Last week there was an exclusive in the Times – widely followed up – revealing majority support for NHS-linked tax rises. 'For the first time in more than a decade, a majority of Britons say that they are personally willing to pay more to increase spending, according to the respected British Social Attitudes survey'. It followed this up by a leading article to this breakthrough, saying:
'Ministerial hearts may be gladdened, therefore, by a new poll published in The Times today. It suggests that 61 per cent voters back higher taxes to fund the health service, with 25 per cent saying that the government should raise existing taxes and 36 per cent supporting a new tax. A dedicated health tax would be difficult to get right, but it is a good idea.'
Only Mr S suspects ministers ought not get too carried away. You see one set of hearts that would certainly be gladdened were those at The King’s Fund, which planted the story – and, unbeknown to Times readers, also paid for this question to be slipped in to the normal BSA survey. The King’s Fund is perhaps the most effective of the groups lobbying for more NHS spending. If a poll is commissioned by a group with clear vested interest in its outcome, the reader is informed. 'X is happening, according to a [pollster] survey conducted for [sponsor]' – so the reader can add their own pinch of salt.
Although The Times is normally very straight with its readers on sponsored polls, on this occasion it said merely that the King’s Fund 'analysed the data'. Why were the Times and everyone else misled? Perhaps because Kings Fund summarise the findings as per below:
'some 61 per cent of respondents support tax rises to increase NHS funding'
However, the actual poll phrased the question in the following way:
'If the NHS needed more money, which of the following would you be prepared to accept?'
Note the first word: ‘if’. It loads the question. For example, dear reader, if you were forced to give Mr S £1,000 would you rather pay with PayPal, Visa or cash? By answering the question, it doesn’t mean you want to give me money. But it can be spun that way.
A genius ruse from the King’s Fund. If the military thought about this tactic – slipping a question into the BSA survey, with an ‘if’ before - the MoD budget might no be so neglected.
There is an overall trend of public support for NHS-related tax rises, but a YouGov poll (taken after the King’s Fund poll) puts it at 46pc, rather than the 61pc reported last week.
The King’s Fund now says that this 'if' question 'was not designed to test support for tax rises specifically'. So it must have been shocked – shocked! – to read The Times leader having assumed the opposite. And shocked to read headlines like 'majority of voters back tax rises to bolster NHS' in The Guardian and 'Nearly two thirds of Britons are ready to pay MORE TAX to bail out the crisis-hit NHS' in the Mail.
As Donald Trump would say: mission accomplished.