The Crisis in Childrens Services - trade unionists debate 'What type of society do we want'

July 2009

Union activist Ian MacDonald discusses the dispute in Surrey County Council Children's Services, now in its 7th month, as part of the ongoing debate about the struggle in Social Care and the need for socialist transformatiom.

This piece is part of the ongoing debate about the struggle in Social Care and the bigger picture of “What type of society do we want”. It begins with an update of the struggle in Surrey for better conditions and then briefly looks at the National context. It finishes with an ongoing discussion between myself and Paul Couchman on the way forward for socialists. I would welcome contributions so that this debate can continue.


The dispute in Surrey County Council Children's Services, now in its 7th month, concerns the awful working conditions in Children's Services and how they affect staff ability to provide a service for vulnerable children. Those conditions at the turn of the year got a lot worse as a result of 1) of more cases being referred due to the death of Baby Peter, and 2) Surrey County Council receiving a one star rating with regard to its safeguarding services and the ability of its senior management to implement the necessary changes.

Staff in social care, whether Social Workers or Family Support Workers, do the job because they care and because they want to make a difference and help provide a future for vulnerable children, They are expected to visit dangerous houses alone that the police will only ever visit in pairs and are expected to hold cases that cannot be worked on satisfactorily within their contractual hours.

Management’s response has been to effectively shrug its shoulders, and state that the work has to be done. On top of this, over the last few weeks, senior managers have been threatening staff with individual disciplinarys over failure to do Personal Education Plans (PEPs) on time. This highlights the national dimension of this dispute. Senior Managers and the Government, in the person of Beverly Hughes, have the view that getting better performance indicators means that there is a better service for children. The logic is that if for example the PEP's are done on time, then the service for children is improving. Beverly Hughes stated as much recently, stating that there has been a "significant improvement" in the service to children in Surrey.

Staff know that this is 100% WRONG

They know that the drive for better performance indicators is getting in the way of actually doing the direct work with children, because staff are concentrating on the bureaucracy. For example, because of the strict time limits on Core Assessments, (which is a detailed assessment of whether there are concerns of significant harm, or the lower threshold of a child in need) there is an implied priority on the time deadline rather than the quality of the assessment. This in effect means that staff are faced with a double edged sword i.e. they get disciplined if they do not complete paper work in time and they get disciplined if as a result of doing that paper work a child does not get an adequate service or even worse is hurt.

Staff deserve a senior management that will fight Government for more resources and oppose the whole strategy of Performance Indicators - NOT attack its own staff who are doing their best to protect and support children.


As we go to press a consultative ballot is taking place with regard to possible industrial action. Negotiators are waiting for a meeting with the Head of Children’s Services, in an attempt to get some serious answers to the above problems. As a minimum this will mean that Senior Management need to put in writing that staff only work their contracted hours and that they will underwrite any risk with regards to excess work that cannot be done.

At present staff are in effect working a lot of hours for free for Surrey, because they cannot in reality take back excess time worked and individual staff can be disciplined immediately for not fulfilling paperwork. Unless there is a 180 degree turn around by management then industrial action could be the only possibility of improving working conditions and protecting children .

It has been proved that with strong membership even the threat of industrial action can be successful. Three years ago, Approved Social Workers, with 99% membership threatened industrial action unless working conditions were immediately improved, and got all their demands being met. The same can happen in Children's Services in Surrey.

However no dispute happens in a vacuum and this dispute is happening within the worst recession within capitalism since the Second World War.

The dispute in Surrey is occurring in the national context of a defence of jobs, where pay cuts are seen as a victory compared to redundancies and occupations are used as a defensive tactic to protect jobs. I will return to this national context below. However the specific context of this social care dispute is the death of Baby Peter, in a Local Authority, (Haringey) that was designated as a three star authority, i.e. “good” by Ofsted. This has unleashed a public debate in Surrey, and nationally, through the union and the media, not just in terms of how the death of this poor child happened, but how and if a service can work in the future that actually can protect children. What is positive is that this debate at times threatens to go beyond the parameters of, “we must work smarter” to pose a distinction between performance indicators as an abstraction with the real question about how can we do quality social work that will really protect children.
For years social workers and other workers have been on their knees trying to provide a service without adequate resources because they are seen as dealing with the results of poverty and direct abuse that are quite frankly not vote winners. A significant number of social care staff will not put up with this anymore and the debate is changing. It is important then to go back to the national context of this dispute, which is different from the fight backs of the nineteen- eighties. Then, the Labour Party was seen as an alternative from which change could be effected; and the terms of reference within the Left was the debate over ‘reform or revolution’. Now, the gloves are off, it is clear that Labour is a party of Capital, (which of course it always has been) and there is not a mainstream mode of thought that sees any alternative possible in the near future.

