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Healthcare: political hot potato or key to electoral success?

Civitas, 14 January 2015

Guest blog from Dr Michelle Tempest

Healthcare consistently polls as one of the top three concerns for voters.  Between now and the general election there is going to be much debate about the entire health ecosystem – NHS, private and questions over future funding.  As the population expands, beliefs diversify, yet the British remain united in wanting to care for the sick, based on need rather than ability to pay.  The NHS employs around 1.7 million people and the number of people involved in the broader health and social care sectors combined, means that this sector penetrates just about every household, making it the electoral zeitgeist.

As someone who worked as a psychiatrist and a psychologist for over a decade, I know just how imperative it is to get the narrative correct. The political party who can connect the collective emotion of our caring nation with the brains of individual voters consistently, between now and May 7th General Election, will walk the path to Number 10.  After all, neuroscience research has shown that it’s not policies that make voters come out in force on polling day, but gut instinct.  In fact, 80% of the time people vote with their gut.  Healthcare is the issue that connects hearts with minds, so political strategists will be aiming to form associations in voters brains, each containing unique elegant patchworks of millions of neurons, to positively link health policy ideas with a visceral positive feeling or gut instinct.

To get out to the vote, manifestos must relay a compelling emotional message to the frontal lobe; the part of the brain that ultimately helps wavering voters decide which way to vote.  Research is out there to help, such as American political scientist Dr Drew Westen (another psychiatrist and psychologist) who has linked “what a voter needs to know most in deciding” where to place their cross at the ballot box.  He dissected the neural voting pathway into four main pillars: values, trust, Presidential integrity and the President’s decision-making ability.  Clearly, this research needs to be modified for the British democratic process but the four pillars remain just as relevant when set in the context of Party, Prime Minister, Health Secretary and local MP.

Healthcare messages must be laser focused on the wavering voters.  After all, other brain research has shown that people who have already chosen their party, positively interpret narratives from their own party, and negatively interpret the opposition’s message.  So, savvy politicians will be striking the emotional cord necessary to connect a positive gut instinct for the floating voter, whilst sticking the fear or ‘smell of danger’ to the opposition.  To deliver a majority a political party will need a coherent message that is vivid and memorable, rich in metaphor and emotionally evocative. The stage is set for it to be the most exciting pre election of a generation, and one way of winning is to harness the research knowledge of how the brain works.  The ultimate power remains with those who can honestly link up emotional decisions with voter conversion and then deliver in office; the frontal lobe will soon spot the difference between ‘yet another political tactic’ and ‘consistent values, integrity and leadership’.  As a result, the politicians of today sit at the precipice of political history as they embed the cerebral network of how they govern tomorrow.

Dr Michelle Tempest is a consultant doctor and partner at Candesic, a specialist healthcare management consultancy advising on health, social care, education and politics to private operators, investors, and the NHS.   02070967680  @DrMTempest  

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