Care Home Management

The Care Home Decision Makers’ Magazine

Insight & Analysis

Winning hearts, minds and political change

The care sector needs to do things differently if it is to secure much-needed ‘wins’ from the new government, says Nathan Hollow, head of health and social care and a director at social care communications agency PLMR Group

With council elections in May and a general election expected in November, voters will be out in force this year. In the hunt for votes, politicians will be focused on the major issues that dominate opinion polls – cost of living, NHS pressures, tax cuts, and immigration.

Unfortunately, scarred by the experience of the 2010 and 2017 election campaigns, social care is seen as a politically ‘toxic’ issue – think ”death tax” and “dementia tax” protests that we saw during those two past
elections. For this reason, social care seems set to get little more than a passing mention in the coming election, despite the desperate need for systemic change.

Every voter – regardless of their day-to-day contact with social care – is affected by local authority spending on care. On average, 75 per cent of all council spending goes on care and with councils struggling to balance their budgets, the consequences for all voters are demonstrated by cuts in services such
as winter road gritting, bin collections, highway maintenance, libraries, homelessness services, and just about anything else that isn’t legally mandated.

So, whilst the case for care is strong on its own merits, it’s the perilous state of council finances which provides the best argument for finally achieving systemic change.

Eyes wide shut

For years, various trade bodies, charities, and providers have campaigned for change. The sector has tried engaging behind the scenes and making the case for reform. It’s tried issuing dire warnings, highlighting the number of providers on the financial brink, the scale of workforce vacancies in the sector, and the
knock-on impact this all has on the more popular NHS.And it’s tried issuing a well-researched,
well-supported, pragmatic roadmap for reform that clearly sets out the changes that are needed in a way that is achievable.

Certainly, there have been some notable successes – the social care precept is far from ideal, but is certainly a mechanism on which councils have come to rely. But on the whole, politicians have failed to act. In fact, most of these campaigns have only been met with short-term ‘sticking plaster’ commitments.
All evidence suggests that the political class generally remains unwilling to engage in detail, or to have an honest conversation with the public about the scale (and cost) of the systemic change that is required.

Eyes down for a campaign

Ten years ago, the bingo industry successfully campaigned for a 50 per cent tax cut. There are around 400 clubs in the UK and the sector employees around 15,000 people. The success of that campaign has two important lessons for care

  • Firstly, the industry is beloved by its players – thousands of people were willing to come to London to march on Downing Street, and the scenes were staggering.
  • Secondly, the size and importance of an industry are not related to its political importance.

The economic and employment contribution of bingo, whilst clearly beloved, pales in comparison to social care. Yet, ten years ago the plight of 400 bingo halls and the passion of its players captured and dominated the media’s attention, just as the plight of 800 wrongly convicted sub-postmasters has done so this year. If
a campaign can make a big noise and can activate a lot of voters – ignoring it becomes politically dangerous.

Who cares?

The social care sector directly employs more than a million people and supports around 800,000. If we conservatively assume each worker and each user can draw on the support of at least one family member or friend, that’s a pool of nearly four million voters to call on. That’s more than enough to capture the attention of MP, prospective parliamentary candidates, and national newspapers – after all, even the most popular national newspapers “only” have 1.4m readers.

The wider public already recognises that social care services are under extreme pressure. In a poll last autumn, 78 per cent of the public describe social care as being in a bad or very bad state. In the ‘bad’ stakes, care ranks significantly ahead of education (63 per cent) – despite the headlines surrounding RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) in schools. Only the NHS is considered in a worse state (86 per cent) than care.

What can I do?

Generally, political change generally happens
in two ways:

  • collective action
  • mobilisation of the voting public in important numbers importance.

In care, the priority must be to mobilise the sizeable constituency of voters with a direct connection to the social care sector to actively call for change – and to do so by writing to their MP, their local political candidates, and to their councillors.

Strangely, MPs and councillors receive very few (if any) letters about social care. Instead, their post bags brim with emails about potholes, bin collections, small boats, and the NHS. We need to change that if we are to secure change.

Tell your story

We also need to capitalise on the broad public sentiment that social care is a public service significantly in need of change, and give a clear, positive story about what that change looks like.

Many in the sector think the media is aggressively negative about care services. That’s not wholly true. The phrase “care home” was mentioned in 3,800 articles in UK media in January 2024 alone, with 75
per cent of those mentions having either a ‘positive’ or ‘neutral’ sentiment (according to AI analysis).

Most of these pieces are local media stories about the positive impact role care services play in improving people’s lives in communities around the country. Therefore, as well as writing to politicians, the sector needs to be better at writing to their local (and national) journalists about the transformative work it does.

We shouldn’t fear journalists on principle. Instead, we need to collectively define and push a positive narrative about what a reformed, well-funded sector looks like and how it would transform the experiences
of those drawing on care services. ‘Doom and gloom’ warnings have yet to move the needle: a more positive case for change is needed.

Bringing it together

By making our case directly to vote-seeking politicians and setting out a positive vision for the future through the media, we can collectively build the groundswell of support needed to achieve change.
But ‘collectively’ is the key. There are well-meaning but disparate campaigns throughout the sector – all
pushing for change, but lacking unanimity of what that change is.
Divided campaigns, like divided political parties, do not win elections. It’s time to work together and speak with one voice.

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