The fact that many social workers are unlikely to vote for New
Labour on 7 June should send a wake-up call that the party needs to
embrace social care values, argues Polly Neate.
Here’s a radical idea about improving services that has come
true under the Labour government. In designing Quality Protects,
the programme to improve services for the most vulnerable children,
young people in care up and down the country have participated in
events designed to get their views and translate them into policy
You can get a jazzy leaflet from the Department of Health that
will update you on what young people are saying about the care
system, both good and bad, produced by young people themselves. It
also tells other young people how they can get involved and have
some sense of power over the way services are organised and
And here’s an example of a radical idea about improving services
that hasn’t come true yet. What about asking frontline
practitioners up and down the country to give their views about how
to provide the best service for users? What about asking them how
the service could be managed more effectively and efficiently?
What about a groovy leaflet circulating the ideas of
practitioners, their criticisms, and their experiences of
struggling for creativity in an intensely performance-managed
culture, which would also let them know how they can feed in their
views in future? Perhaps then frontline workers in the most
neglected bit of the public sector would feel a sense of power over
the way services are organised and delivered. And perhaps then they
would still be a constituency the Labour Party could absolutely
count on at election time, because right now they are not.
Of course some of the decline in Labour support among social
care workers since 1997 can be explained in terms of complacency
this year compared to an intense desire to get rid of the Tories
last time; tactical voting; the supposed apathy epidemic, or the
generalised antipathy towards politicians, depending which
commentators you believe. Nevertheless, it is surprising that a
lower percentage of social care workers state an intention to vote
Labour next week than of the UK population as a whole.
It’s especially surprising given that Labour’s stated social
policy goals are so obviously dear to social workers’ hearts.
Ending child poverty, combating social exclusion, raising standards
in public services. You can’t argue with any of it – which is
lucky, because this government finds it hard to construe any
criticism as being constructive.
The trouble is that although the government’s aims are important
to social work, social work is not seen as important to achieving
the government’s aims. Social workers know that real social justice
is about far more than inclusion. They know that some people just
don’t want to be included – and that you have to listen to them,
respect them, and help them anyway. They know that the parents of
many of the poorest children will not or cannot grasp the
opportunity to work. Basically we’re talking about the “undeserving
poor”. And asylum seekers, who are now viewed with the most
suspicion of all.
Social care workers may have hoped they would be more at the
centre of things under Labour. But perhaps more disturbing than
just feeling excluded from the government agenda is the feeling
that social policy is centre-stage but social work – or social care
– is firmly in the wings.
Meanwhile, under the banner of joined-up government, the
plethora of initiatives that could be loosely grouped under the
title of social care (but which do not all involve social services
or even social workers) makes provision feel more fragmented than
before. Even Quality Protects, perhaps the most motherhood-like of
the feast of motherhood and apple pie before us, has not yet
improved core frontline services for the most vulnerable and
troubled children in need and their families, partly because it has
hoovered up so many of the available qualified professionals.
The achievement of the vast majority of agencies and
individuals, in meeting large numbers of stringent and detailed
service targets, should not be underestimated. But we need to
listen to the social worker who told Community Care Live
last week: “When I’ve made sure all the plans are made and the
reviews are done, I don’t actually have time to implement the
services for that young person that those plans and reviews
And in adult services, despite ministers’ exhortations to view
the coming of care trusts positively, service users aren’t fooled.
They fear the loss of the social model. It’s hard for social care
workers to counter those fears when the prime minister talks about
the urgent need for more professionals in the public sector,
without a single mention of social workers.
The government embraces the private sector while social workers
feel their roots in local government being pulled hard, and the
profession’s traditional power-base, the social services
department, is fragmenting. The optimists say that social work will
have a central role in community-based programmes, but it isn’t
happening yet and we need to know why.
The government’s brave attempts to tackle poverty and exclusion,
and its ambitious programme of public sector reform, desperately
need an injection of social care values. If Labour come back on 8
June, they must be made to listen.