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Starmer, sustainability and social care: some pre-election thoughts

Brendan Martin

A week today the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have a new government, but already its leadership is under fire for not saying exactly how it will fix social care.

To which I say: be careful what you wish for. Remember when Boris Johnson stood outside 10 Downing Street on the day he moved in there and lied that he had a social care reform plan all ready for action?

By contrast, Sir Keir Starmer, the next occupant of that address, refuses to over-promise even to placate critics during these heady days before the General Election, and says two terms will be needed to build a new system.

As well as being refreshingly honest (on this topic, at least), this resolution in the face of impossible demands is also consistent with what Labour says about care in its manifesto.

It’s not as if Labour is refusing to apply the most urgently needed patches to the existing system. Its manifesto commits to raising pay, employment terms and training standards for care workers, and to capping individual liability for their costs.

As the influential Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has pointed out, it is not clear how those promises will be funded, but that doesn’t mean the IFS is right to make the same complaint about Labour’s longer-term intentions.

“The manifesto commits to major reforms in adult social care, but provides next to no detail on how or when these would be implemented, or what final form they would take,” says the IFS, adding: “With no specific funding set aside for these changes, paying for them would mean less for other services, unless taxes or borrowing were increased.”

However, this zero-sum reasoning neglects the greatest potential source of new wealth in social care: the assets in our communities and workforces that could be deployed much more productively.

Our existing approach to care is unsustainable for the same reason it is increasingly inadequate, and there is a parallel with environmental sustainability: it has exceeded its ecological limits.

Capitalism has brought economic and social benefits our forebears couldn’t even imagine, but its demands on our time and energy also draw too much from our capacity to care for each other, just as its resource use has turned nature against us.

Social welfare services have been our adaptive response to this reality – and were won through the determined struggle of working people — but their success has increasingly collided with our economic system’s incapacity to sustain them adequately.

Moreover, industrialisation of social care has demanded over-reliance on underpaid women in jobs that nearly 400,000 workers each year decide to leave[i], while still over-relying on women’s unpaid domestic and community-based work into the bargain.

In short, our social care future – so elegantly expressed by the pressure group of that name[ii] – cannot be achieved by patching up the existing system, necessary though that is to improve the next five years.

We need a shift from a welfare system that inadequately compensates for our economy’s negative effects on our wellbeing, to an economic system that is built around enabling and supporting us to care for ourselves and each other.

According to its manifesto, Labour intends to “build consensus for the longer-term reform needed to create a sustainable national care service”. That is an invitation to participate in shaping the future that I intend to accept, albeit without illusions.

We in Public World have learnt a great deal over the past decade about how enabling and supporting people to work with greater freedom and responsibility in nurturing workplaces improves jobs, services and productivity, and we’ll stick at it.

The work of others, such as Shared Lives Plus[iii] and Community Catalysts[iv], also provides growing evidence of how neighbourhood-based mutual support can produce good and secure livelihoods as well as good and flexible care.

No government can make these things happen, and we disempower ourselves by demanding they do. What government can and must do is produce the enabling environment and support needed for us to do it ourselves.

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[i] https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9615/

[ii] https://socialcarefuture.org.uk/

[iii] https://sharedlivesplus.org.uk/

[iv] https://www.communitycatalysts.co.uk/

*** If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, check out these two related blogs for more thoughts from Public World’s Founder and Managing Director, Brendan Martin ***

The future of social care depends on all of us

Our social care system can’t be fixed. It needs to be rebuilt.