Why our National Care Service policy was stolen, and how to stop it happening again

Graeme Downie, a member of Dunfermline CLP, points out the inherent danger of promoting undeveloped policy, and suggests how Scottish Labour can do better in future.

Over the past few years there have been many articles on Scottish Labour’s various crises: “What is Labour for?”, “Why Labour?” and, for those of us getting increasingly frustrated at many points, “Why, Labour? Just why?”.

But rather than thinking “why” in existential terms, we need to think about “why” at the most basic policy and communications level. Why are what sound like eminently sensible policies not cutting through with voters? The most recent example of this is why was the SNP able to steal Scottish Labour’s flagship National Care Service policy and use it to kick a key issue in to the long grass?

Most effective communication is built on a fairly simple model: show the problem, show the solution, show the effect of the solution. Or, as my High School Modern Studies teacher would have said, “Make your point, argue with evidence and then conclude.”

The communication of the National Care Service by Scottish Labour missed out at least one of these stages and jumped straight to the conclusion. This allowed the SNP to take the concept and strip it for parts, the same way George Osborne cynically took the Living Wage, rebranded the Minimum Wage thereby removing the key distinction between the two, and stole the issue away from the UK Labour Party.

Firstly, I think the party was right in picking an issue where they knew there was a severe problem and where I am sure polling said voters wanted improvements. But we didn’t do the ground work to clearly demonstrate and illustrate the problem. We wouldn’t have pressed these stories ourselves necessarily but used supportive proxies to show the magnitude of the problem and make it relatable. The best way to do this is through case studies and examples which are more likely to attract media attention than a political comment. You don’t need a solution at this stage, just spend months giving the government a problem. You need the voters to begin their journey to you by knowing care services in Scotland are poor.

Second, you move on to the beginnings of a solution. You spend months floating ideas, testing them with different groups and the public to see what might work. Perhaps the sector needs stricter rules for private care homes; more involvement of users and staff; improved pay and conditions; perhaps a process to bring failing private sector care homes in to the NHS; increased clinical standards; more transparency and frequent inspections. At no point do you mention a National Care Service. Again, this is months of being associated with think tanks, care groups, trade unions, professional bodies and international examples. Make this issue one that Scottish Labour is defined by.

Only then, when you have demonstrated the problem and presented some of the solutions, do you begin to introduce your overarching policy and show the effect it would have by making all of it possible and improving the problems you showed at the outset. The National Care Service is then clearly defined and can be used for future campaigning. The government can’t steal it because you have taken total ownership of the issue over months or even years.

Instead of all that, what has happened is that the SNP have looked at the National Care Service idea, noted it was lacking in detail and identification amongst voters, and will now reverse engineer it to define the problems it wants to address and find solutions which suit its agenda. It then becomes impossible for Scottish Labour to effectively oppose whatever comes out because it is dressed it our clothes. I can just hear Nicola Sturgeon now, “Scottish Labour asked for a National Care Service and that is what we have delivered yet they are still not satisfied.”

So here we have an issue with Scottish Labour values at its core, stolen for political purposes, leading to a less effective solution, arriving later, that will not help the great many people we know need better services and need them now.

We need to make sure we don’t have to ask “Why did we let this happen?” again.

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7 thoughts on “Why our National Care Service policy was stolen, and how to stop it happening again

