By David Osland
Only in recent decades have the needs of human beings unable to look after themselves been seen as a market, governed by supply and demand in much the same way as that for tinned tomatoes.
But before Thatcherism gave us what is obnoxiously nicknamed the granny farming industry, social care was socialised. And it cared.
Residential homes and home help services were not regarded as profit centres for a handful of giant chains, headed by chief executives on salaries of two million pounds a year.
They were instead owned and operated by democratically-elected local councils, on a not-for-profit basis that kept costs low and avoided the exploitative terms and conditions now universal for the workforce.
There is no reason Britain cannot revert to that model, or at least an updated version of something like it. And no reason for Labour not to make that case.
Unfortunately, the paralysis and mishandling of the debates around social care from the front bench over the last week have handed the Tories an imperfect but significant political victory.
Boris Johnson can now present himself not just as the man who got Brexit done but also the man who got social care fixed even though Labour voted against it.
That his scheme is transparently not going to work is unimportant. The shoddiness won’t be apparent this side of the next general election, which is the only event horizon that counts here.
Rightwing pundits have declaimed that the resultant 2.5% increase in National Insurance contributions constitutes “a shameful betrayal” that “guarantees the total victory of socialism in Britain”. That beyond-parody last sentence isn’t a joke: it’s an actual Daily Telegraph headline.
Utter tosh though the contention is, it inadvertently puts a finger on how this is going to be understood by the electorate.
Labour has been dining out on its good name as ‘the party of the welfare state’ for over 70 years, but increasingly appears flatfooted and clueless about where it should go next.
After the kites were flown in last weekend’s Sunday papers and former Conservative chancellor Philip Hammond highlighted their regressive implications, 36 hours of panic-stricken confusionism followed before Labour finally hit on a consensus against on the following afternoon.
With no frontbencher able to answer the basic question ‘What would you do instead?’, precise policy pretty much depended on who was speaking at any given time.
Ample mention is made these days of the argument that ‘Labour is seeking permission to be heard’. But what is it saying once it gets people to listen?
The ham-fisted television and radio performances unkindly exposed its ineptitude and lack of ideological focus.
It’s not as if anybody can argue that nobody could have seen this coming. Social care reforms have been on the agenda for decades.
Indeed, May’s ‘dementia tax’ fiasco allowed Corbyn and McDonnell to seize the initiative in the 2017 campaign, when the words ‘national care service’ formed the perfect three-word counter-slogan.
I’m a journalist, not a policy wonk. But as a Labour Party member, I want to see the people paid to do the policy wonking come up with a cohesive and equitable solution.
The moral credit for the achievements of the Attlee administrations is not infinite. A brilliant political career awaits the young Labour MP who can rearticulate, in modern language, the basic moral case for a cradle-to-grave security in education, employment, health and housing.
Instead of arguing about how to fund the whole granny farming boondoggle, let’s start the conversation by asking how to move beyond granny farming altogether.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland
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