Alfred Slade
It’s the most critical time of the year: NHS winter pressure and the 2019 General Election

Election 2019


PB Research Executive Alfred Slade gives his take on what impact the seasonal challenges might have on this unusual election.

With the General Election in full flow, last week saw the NHS take centre stage with both major parties announcing their respective offerings to the public. The Conservatives focused on a new, reduced price visa for overseas workers coming to join the NHS, and a commitment to increase the number of GPs by 6000 by the year 2024-2025. Labour announced a vast array of new funding measures as part of an ‘NHS Rescue Plan’, which included increasing the annual health budget to £178 billion by 2023-24. The health-focused week was capped off with the announcement that the NHS was experiencing its worst recorded waiting times in its history. For a more detailed overview of these developments, please visit the news page on our election website.

But what impact will the NHS actually have on this election? Much debate has taken place on the potential consequences of a winter election on voter turnout, with short, dark days potentially turning many people off going to the polls. Yet there is another winter factor lurking; we are now entering the time of the year where the NHS experiences its most significant challenges. Hospital waiting times are at their longest, there is a higher than average level of A&E admittance and the annual flu season reaches its peak. This will all serve to centre health concerns at the forefront of voters’ minds, as we have seen this week.

With the Conservatives holding the reins of Government for over nine years, and the NHS conventionally being Labour’s favourite electoral topic, it is dangerous territory for the Tories. The party is clearly aware of this and have made a wide ranging spending commitments on capital investment in the NHS to try to head this off at the pass. A number of commentators are of the belief that Labour were able to out-manoeuvre the Tories on issues such as the NHS in 2017 because the latter were so singularly focused on Brexit, creating a sense of indifference to any other concerns. The fact that the Conservatives are engaging with the issue at all may be enough to prevent a serious inroad into their support.

However, there can be no doubt that last week’s headlines were good news for Labour. The double opportunity to attack the Conservatives on their weakest issue, and move the debate away from Brexit has been lept upon. In and of itself, the fact that the debate is taking place at all will be seen as a victory for Labour strategists. The Conservatives have abandoned their previous lines on austerity, and the debate now focuses on how wide to crack open the wallet. The news reported that in the country faced the largest challenge in the NHS’ history. Labour’s response? An announcement of the largest planned yearly increase in NHS funding outside of the Blair-Brown years.

As for the Conservatives, they will need to be wary this argument doesn’t spin out of their control. The party had been hoping to fight a “Brexit Election”, with the belief that the country would be realigned along Remain/Leave lines, thus enabling the Conservatives to eat into traditional Labour territory in the North of England. However, if the NHS becomes the number one issue for voters over the next three and a half weeks, their pre-election strategy will become outdated. Furthermore, for Leave voters who have abandoned Labour but do not trust the Tories on the NHS, this week’s headlines may be the extra push that sends them toward the Brexit Party. If 2017 told us anything, it is that elections and public discourse are hard to control.

It is possible that the period of serious danger for the Conservatives has passed. There will not be another release of NHS statistics until after the election, and it is likely the debate will have moved on by polling day. However, if Labour can sustain this attack line, or if other events can re-centre the NHS as the central issue of the election, it may prove pivotal to the outcome. Ultimately, the significance of an NHS winter crisis on this election is as hard to predict as the level of crisis itself. We will only know on the 12th of December.