  1. This is an interesting article on how to develop policy. In terms of the specifics of a National Care Service, I think the fundamental problem was the party didn’t understand what problem we were trying to resolve and to be honest showed a lack of understanding of the care sector. That is the one issue I do have with this article. It is not correct to say social care in Scotland is poor. I am a care inspector and over 80% of services grade good or above. There are lots of great third sector providers who provide innovative and quality care and support (and some really poor local authority provision so state provision is not the panacea that some people think). The main issues are with certain older people’s care homes and certain older people’s care at home services. We need to tackle those issues but lets not throw away all the good work and innovation that is taking place in doing so. We need to build on the developments in self directed support and co-production to ensure that we have a care sector that gives choice and control to people who use it. We also need to look at citizenship models of commissioning, designing and delivering care. The article is correct in that the starting point for the party’s policy should have been talking to all stakeholders so we could develop a policy that would improve the areas of the sector that needed improving and build on the areas that are doing well. Richard Leonard spoke at our CLP two years ago and talked about how he had a radical plan for social care. When I questioned him he had very little detail on that plan or understanding of what the issues were with the sector. We should have used that couple of years to develop the policy in the way described in the article. However, here we are two years down the line and we still don’t have a coherent plan or proper understanding of the sector which is very disappointing. A missed opportunity.

  2. Boohoo. A big party stole my policy and ran away.

    Really, Grow up! All parties, including Labour, steal good ideas from other parties when they tie in with their values.

  3. Larger parties often steal good ideas from smaller parties. Labour in Scotland will have to adjust to life as a political party with only 1 MP and sitting on 14% in the polls

  4. The author identifies the exact problem: Scottish Labour had a wish list, not a policy.
    Every party knows “care” is a serious issue–even Boris–who claimed a YEAR ago that he “had a plan”. Now he has hived it off for a cross-party solution. You can bet if someone finds a solution, Boris will claim it.

    Of course there is a way out. It’s called tax and spend, the absolute no-no in British politics, an existential death spiral for any Westminster government, who are shepherded by the right-wing media run by a handful of press barons. The U.K. has cut State spending, by all government, to the absolute bone over the last few decades. Now £2trllion in the hole, and the solution proffered is to CUT taxes.

    Now I believe in a self-governing Scotland where, Instead of Nukes, we could have nurses and care assistants. Could Labour find the money to fund a care system in the UK? A UK which is obsessed obsessed by not taxing the rich ( relaxed, I think Mandy said).
    I personally think, under this utterly incompetent Tory government, the U.K. Is heading for a serious economic and social crisis. I doubt Johnson will still be in post next year, but the Tories have a big majority, and Gove is keen to be PM.
    Keir Starmer impotantly watches this ongoing car crash, neither for or against Brexit, neither for or against tax cuts: a decent man, but a cypher. If Boris does quit, then the next Tory leader might get a “bounce” and go for an election. England is still a conservative country, and Scotland is lost to Labour ( even if Leonard goes–who would be a popular replacement?) and Wales is not the bastion it was.

    If this is pessimistic, it reflects the gloom I feel about all our future prospects.
    I am 71 and the UK has been in decline all my adult life. The international respect we once garnished for our many democratic, social, legal, liberal, artistic attributes is now largely gone.

  5. You are bemoaning political reality. But it cuts both ways. Yes, the SNP have taken on the National Care Service idea, but now it is for them to take the inevitable brick-bats and criticisms from both those who think it is going too far and those for whom it will never be enough. Look at the Curiculum for Excellence. Essentially a Labour idea that the SNP took responsibility for on achieving government. While the SNP take all the criticism, Labour are in the heady position of being able to heavily criticise the SNP …. over the implementation of a Labour policy.

  6. This article offers a good picture of how policy can be shaped from the basic outline or idea. I think that taking this route is okay when a party is in ‘good fettle’ but I think Richard Leonard may have had to rush this forward due to internal pressures, the real need for such a policy and because other parties would inevitably have to look at this anyway. With regard to the National Care Service itself it is a shame that media attention was diverted by Labour itself – probably intentionally – to water down Richard Leonard’s contribution to SNP policy making. I think the fact that the SNP are now committed to setting up a National Care Service can only be for the good – perhaps Labour should offer support and assistance in drawing this up for the good of the country. It would also indicate that Labour were taking on responsible political positions rather than reacting in a partisan anti-SNP way which is how they often come across.

  7. If a policy is a good idea and another party adopts it then the original party who’s Idea it was in the first place should take that as a complement and be happy for their policy to be adopted and improved to see the end product that is produced for the greater good of the people.

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