I sat recently
at the back of a focus group and watched people discuss their favourite and
least favourite brands. It was a business rather than a political exercise, but
there were as ever some interesting political points to emerge.

At the end of a
long discussion, in which the economy dominated, and people admitted to their
spending patterns changing as the recession deepened (most felt insecure about
the economy generally but not their own jobs), the moderator asked them to rate
a number of well-known brands and people.

They were given
the logos of the brands or, in the case of individuals, pictures. They were
split into two and asked to put them on to whiteboards, best at the top, worst
at the bottom. The discussion before the groups reached agreement lasted
about half an hour. But certain decisions were taken early, and stuck to.

Google was the
top private sector brand. ‘Politicians,’ including Gordon Brown and David
Cameron, were close to the bottom. Barack Obama on the other hand was close to
the top. The likes of Tesco, Asda and Findus, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream I seem
to remember were between top and middle. The media had a bad day, with the BBC in the middle, the Times not far behind, the Mail and the Sun lower down.

But one brand was put at the top of both groups.

Any ideas? It
was the NHS. That fascinated me, because it showed once more that public
opinion often develops outwith the prevailing media mood. Except in regional
media, and even there it is rare, it is the exception not the rule to see the
NHS presented in a negative light. Yet when I spoke at a health conference
recently, I heard a polling presentation for one region – the North East – that
had 90 per cent satisfaction ratings. That is almost North Korean in its

There is both a
problem and a challenge for Labour here, as I was saying when I spoke to Labour
Party staff last night and today at a training meeting. The problem is that
people do not link that success with politics. That the NHS is so popular is
partly about history but also about the decisions a Labour government, and
Gordon Brown as its Chancellor and Prime Minister, have taken on spending and

I visited my Mum
yesterday, who was positively raving about the treatment she had when
undergoing a minor operation recently. You hear all the time of people saying
their own experiences of the NHS were good, their general impression (i.e.
media image) bad. But Tory-style waiting lists are a thing of the past. Even
with the credit crunch resources for good health care are available. New
hospitals and surgeries are still being built. 

The Tories
barely ever talk about the NHS, other than to run it down. They have neither
the policies nor the commitment to build on the improvements made. I remember how TB always
used to hammer Tory MPs at Question Time with the facts and figures of schools
and hospitals in their area. We need to do that in every part of the country,
and build the link between progress and politics. 

When the focus
group had ended I spoke to a couple of the people who had taken part. I asked
if they saw any link between politics and the NHS. They didn’t, at least not
immediately. That they didn’t see it straight away is a communications not a
policy challenge. But what the evening told me is that it is by no means too
late to put it right.