, bad social care, benefit sanctions, flooding and now a malfunctioning NHS are all seen as separate issues rather than what they are – the real human damage of macroeconomic policy.

Stalin once said that ‘if only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics’. The Tories are pulling off a similar trick.

But there’s something else – the halo effect. Traditionally, Hollywood heroes have been not just better-looking than villains but more charming, smarter and better shots too. This reflects our tendency to assume that if someone has one good quality they must have others.

The fact that the Tories are popular for other reasons thus spills over into a belief in their competence even in an area where it is not deserved.

This is magnified by three other tendencies. One is simple deference. As Adam Smith said, we have ‘a disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful’.

A lot of the routine rituals of government exploit this disposition by enhancing what Rodney Barker has called legitimating identities: apparently minor matters such as pictures of May getting out of chauffeured cars, greeting foreign leaders, speaking at a podium with the media a respectful distance away and having speeches trailed as big set-pieces all serve to enhance the appearance of authority.

A second is a trick of May. In being quiet and boring she has allowed the media to assume that she must at least be competent; in this way, she managed to avoid getting blamed personally for the government’s failure to hit its immigration targets despite being Home Secretary.

Third, though, Labour is itself partly to blame. Legitimation rituals and the halo effect work in both directions. If you don’t obey the Westminster rules of politics – for example if you speak at rallies rather than do the standard media rounds – you’ll not be spoken of as a ‘credible‘ leader.

And if you are incompetent in some respects, you’ll be thought incompetent in others. Voters might well ask: ‘If Corbyn can’t manage the Labour party, how can he manage the NHS?’

Whether the blame for this lies with the media, recalcitrant MPs or Corbyn himself is of course a matter of debate. In this debate, however, facts can be ignored.

Chris Dillow is an economist and author of The End of Politics. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, where this article first appeared. Follow him on Twitter @CJFDillow

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5 Responses to “Why do people trust Tories over Corbyn on the NHS?”

  1. Chris Smith

    I think this misses one of the biggest points, which is that the debate about the NHS is no longer purely about funding. Back in 1997, it was an underfunded organisation, both in a day-to-day way, and in an infrastructure way.

    Over the course of the New Labour years, money poured in, lots through PFI schemes, to build lots of new hospitals, which were sorely needed, and money was pumped in to hire more staff, get more beds, bring down waiting list lengths, and a target based system put in to ensure ongoing acceptable performance.

    Today, too many leading politicians are trying to have a similarly shaped debate in 2017; “The NHS needs more money”. There is a “blackhole in finances”. Hospitals are at breaking point. But the truth is, we are now at a point where we could throw an extra 5% at the NHS every single year and never get it into a position where it is ‘well funded’. The public healthcare system, from prevention, to home-care, after-care and particularly, elderly/hospice care needs a complete overhaul to stop the NHS bleeding out huge amounts of cash.

    Labour has zero position, zero ideas and zero propensity to talk about this stark reality and the need for better management of the entire connected healthcare system. It only talks about the pouring in a bit more money every year approach, which will never solve anything and at best, paper over the cracks. The Tories are more likely to look to tackle the bigger issues, the management issues, and to seek reform. Let’s be clear, the Tories messing with the NHS is not a nice thought, but if Labour refuse to have a position when action is needed, is it any doubt that people will see the Tories as more competent and trustworthy on the issue, regardless of what their actual approach is?

  2. Anon


    The generation that came back from the war, and the generation that succeeded it, were imbued with a sense of belonging to a nation. They believed that whatever they gave in toil and money would go to the greater good of their communities.

    Their communities have now been trashed with mass immigration, and their nation derided as some sort of anachronistic evil – why should they care anymore about the institutions that were part of those things.

    People have given up and are allowing the new world order to stew in their own arrogance.

  3. Ann Blyth

    I am a Labour supporter but neither my friends or family think Corbyn is Prime Minister material and some dislike him intensely. People are fickle and crooked teeth and the scruffy beard are not what voters are looking for in a PM. Also, whilst Jeremy has the best of intentions he is perceived to be too far left and in cahoots with the unions and the Labour Party is not trusted with the economy. Voters are asking where will the money come from to fund the NHS under Labour. Jeremy must come up with positive figures showing the NHS was in surplus when the coalition took over and is now in deficit. He must come up with figures to show how much more the Tories are borrowiing than Labour did and how they are paying back less than Labour did. For Labour to win again they must be trusted on the ECONOMY and they will have to win the votes of the Xenophobes with a strong definite policy on immigration. Personally, I think immigrants are good for this country but I am in the minority. Jeremy must come up with what the majority want ie some sort of a plan like Australia has.

  4. Wise guy

    People in the UK do not approve socialism or left-wing politics. The British temperament is fundamentally neoliberal right-wing and socialism stands no chance in this country. The post-war welfare state is a result of various circumstances that forced parts of the elite to adopt a more Keynsian approach on society. Social democracy was needed for capitalism in order to continue surviving. Nowadays things are very different and there is no demand for social democracy, either from the elites or from the people alone. There are people in this country who have not a single penny in their bank accounts but prefer not to give it to socialism. This is what the country is, historically and socially, it is a place where socialist politics stand no chance. If you want to defend socialism then maybe try the Scandinavian blocs, or maybe Spain, Portugal and France. These are places where more egalitarian approaches have been absorbed by a significant part of the population. Hence, provided that Britain (probably Scotland is an exception) is anti-socialist in its temperament, Corbyn will never become a PM. Instead he should resign and apologize for the damages he caused to the party.

  5. Michael WALKER

    Quite simply, Jeremy Corbyn sounds like an incompetent who has no idea what he’s doing and could not organise a drinking session in a brewery.

    To any person looking at the Labour Party as it currently stands, and with its current policies (whatever they are), those impressions are totally justified.

    Most people are not stupid.

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