Private sector greed didn't cause Winterbourne View abuse
A meaningful response from the left must consider how trade unions should or could have made a difference.
So the Winterbourne View Eleven have been sentenced. Six are starting prison sentences, and the over five have been given suspended sentences. None will ever be able to work in care settings again, assuming the current CRB system remains in place.
The reaction of the Left to the horrific abuses at Winterbourne View, both when it was uncovered and when the Serious Case Review was published in August, has been much as you would expect. Some lay the blame squarely at the door of capitalist excess, suggesting that if the profiteers were driven out, everything would be just fine. Others, operating in the New Labour managerialist tradition, say the blame lies in Care Quality Commission's regulatory failures. Polly Toynbee, to her credit, managed to cover both:
Cameron's privatising zeal looks even less enticing in the wake of this week's two care home scandals [Castlebeck was the other]. The "dead hand of the state" looks rather more welcoming than the grasping hand of private equity....
Anger at abuse at Winterbourne View hospital landed harder on the regulator, Care Quality Commission, than on Castlebeck, the company that took £3,500 a week for hiring cheap thugs as carers. The CQC confessed that ignoring a whistleblower was unforgivable - but the regulator should long ago have blown the whistle on itself and warned its task was impossible on its current resources....
If standards of care in England are to rise to a premium standard, then the CQC requires a radical overhaul. At present, it is underfunded, understaffed - even if its current high level of vacancies are filled - and its inspections are neither frequent enough nor sufficiently detailed.
All fair enough, but it still misses the main point: eleven otherwise law-abiding people chose to engage in the sadistic abuse of very vulnerable people. The venture capitalists didn't make any additional money out of that abuse, and while the CQC might have stopped the abuse before it got going, that doesn't alter the fact that these eleven people wanted to abuse those in their care.
Taking care homes back under state control, while it may be a good idea for other reasons, won't ensure that such abuse never happen again. Nor will restructuring the CQC, welcome though that is too as one means of improving care.
What will stop such abuse, I contend, is a socialist approach to public service quality - an approach that starts with the people who deliver those public services, which empowers them to stand up for those they are serving, and makes them want to.
For socialists, workers claiming control of the quality of public services - in a manner integral to the defence of their terms and conditions - should lie at the heart of the labour movement's agenda. Union activists could do worse than take GDH Cole's advice from 90 years ago, when he dreamed of a society based on self-regulating guilds, focused not just on worker conditons, but on the quality and social usefulness of work produced:
It is upon the Trade Unions that the brunt of the struggle will fall. It is upon our success in laying the foundations of the Guilds even under capitalism that the chances of Guild Socialism really depend, and the problem of the transition to Guild Socialism is therefore primary a problem of trade union development. (My emphasis.)
Cole's dream of a Guild Socialist Britain may have been just a dream, but today's public sector labour movement could do worse than aspire to his vision, by:
1) Acknowledging that, while it's perfectly legitimate to defend the public sector as best we can from Tory attack, this doesn't mean what the public sector provides is perfect, and that we also have a responsibility to ensure that the kind of abuse seen at Winterbourne View ceases; arguments about the 'logic of capital', and the consequent alienation of workers, are strong and valid, but they must be countered by equally strong and valid displays of solidarity, public service ethos and 'professional pride' (the idea of the creation of a Royal College of Teaching is interesting in this regard, though I'm not sure the 'Royal' bit is needed);
2) Seeking to persuade the 'powers that be' in the labour movement (the party and the unions) to develop clear strategies for the development of self-regulating codes of conduct (the NUJ's code is a good example), which in time become more effective as a guarantee against inadequate public service than anything the state can impose.
3) Taking concrete steps at local levels towards the establishment or revitalisation of Trades Councils, which task themselves not just with the business of co-ordinating resistance and mitigating the worst effects of the current assault by government, but also with the creation of new class-conscious agreements between service provider and service user. In other words, labour activists should be seeking to develop, for a new age, the civic guilds envisaged by Cole:
The [Trades] council would exist to make articulate the civic point of view, the vital spiritual and physical demands of the people, and to coordinate with the various guilds which would have entrusted to them the task of supplying these demands. To date, the trade union movement has been notably absent from the debate about Winterbourne View. This is understandable, when terms and conditions of its members are its main agenda (I would also hazard a guess that very few of the eleven convicted abuses were union members.). But if public services are to be defended in their totality, there's a bigger job to be done that looking after the public servants; we need to ensure that those they serve are looked after too.