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.        

A statement is read on behalf of victims' families. Source: Getty

Paul Cotterill is a blogger for Liberal Conspiracy and Though Cowards Flinch.

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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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