I would argue that the struggle for better conditions in social work also poses concretely the question: What sort of alternative society do we want? And also crucially what type of organisation do we need to build that can concretely work out that alternative, in relation to the real struggles of working people. This is a different philosophical approach to that of Trotskyism that focuses in my view on leadership of the working class in the struggle to defeat capitalism rather than working with the working class to work out an alternative before the revolution, because it will not happen after it, as if by magic. Indeed revolution, after the bloody history of ‘communism’, will not happen at all unless the question of What Happens After is seriously posed. This does not I stress negate being actively involved in the struggles of the working class, because it is precisely these struggles that inform our theory, (in fact class struggle is a form of theory), in building an alternative for the future.

It is crucial in my view that the above ideas are discussed as part of concrete struggles between trade union activists. Below is reproduced the dialogue between myself and a Socialist Party activist who, although we clearly have big political differences, are able to discuss them sharply and therefore clarify ideas, within the context of a dispute where we are united on the basis of supporting class struggle.
For my part the discussion below has stimulated me to re read, Lenin’s State and Revolution and What is to be Done and to analyse the present struggle and industrial struggle generally in the light of a re analysis of these works.
Ian MacDonald

First Letter from Ian MacDonald in the context of recent SWP letter proposing electoral unity to the Socialist Party

Firstly it is worth stating that I have some sympathy with the critique of SWP organisational methods , which historically have only ever been about building a sect , (sometimes a large sect but nerveless a sect) even if they have made attempts to appear non sectarian. However this is not the main issue, politics is.

On the question of the No2EU I am totally against it for the following reasons.

1) Any minimum demand whether part of an electoral bloc or not has to be in the interests of the working class, concretely. In my view getting troops out of Iraq would have been; hence it would be correct to have a coalition of forces, (which does not by the way mean supporting Respect - more of that later). Getting out of the EU would not take the British Working Class anywhere; in the absence of anything positive that could be put in its place, which there is not. Therefore in reality all the campaign inevitably panders to nationalism, which is the logic of the Communist Party’s rehashing the old ideas of import controls etc. It is also the case that British Trade Union laws are the most reactionary in Europe. How does the demand to get out, square with the demand for better trade union legislation?

2) H mentions quite rightly that one of the demands is for International Solidarity. It is. But the nature of electoral blocs is that various groups can add demands that are abstract and in practice meaningless, which this is.

3) What is proposed by the slogan No2 Eu Yes to Democracy is that the alternative to the EU is Democracy. But the campaign does go any further in explaining what that means. Democracy at the moment is a pretty suspect concept, if we are looking at parliamentary democracy, with all the corruption that has been exposed recently. I would have been thought that it be more honest of the Socialist Party to actually campaign on what you are for, not what you are against, i.e. getting out of the EU in the absence an alternative is just proposing that capital goes backwards a few decades rather than actually got rid of.

4) H states that it is significant that it is the first time in over a century that a trade union has stood independently of Labour. This is not the real question; the real question is what are that trade union and the coalition that it is in alliance with proposing should happen to take the working class forward. The RailMarineTransport union leadership states that it is in favour of a workers Europe, but at the same time is concretely proposing protectionism as part of the campaign to defend and develop manufacturing and fishing interesting the UK . This does not make sense. The real discussion needs to be around what type of society as socialists we want to build and how to get there.

5) Finally, I do understand that you operate within this coalition and whatever follows it as a group with your own programme and right to organise as such. However that can only be on the basis of the minimum demands being progressive, like, "Troops out of Iraq", "Against racism and fascism-smash the BNP" etc. A demand around getting out of Europe and linking it to some abstract democracy does not cut the mustard and worse, is confusing and inevitably panders to nationalism. I am not saying by the way that the SP is nationalist. On the question of Respect raised earlier, I think it was a mistake for the SP to have supported it, because Respect took sides in support of fundamentalism and therefore was not in the interests of the working class and working class women and gays specifically.

Ok, what else?

Rather than repeat the mistakes of a hundred years ago and creating a party to the left of New Labour, which ends up in another few decades like Labour, we need to look at what should bond us all together, at least theoretically, and that is Marx’s marxism. The left needs to get back to Marx and use it as live tool in the struggles of working people. This means by the way an emphasis on theoretical study, (imaginative theoretical study) being just as important as practice. Why? Because it is essential that working people study what they are against i.e. capitalism, and plan the type of society they want to build before the revolution, and not leave it to a vanguard leadership to do after the revolution. As historical materialists, we know what can happen in such a scenario.

