The politics of health: what are the polls telling us?

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In what promises to be the closest general election in recent memory, just how important will the parties' health policies be when voters confront the ballot box?

Although the economy will be the campaign's defining issue, health may not be far behind. The latest Ipsos Mori polling ranks it as the second most important issue affecting voting intentions, with more than a quarter of people saying it will be one of the key factors in deciding how they vote. And with more than 80 per cent of voters saying the NHS should be exempt from spending cuts – significantly more than any other public service – it is perhaps not surprising that all the parties are pledging to protect the health budget.

Delving a little deeper, the polls show that Labour is maintaining its lead over the Conservatives as the party perceived to have the best health policies, especially in marginal seats, according to a new poll by ICM. So it comes as no surprise that Gordon Brown is keen to put it at the forefront of Labour's campaign and he will no doubt want to focus on it during this week's leader’s debate.

Almost 1 in 5 potential Lib Dem voters identify health as the most important issue affecting their voting intentions – more than the other two main parties – so Nick Clegg will also be keen to talk about it. With more than three-quarters of those intending to vote Lib Dem indicating they may change their mind before polling day, party strategists may see focusing on health as a way of shoring up their vote, especially in the key marginals they are defending.

In contrast, only 6 per cent of potential Conservative voters identify health as the most important issue affecting their voting intentions, so talking about health will do little to shore up their support. However, the Tories will need to make significant inroads with swing voters in marginal seats. So David Cameron's team will be hoping that their pledge to protect health spending and his personal commitment to the NHS will persuade voters that the Tories really are 'the party of the NHS' now.

And in what has been dubbed the 'mumsnet' election, party strategists will have spotted how strongly health resonates with women. According to ICM, 15 per cent of female voters say it will be the most important factor in how they vote, compared to 9 per cent of men. So expect Andy Burnham, Andrew Lansley and Norman Lamb to join the long list of politicians lining up for interviews on the mumsnet website.

Following the recent 'death tax' row, social care reform has surged up the political agenda, with the polls now identifying it as a key issue affecting people's voting intentions. A recent ICM survey places social care on a par with education and above law and order in the pecking order of key issues, although this may have been influenced by the timing of the poll which was undertaken just after the government's white paper was published. Unsurprisingly, social care resonates most with older voters who place it second only to the economy among the issues likely to influence their voting intentions.

It won't be lost on Labour strategists that they enjoy an 11 point lead over the Conservatives as the party perceived to have the best policies on social care – the largest gap between the parties on any of the 11 most important issues identified by ICM. With research undertaken by Age UK showing that the over-55s will account for the majority of votes cast in more than 300 seats, including more than 90 marginals, it seems certain that Labour will look to exploit the issue in order to court the increasingly influential 'grey vote'.

So, the polls are giving the party strategists plenty to think about when it comes to health and social care. One thing seems certain – health will once again be one of the key battlegrounds during the election campaign.