These New radicals have staying power

Marching against the war in Iraq reminded me of the 1960s when radical students opposed the Vietnam war. Radicalism was also expressed by welfare workers. Community workers protested that the poor were in slums while the wealthy were in luxury. Young lecturers urged radicals to live in deprived areas.

Radicalism was also strong among social workers. They had their own magazine, Cas Con, with its famous cartoon of a social worker asking the impoverished Mrs Bloggs, “And how do you feel about your rats today?”.

They urged colleagues to be experts in welfare rights in order to maximise the incomes of those receiving benefits and support user movements such as the claimants unions.

In the 1970s, radical social workers opposed Labour’s Children’s Bill, parts of which sought to reduce the rights of parents to retain the care of their children. Strengthened by the Family Rights Group, they argued that the best way to help parents was by attacking poverty.

By the 1980s, radicalism had waned. For some it had been no more than a fashion, abandoned in order to pursue the Thatcherite objectives of high salaries and status. But it probably persisted longest in social work. As we entered the new millennium, radicalism in the profession had been overcome by the philosophy and practices of the new managerialism.

The  wheel turns. At last, welfare radicalism appears to be re-emerging.

Bodies such as ATD Fourth World, where people on low incomes make policy and speak to the press, have established themselves. Most promising is the Social Work Manifesto Group which claims that the commitment and skills of social workers have been undermined “by increased bureaucracy and workloads and by the domination of case-management approaches with their associated performance indicators”. Like the radicals of yesteryear, its supporters want government to give priority to abolishing poverty and reducing inequality.

Unlike them, they are not opposed to the casework which Cas Con dismissed as “a social tranquilliser”. Instead, they regard personal relationships as a means by which social workers can enable users to be empowered to improve their situations.

Will the new radicals last longer than the old? In their favour is their non-reliance on marches and placards. Some meet in groups to identify values and strategies. And they realise the importance of co-operating with radicals in trade unions. Again, there is an acknowledgement that senior managers should not necessarily be dismissed as unsympathetic for they too are constrained by government policies.

Particularly important is that radical social workers are now armed with a provocative analysis of what has happened to their practice. Peter Leonard, a British social worker and Marxist professor before emigrating to Canada, has with colleagues published a text which puts recent changes in the personal social services in the context of capitalism which has dominated Conservative and New Labour policies.(1)

They argue that state welfare agencies, despite their successes, are being dismantled to provide pickings for private enterprise. Simultaneously, social work is less in the hands of professionals and more under the control of managers whose methods are akin to those in the private sector. Not least, capitalism increases inequalities, with the blame for its outcomes heaped on antisocial young people, feckless parents and, of course, do-gooder social workers.

The lesson for radicals is that not only must they struggle to define and practice a social work which frees rather than controls individuals but they must also challenge the damage wrought on society by capitalism.

(1) P Leonard and L Davies (eds), Social Work in a Corporate Era, Ashgate, 2004

Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow 

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