Nadia Whittome: “We need a mass movement for public social care”

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This is the speech Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome gave at the Progressive Economics conference at Greenwich University on 11 June.

Thank you for having me here. It’s an honour to share a panel with such eminent speakers. I’ve worked with the Women’s Budget Group for a long time now.

Since I was elected I’ve taken a real interest in social care, for two main reasons. Firstly it’s one of the biggest and most neglected areas of public policy; it’s a system that’s broken, and it’s full of abuse and hyper-exploitation – and yet there’s been almost no government action. Secondly, it’s where I come from. Before I was elected I was a care worker, and during the pandemic I went back to work in my old workplace.

I was employed again on a zero hours contract, doing highly skilled work, with unsocial hours, often quite unpleasant work and of course, during the pandemic, extremely risky work – and all without adequate PPE. I spoke about that in a Newsnight interview, and I was then sacked from my role, even though I didn’t name the company I work for.

Obviously the sacking and loss of wages don’t really matter in my case because I’m an MP. But it shows just how badly people are treated, all over the country, all of the time. After this I did a call out to care workers; we got hundreds of responses from every corner of the four nations, saying the same kind of things.

Care workers are disproportionately migrants, and overwhelmingly women workers. The median wage for a care worker in 2021 was £9.01 an hour. 71% of care workers are paid below a real living wage. Zero hours contracts are the norm. Minimal is the norm – so when it came to my colleagues contracting Covid or having to self-isolate due to contact, they were basically being asked to live on fresh air.

This is where I want to start – because usually when we have these discussions about social care we start from a policy perspective, but we should also be talking about this from the perspective of rank-and-file workers. Workers – and care-recipients as well – are better at designing the kind of care service we need; and we’re certainly not going to get the kind of system we need until we put an end to Dickensian pay and conditions.

The left is clearly a long way from power. We need to build trade union density and militancy in this sector (and other sectors as well of course). There have been some really good campaigns here and there. In Salford there has been a campaign to pay workers the living wage and bring them in house. Of course there’s the Sage care workers, who went on strike and won the living wage.

But this doesn’t yet amount to the general, across the board unionisation we need to see to drive up pay and conditions.

In general, not enough is being done to unionise precarious and migrant workers. On the other, those workers are leading some of the most inspiring struggles. The Sage workers, for instance, are predominantly precarious migrant workers.

We do also need to make wider demands on the government, first off to intervene in wages. The demand for a £15 an hour minimum wage would mean a more than 50% increase for the vast majority of care workers.

When the care sector bosses say they can’t afford this, it’s exactly the same as when energy companies talk about not being able to afford things. What that means is they will make less profit. That is what not being able to afford things means when we’ve got profit-making companies running fundamental public services. We need to look at that big picture.

In Labour’s 2019 manifesto, which I was proud to run on, we put arguably the most radical and progressive social care policy to the electorate. That was a national care service that would be free at the point of need. The initial phases of establishing that would have been driving up standards of care and also terms and conditions with a big injection of public money, free personal care for elderly people, and rebuilding local authorities’ capacity so we can start bringing care back in house, so these corporations are no longer creaming off public money to provide a basic service.

In Scotland, they’re ahead of England on this. The details are unclear, but two things we know. One is that pay and conditions for social care nursing staff will be the same as in the NHS. Secondly they’re introducing national collective bargaining for the first time ever, which is game-changing for the sector.

Polling shows strong public support for these kind of changes, but unfortunately that’s not translating into serious policy change. You can see that in what the Tories’ proposed last year. Basically reducing the cap to £86,000 a year, so if your house is worth less than that, which is a lot of people’s houses in the Midland and the North, you’ll still need to sell it to pay for care. Meanwhile the national insurance hike will provide very little money for social care.

Even if it wasn’t morally bankrupt, and designed to protect the assets of the wealthy, this policy would still just be tinkering around the edges. I think fundamentally we shouldn’t have profit-making providers in social care; just as in the energy sector the public can’t be affording to bankroll shareholders’ lifestyles, exactly the same in care sector.

I believe in the principle of universality. Even if someone can afford to pay because they’re paying for their collection of vintage cars or whatever, I don’t think they should be. I think that profit poisons the system, it makes care worse. I’ve seen that first hand from working in the system. You just cannot reform social care meaningfully without being radical. This is a systemic issue. It’s an issue of women’s work, caring work and social reproduction, being systematically devalued by capitalism.

The Tories obviously can’t be radical on this, because they’re so wedded to the privatisation they started pursuing in the 1980s. We’ve got to look to the Labour Party. Labour Party conference last year, again, passed a motion for a national care service, which at the time was supported by Jonathan Ashworth, who was then shadow health secretary. That would have removed profit from the care system, it would have introduced national collective bargaining and it would have introduced a £15 minimum wage for care workers.

I do really worry that the Labour Party has its hangs up on this. I don’t think that’s because the front bench really ideologically believe the private sector should have a major role. It’s more about retreating from the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, and being seen to do that. If we do that we risk being outflanked by others on it.

Both public pressure and grassroots organising are more important than ever. The public agrees that the system is broken, we’ve got the policy – broadly – to change the system, and we know that that policy is popular. The missing ingredient is a grassroots, with mass unionisation, mass mobilisation, and the ability to push the policy agenda from outside across all parties, but also inside the Labour Party. That is the kind of bottom-up grassroots movement I want to help build and that all of us have a role in building.

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