A very public divorce

One unexpected outcome of the rise of advanced information
technology has been the emergence of plagiarism as a major
international issue. In universities, it is not only students who
have learned to substitute the skills of cut and paste for writing
their own essays. Staff to the level of vice-chancellor have also
been named and shamed. The accusations are increasingly flying
among novelists and playwrights too, especially when prizes and
honours draw them into the limelight.

But it is in politics that concerns about plagiarism now seem to be
greatest. All political parties argue that their rivals are
stealing their policies, ideas, even their catchwords. If in the
past, parties were as different as big football clubs, with their
own lifelong supporters, now the psephologists tell us, they are
increasingly indistinguishable. This is offered as a key reason for
the public turning away from political participation. Now it is
within parties that divisions and dissensions are most clear, not
between them.

All major parties emphasise the same words: choice, citizenship,
community, empowerment, work. They all increasingly highlight the
same problems: asylum seekers, bureaucracy, young people and
welfare dependence. While by-elections are fought with increasing
bitterness, the conference season highlights the sameness of the
parties. The PR companies and presentation experts all appear to
have been on the same courses, providing the same soft focus and
accentuating the leaders. No wonder disruptions are so memorable.

As Tony Blair has said, the emphasis on form over content is in the
nature of modern politics.

So what are the prospects for social care within this new
consensus? Can we expect anything different from the different
parties? This year’s party conferences offer little reassurance. We
have had “tough Liberalism”, New Labour for “hard-working families”
and a further attempt at 21st century Conservatism, which still
seems to be rooted in cutting public expenditure and scapegoating
devalued groups. The political parties all know that pensions are a
problem. They all know to talk NHS but it is still a struggle for
social care even to appear on their radar.

Social care remains the poor relation of the NHS, inadequately
funded, without the same real increase in funding made available
for health services. Its largely unqualified labour force feels so
low paid and undervalued that stacking supermarket shelves often
represents a more attractive option. Hardly surprising when I heard
the other day at a recruitment fair of social care workers in
London being paid £5.50 an unsocial hour while the agency that
hires them earns £11.50.

We still await detailed proposals from any political parties for
making available 24-hour support in people’s homes a reality,
rather than service users – particularly older people – having to
go into institutions without real choice.

To my mind social care is potentially the most wonderful of public
services because it relates people to their world and seeks to
address both the personal and the political. It is necessarily
unglamorous. It rarely offers exciting photo opportunities. There
are no emergency helicopters, life-saving operations or
attractively uniformed staff. Yet, at its best, it can help us make
new sense of ourselves, offer the support that makes independence
possible and transform lives and individual possibilities. It did
pioneer discussion of difference and diversity but was condemned
and derided for challenging institutionalised discrimination, both
in its own operation and in the wider world. Social care connects
closely with individual biography and with the real world. It has
to. This is its unique contribution.

This may also be what makes social care a difficult subject for all
major political parties. It is hardly surprising if they still
struggle with social care, across user groups, when their own
connections with the public are seen as increasingly uncertain. The
parties all talk choice and diversity, but the question is, what
choice and diversity do they reflect and do they offer voters?

It is no longer the distance between parties that seems to define
them, but rather the growing distance between them and the
electorate, which is emerging as the big issue. This is unlikely to
benefit social care. It is more likely to add to its
marginalisation as parties flail about in search of more sexy
subjects to gain them populist support.

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel
University, and is involved in the psychiatric system survivor

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