Think about the 18 years of Conservative rule. Think about the
near-fatal undermining of social care: endless paranoid accusations
of “political correctness”; narrow definitions of achievement which
marginalised public service; the ever-narrowing gateway to
services; the exhortations to greater “efficiency”; the rediscovery
of the “undeserving poor”.
Even more importantly, think of the impact on users: poverty,
blame, punishment, neglect.
And now listen to William Hague and other Conservative
politicians as they try to rekindle Thatcher’s appeal to
selfishness and the fear of difference.
New Labour has many faults, but it is wrong to assert, as some
on the Left do, that New Labour might as well be called New
It is in the ideals that the differences are most evident. A
reminder of this came at Community Care Live last week,
when the South African social development minister, Dr Zola
Skweyiya, was asked whether this government’s much vaunted new
approach to foreign policy was really different from the last. Most
emphatically yes, was his reply.
And the difference is glaringly apparent in UK social policy
too. The government’s commitment to ending child poverty, for
example, is a brave one. It is horrifying that a third of all the
poor children in Europe are born British. And despite the
government’s comfortable majority and performance in the opinion
polls, in the long term there is a danger that ending child poverty
will not be a vote-winner. Gordon Brown had to set up the Coalition
to End Child Poverty to put pressure on himself, to make a noise
about what he wanted to do anyway. Even then, he can’t offer to
raise taxes to do it. Who stood up and told the fuel protesters
that children should come before cheaper petrol? Are there more
votes in children, or in petrol? Turning away from Labour in
protest could be more dangerous than it superficially appears.
In social policy terms, the devil with New Labour is in the
detail. Unfortunately, to New Labour, social care is the detail,
partly because it also escapes the attention of most of the
electorate. And this is where the Liberal Democrats deserve credit
– and some tactical votes too. Only the Liberal Democrats are
committed to free long-term personal care, and if social care
professionals don’t make this a vote-winner then who will?
Yes, the government has overlooked the importance of social
care. Yes, there has been a crude, somewhat patronising
carrot-and-stick approach to social care professionals. But the
achievements – Quality Protects, Sure Start, the General Social
Care Council, the Social Care Institute for Excellence, the
commitment to tackling poverty and exclusion – merit our vote of
If Labour wins, it will be up to social care to gain some
much-needed influence on government – and more widely than the
Department of Health. And that task will be urgent.