People confronting politicians provide good pictures. Footage of a member of the public furiously berating a member of Parliament captures the culture gap between the governed and those who govern them: the sense that “they just don’t get it”.
But such incidents may tell us little more than a general story about the unpopularity of politicians collectively, rather than a particular tale about the individual MP who is questioned, heckled and interrupted. That these happenings are televisual doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re significant.
None the less, Boris Johnson’s lambasting by Omar Salem, like that of Tony Blair by Sharon Storer back in 2001, is worth dwelling on. It did seem to capture what a lot of voters feel about the NHS: James Frayne’s column on this site earlier this week captured the engagement with and attachment to the service that so many people feel. That the Prime Minister’s interrogator was a Labour Party activist is incidental to the point.
That sounds like bad news for Johnson – as indeed it is. Worse for him, his spending announcements for the service are likely to have little cut-through. Many voters don’t believe them; others don’t understand them (the difference between millions and billiosn scarcely registers), and most won’t benefit from them, at least if they don’t use one of the 20 hospitals due to receive £1.8 billion between them.
However, there is a bit of better news, too. It emerges from that truth about people distusting politicians of all parties. Yes, the Conservatives poll badly on the NHS. But Labour aren’t polling all that much better. According to YouGov’s latest tracker, 18 per cent of voters say that the Tories handle the NHS best. Labour’s rating is 32 per cent. Add the Don’t Knows and the None of the Aboves together, and you get 38 per cent.
Scroll down the tracker, and you find that the final column – those who aren’t convinced that any party handles the NHS well – consistently outnumbers either of the first two. In short, there is little evidence that Jeremy Corbyn is seen to lead “the party of the NHS”. Labour’s NHS myth is fading as time passes, and younger people bring their consumer viewpoint to their use of public services.
“Many Conservatives will be encouraged by younger voters’ desire to keep their own money, rather than increasing tax, and to make public services more efficient, rather than spend more on them,” David Willetts wrote recently on this site, in the wake of the publication of Onwards’ Generation Why. And the Labour legend was always exactly that in any case: a partisan narrative rather than the whole tale.
The Tory counter-case is that it was a Conservative, Henry Willink, who proposed a National Health Service Service. He was Minister of Health in the wartime Coalition Government. Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock have both made much of this part of our national healthcare story. Yes, doing so is a bit niche. But many tales are so when first told, and it’s surprising, in retrospect, that their Tory predecessors didn’t do more of the same.
Labour will try to up their health poll lead by raising the volume on the NHS “being sold off to Donald Trump”. But over the medium and long term, the Conservatives are likely to close the gap, even if the reason has less to do with them being seen to do well on the NHS than with Labour being perceived to do badly.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister can take comfort in the knowledge that Salem isn’t everyone. He was cheered by contractors yesterday during his visit to Whipp’s Cross Hospital. That wasn’t so widely reported as Salem’s outburst. But it may no more or less indicative of what voters are thinking.