Chair's Blog


Democracy in action

I’m on my way home from the Labour Party Conference, where BASW/SWU have a stand this year. It was a bit of a shock to the system, my first direct experience of one (the conference I mean, rather than the BASW stand).

I used to watch them avidly as a student in the 80s, and then felt connected to them as a party member in the 90s – and very different affairs they were then, with real debates, often heated and then some, and votes on major policy issues.

A visible democracy in action, messy and imperfect. Too messy for the modern media-focused political age.

I left the Labour Party at the end of the 90s, disillusioned in particular by its approach then to public services and public sector workers, by which time the conference had started to become the stage-managed show for the media that it is today, all disagreements hidden from view.

The liveliest part of it by far now is the fringe meetings, and I went to some excellent ones, including two on fair pay. Frances O’Grady of the TUC was excellent at the ‘Labour and the Living Wage’ meeting, making the point that fair pay was an issue for all workers to unite on – hence a big show of support is needed for the 18 October rally, which we are working hard to promote and hope to see a large BASW/SWU contingent on (great to see the excellent banner advertising it on our website just now).

As well as these two meetings at the Labour Conference, I recently attended a London SWAN meeting (Social Work Action Network), where Tom Henri, social work lecturer at Goldsmiths, presented his recent research into the use of foodbanks (so shocking to see these in the 21st century) – and at all these meetings the message is coming out loud and clear: that poverty is concentrated more and more amongst people in work and their families.

As Frances O’Grady put it, “Under-employment is the new unemployment”.

So it was good to hear Ed Miliband announcing that a Labour government would increase the minimum wage to £8 an hour, albeit only by the end of a term in office, by 2020. This welcome news was offset more than a little though by Ed Balls’ announcement about freezing child benefit …

Back to the BASW/SWU stall, this attracted lots of interest, photo-ops with Shadow Cabinet members and others, including keen prospective parliamentary candidates, social workers among their number I’m pleased to say.

BASW members came up to say hello, and maybe future members too. One Labour Party member and social worker said he wasn’t a BASW member, but it was good to see social work – so often an unmentioned part of public services – visible at the conference.

We didn’t have access to the main hall, but the Unison stand opposite had a TV, where we could see what was happening inside, including speeches about Scotland and the referendum, ending with Ed Miliband announcing a photo-op on stage.

I couldn’t help but compare this with the Yes campaign, imperfect and messy, but glorious and rumbustious democracy. As BASW enters a time of focused consultation with its members, I know which one I hope we can emulate.


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