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Wealth or Health? How the Issues Play for the Parties

06/05/2015 17:49 BST | Updated 06/05/2016 10:59 BST

The May 2015 General Election battle lines have been drawn and the latest data from Ipsos MORI, published in the Evening Standard, shows some of the key issues driving the current sentiment of voters. Our latest data show Healthcare and the NHS is the key policy issue driving voting decisions - mentioned by 48% of the British public. Healthcare has been the top issue for voters since January, and, notwithstanding a brief downturn last month, is now accelerating in the driving seat as Election Day approaches.

Managing the economy has also increased as an issue in the past few months, even if it is still 13 points behind healthcare. This suggests that these two issues have dominated the agenda. Meanwhile education, which is traditionally a very important issue, is again in a high position. Of course we know that it in any case it is impossible to pinpoint exactly which combination of policies, party and leader images, values and emotions precisely cause voters to make up their minds, but in this analysis we are focussing on the issues that are at the forefront for voters.

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If the importance of these issues in determining who one will vote for stays as they now are, we are in a position to piece together how these could play for the parties. According to our polling Labour is currently seen as the best party on healthcare, with a 13 point lead on the Conservatives. This is no surprise - in the 37 years since Ipsos MORI started asking this question, Labour have only been behind on healthcare twice. However, Labour shouldn't be complacent - this is their lowest lead on healthcare since just before the 2010 election, at a time when the economy was the top voting issue. Healthcare might not win Labour the voters it's looking for either. More than two-thirds of Conservative voters think that the Conservative party has the best policies on healthcare.

Managing the economy is a traditional bastion for the Conservatives, but less so than healthcare is for Labour. While their lead is currently 18 percentage points over Labour that strong Conservative lead has not been seen since the early 90s. During the Blair governments, Labour was seen as strongest on the economy, and has closed the gap on managing the economy as recently as 2013 when the Conservatives only held a two point lead over of Labour. This has now widened substantially, and the 'long term economic plan' narrative seems to be piercing through the public consciousness. But just as Labour's lead on the NHS may not win them very many new voters, the Conservative lead on the economy may not either because Labour voters tend to see Labour as better on the economy.

Historically, it's not easy to say with certainty that key issues have won elections on their own. The key issue in the run up to 1997, 2001 and 2005 was consistently, and convincingly, healthcare and in 1997 and 2001 was closely followed by education. In 2010, however, healthcare was not the key voter issue. Managing the economy had overtaken healthcare as the key issue, while the Conservatives led as the best party on this issue by a mere three percentage points. This was quite a weak lead for the Conservatives - being their bread and butter issue - and healthcare and education stubbornly remained the second and third most important voter issue. This configuration of issues so close to an election may have contributed to a weak victory for David Cameron.

Snakes and ladders: in previous elections when healthcare has been top of the election agenda, managing the economy has been lower down the playing board

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The circumstances for this May currently appear ideal for Labour: an issue that they have traditionally been seen as strongest on has a comfortable lead in the issues ranking. Combine this with the fact that whenever we see healthcare to be the key issue ahead of an election, Labour have gone on to win. It might not be that straightforward for Labour however. In each of those elections where healthcare was top for voters, managing the economy has never been this high.

The below chart demonstrates that the battle over issues is not clear cut- the two issues that are at the forefront of voters' minds are also pulling in opposite directions. Not only are healthcare and managing the economy both quite firmly Labour or Conservative, we can also see that this polarisation is increased when looking at voters who named the key issue as very important. Voters who think that healthcare is a key issue are even more likely to think that Labour is the best party - this movement is indicated by the arrows of the chart. The arrow for managing the economy points in the opposite direction, indicating that voters who think it's a key a issue are more likely to think the Conservatives have the best policies.

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This brings greater uncertainty into a race that is already fraught with unknowns. This isn't a straightforward election about maintaining public services, such as healthcare and education, and nor is it an election focussing on the economy. With both main parties holding strong leads on one issue but being weak on another, and with polarisation among the electorate so that each's strength on one issue is mostly important to its own voters but cancelled out among its opponents', this may be the first election we have recorded where the winning party is not the one who is seen as strongest on the key issue.

Harry Evans is a research analyst at Ipsos MORI