At the start of this year, we saw the coalition’s mid-year review and the release of its audit on progress. Much of the subsequent analysis has inevitably focused on what has not been achieved in the past two and a half years. But how much does delivery matter in terms of public opinion and the result of the next election? Does the public notice, and what are the effects of this for the political goal of re-election?
We have studied public opinion and how it responds to key policy performance indicators (in research funded by the Economic, Social and Research Council).
We analysed survey responses to a monthly set of questions (in the British Election Study) about ratings of the Labour and Coalition governments and their ability to handle a selection of policy issues: asylum, the NHS, crime, transport and the economy.
We compared these ratings to performance delivery: the number of asylum applications and decisions, NHS inpatient waiting list times and A&E waiting times, crime rates (actual and perceived), rail performance and complaint measures, the rate of unemployment and other economic indicators. The results for the period 2004-2010 are in the figure below. This shows significant correspondence for all issues except for % victims of crime, and also asylum (results were not significant using these data and this time period, so are not shown here).
Strength of response varies by policy area. The public responds much more strongly on the economy and transport than on the issues of the NHS and crime. One might not necessarily expect the public to be particularly informed or attentive to policy performance and outcomes on specific issues, especially on issues other than the economy where day to day experience is less likely. However, there is clear evidence across the whole range that the public updates its ratings of the government across a range of issues. We cannot say for sure whether the public gets its information predominantly from direct experience, social networks or from the media, and we expect the answer to be all three. The weaker relationships for crime and the NHS (and asylum) may arise because the public receive and filter information at odds with official performance data on these issues, but they are very interesting, nevertheless.
Our research suggests that the coalition has an electoral incentive to focus on performance and delivery. Policy achievements enable government to promote their competence and good leadership, and our findings suggest that policy performance is a key way in which the electorate updates its opinions about a government. Voters need to see and experience positive policy outcomes via effective implementation, as well as be reminded of them in the form of midterm reviews and audits. It remains to be seen whether the continued focus on delivery will send a clear message to the electorate, and whether these messages will be matched in voters’ daily experiences. The mid-term review focused on a broad range of policy areas, with the noticeable exception of transport. This is perhaps surprising given that our research suggests that transport is an area where improved performance strongly links to an improvement in public perception of government competence. The coalition did, however, choose to review its progress on transport in the audit.
The coalition will need to retain a focus on performance and competence throughout the remainder of its term, most importantly on the economy, but with attention to a broad spread of policy issues. Any perceived deterioration in handling of policy and public services, whether caused by deficit reduction plans, by mismanagement, or by external events, will have significant consequences come the 2015 general election.