NHS – it’s a three-letter acronym, but how would you describe the organisation in three words? (No points for “National Health Service”). We took this question to voters shopping in the marginal constituency of Birmingham Edgbaston and to Twitter with the accompanying hashtag, #3wordNHS.
Most UK voters have been affected by the work of the NHS, but this is particularly true of those in Birmingham Edgbaston. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, one of the largest hospitals in Europe, is located in the constituency, and so is Birmingham University’s Medical School, where the Conservative candidate for the seat, Dr Luke Evans, received his training. And he is certainly not alone here as a medical professional; the NHS is one of the largest employers in the area.
For the day, Alex and I planted ourselves on Harborne High Street, corkboard in tow, ready to ask voters for their three word reviews of the NHS. To no great surprise, given the demographics of the area, the first couple we accosted were doctors. Though at first slightly reluctant to criticise the organisation they work for, they agreed to share their opinions after a little persuasive charm. “Unfortunately endlessly reorganised” was their combined response. Their frustration stemmed from, as they saw it, politicians desire to meddle with the NHS as a way of courting voters, and not addressing the difficult long term challenges they see the organisation faces: a shortage of resources and an ageing population.
Asking people on the street for their opinions is sometimes challenging – we appreciate that not everyone wants to chat to students about politics when they are trying to go about their business on a cold winter morning. All the same, carrying around a huge corkboard with the “50for15” sign certainly arouses people’s curisotiy. A young man walked up to me to ask what we were doing, and once I explained, he offered that he had never had need to use the NHS for serious medical treatment, but thinks the organisation is good: “Staff are great” was his response.
The topic of the NHS certainly stimulated conversation on the street, and there were many positive opinions, particularly directed towards the staff: “Excellent, especially A&E,” said one voter. However, about a third of respondents offered more negative remarks. Those criticising the NHS mostly focused on the current Government’s running of the organisation, rather than its ethos. “Doomed by Tories” and “Gone within a decade” were responses given by voters who saw the Conservatives as a party not to be trusted with the health service.
Turning to Twitter, responses we received through the #3wordNHS were again varied. “Saves lives every day,” “Saved my life” and “Crucial accessible free” spoke to the core aims of the NHS. The Conservative candidate for Grimsby, Marc Jones (kind enough to chat to 50for15 earlier this year) called the organisation the country’s “Most precious asset.” However, another answered that the NHS has become an “Unfortunate Sacred Cow” that cannot be criticised and reformed because of the sentimental value attached to the organisation.
Whether or not you hold the NHS in such great esteem as some of our respondents do, it is clear that debates over the organisation will heighten over the coming months. David Cameron has already pledged that a majority Conservative government will protect the English NHS budget in real terms from 2015 to 2020. But devolution means that Westminster does not make final decisions relating to NHS spending outside England.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, will attempt to persuade voters that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with running the NHS, and will be keen to remind the electorate of the coalition’s failed attempts at the beginning of the Parliamentary session to reform GP commissioning.
Whichever party succeeds in promulgating their view of the NHS will surely benefit in the election, given the prominence of the organisation in many people’s lives. And the effect will hold even more sway in the key marginal of Birmingham Edgbaston, where the many NHS employees will have to decide who is best to lead the organisation forward in the next Parliament.
But to some this is a false choice; those doctors I first spoke to were unimpressed with most politicians at the moment: “It’s time for some grown up thinking about the future of the NHS; it is not a political football.”