A debate fit for purpose: Challenges to debating social care during an election

Posted On: 
22nd November 2019

The narrative constructed around social care pledges will be vital to building political consensus and avoiding political pitfalls of the past, argues Daniel Laing.

The narrative constructed around pledges will be vital if the cross-party consensus can be reached, writes Daniel Laing.
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As Theresa May found to her detriment in 2017, losing control of the social care narrative once a policy is released into the wild can have very real consequences in the polls. Nevertheless, the question over whether this election will see political parties come to a long-term consensus remains. All sides will be hoping to avoid the political pitfalls of the past: and not just because it might impact the polls. 

When Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street as the new Prime Minister, he surprised the electorate by making the bold claim that he would “will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”. The oration was labelled an election pitch by commentators. And now the politician prepared to “lie down in front of the (Heathrow) bulldozers” and “die in a ditch” over Brexit, was looking to tackle one of the countries biggest challenges. 

Since that speech there has been a tangible silence on social care. However, the risk of remaining silent on the issue could be just as politically damaging as attempting a solution. 

Avoiding a repeat of 2017

Questions over the sustainability of state-funded social care are well covered, but recent history has taught policy makers to be cautious. Every now and then social care policy slips out of mainstream news but when it returns always highlights the impact of inaction. Partly due to the desire to avoid labels like 2017’s dementia tax and 2010’s death tax. 

Crucially, the impact of ever failed attempts has been felt by vulnerable people through further delay and the Government cannot leave the issue unaddressed. This week a coalition of social care stakeholders used an open letter stating it would be imperative for the next Government to solve the social care crisis, increasing the inevitability of the campaign soon turning attention to the issue.

Measurable in recent Ipsos Mori polling, care for older and disabled people places third on the issues that will influence voter intention. A collection of experts has called on campaigners to finally “grasp the nettle and find a lasting solution” to ensure there are no further delays. The Lords Economic Affairs Committee called the issue a “national scandal” in July and combined with pledges of opposition parties: the debate will shortly reignite.

What are opposition parties offering on social care?

The Labour Party have set out their vision for a National Care Service this week. Opposition proposals will certainly drive the need for government to release their own policy – no matter how reluctant. Labour would place the public sector at the heart of care delivery through increasing local authority capacity to deliver care. They would also place free personal care in England at the heart of these proposals. Though at least to start with this would cover over 65s and not working aged adults.

The Liberal Democrats want to establish a cross-party health and social care convention to build a consensus on previous work produced in commissions and inquiries. The party would also introduce the cap on the cost of care as legislated for in the Care Act and have made commitments on respite care. While the sector will welcome these commitments; the prospect of another long-term discussion that delays action could be of limited appeal.  


The Conservative Party want to call for an urgent cross-party consensus with the red line of protecting people’s homes. Further details ahead of the manifestos might be scarce, but government have no shortage of recommendations at their disposal.  

A Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and Health and Social Care Committee joint report recommended a model similar to that used in Germany which includes a collective mandatory national funding scheme through social insurance and ring-fenced funding pools. Former First Secretary of State, Damian Green produced a report calling for a care model taking inspiration from state pensions. The Lords Economic Affairs Committee have also recommended free personal care – though the fact this is a Labour policy presents a barrier.

The narrative around social care policies is vital

Within all these proposals there are three important issues to consider: The role and importance of informal carers designed; whether they include the care of the working aged adults that the ADASS survey accounts for 58 per cent of adult social care budget pressures; and, whether they can engage the public without the issues becoming trapped in the politics of the debate. Indeed, a key debate that has never taken place in the public sphere is whether funding social care through council tax will continue to be possible. Challenges are then compounded by the political impact of past election failures. 

The narrative constructed around pledges will be vital if the cross-party consensus suggested by the majority of parties is to be achieved.  Therefore, a quieter election might be a better election when it comes to the future of social care.