On the question of the party, I believe Lenin was wrong, because ultimately the development of theory and therefore the practice needs to be the property of the masses before and during the revolution not just an elite leadership after it. (The right to instant recall will not solve this problem) Obviously Lenin did not have the opportunity of seeing the full decay of the Soviet Union and of developing any alternative to the Bolshevik Model. He certainly did not see the possibility of the first Workers State turning into its opposite, a state that maximised production from its own working class and sent slackers to the gulags. However Lenin did see the need for theoretical study and after the treachery of the second international in supporting its own ruling class's in 1914, went back to Hegel and concrete study of dialectics. Nearly a decade on we have the advantage of not making the same mistakes but I fear that alliances with trade unions leaders on the above programmes do nothing to allay my fears.

On a final point, we have discussed Transitional Demands in the past and disagreed, I have even been accused of ranting!! (perhaps I did , in the absence of clarification)

Trotsky states: (in the context the demands for a sliding scale of wages and hours) "It is easier to overthrow capitalism than realise this demand under capitalism. Not one of our demands will be realised under capitalism.Tthis is why we are calling them transitional demands. It creates a bridge to the mentality of workers and then a material bridge to the socialist revolution." As always with Trotsky this is succinctly put, but I disagree with him. Two reasons. The above comments were made in 1938, fascism, imminent world war and according to his analysis the death agony of capitalism meant that it was essential that workers be mobilised to fight for the Socialist alternative or fall prey to barbarism. He also did not see the need for there to be a plan for a qualitatively different society to that of the Soviet Union at the time, because, it was a question of simply getting rid of bureaucratic leadership since the ‘socialist’ means of production were in place. Therefore according to his terms transitional demands were adequate. Seventy years on, (and we might differ on this) capitalism is still essentially in place, barbarism exists side by side, (Rwanda, slaughters in the Balkans etc) and the Soviet Union is a capitalist society, restructured from its previous state capitalist form. The question that therefore needs to be asked is that given our historical materialist view of society, how can we build a socialist society in the future? My view would be in nutshell that a) as Marxists we need to organise amongst the working class and oppressed, b) we need to seriously analyse and discuss with these workers through these struggles how we plan a future socialist society, not as an absolute blue print but taking into account that it is not going to be immediately possible to go to a system of From Each According to his (sic) ability to each according to his needs) This is one reason why it would be useful to have a debate on Lenin's , State and Revolution.)

Finally struggles are going to be evolving in different manner and are going to need to be essentially linked to struggles in Europe and other countries. The slogan No2Eu does not take this forward. Ironically a quote from an Italian trade union at the time of the British oil refinery wild cats earlier this year:

"The economic and financial crisis can't be fought within national boundaries, even if their English workers are given a response within their national boundary: we need a European and global trade union initiative to support the unemployed and for new social and industrial perspectives."

I suspect that you will disagree with a lot of this but let me know. I have however written this out of respect for you personally and your comrades. By the way, on the issue of the Lindsey Oil dispute, because I discussed with you what was actually happening on the ground I certainly, reconsidered my own position.

“2nd letter reply by Paul Couchman

Okay comrade, now an attempt at responding to your specific critique:

1) The very phrase 'I am totally against it' (referring to the NO2EU platform) is similar to your position on the formation of the Labour Party and the Russian Revolution. It comes across as dismissive and anti-dialectical in the extreme. I believe Marx would turn in his grave if he knew that followers of his general doctrine were so dismissive and arrogant regarding such major important developments in the world history of the working class. On some of your points regarding the specific platform, I would be in agreement. It was poor. The name was poor. SP comrades were effectively faced with a fait a compli 10 weeks before the election when presented with the final name and political platform. We argued for Troops out of Iraq to be part of the platform.

On the question of the EU, we differ completely. I believe it is absolutely correct to argue for withdrawal from a capitalist, neo-liberal and essentially undemocratic anti-worker institution and to argue for a Workers' Europe. I believe elements of the CPB did and do pander to nationalist sentiments and our material has been consistently opposed to such views but the existence of the campaign and the platform did not pander to nationalism per se. On the question of trade union laws, you are correct in saying that the UK has the worst legislation but every week new legislation is drawn up (by unelected EU commissioners) which weaken trade union rights across the rest of Europe. The other key fact about the EU is the movement towards a military and economic superstate which all workers organisations must oppose. How did the campaign take the working class forward? This, like all questions, is dialectical. The campaign itself, the name and the platform raised the possibility that workers could stand politically against the capitalist parties. The echo from trade unionists everywhere who were touched by this campaign was incredibly positive. Representatives from ALL major strikes over the past few months were included as candidates. The most important thing for me was - here is an opportunity to reach a whole new layer of working class people and spread the ideas of marxism. I believe all such possibilities should be promoted and embraced by revolutionaries, whilst keeping 'the banner' clean within such developments.

2) The phrase that some demands, such as that for international solidarity 'are abstract and meaningless' is unfortunately another example of a dismissive approach. In fact, many socialists and trade unionists across Europe sent messages of support to the NO2EU campaign - most notably Italian trade unionists who had worked closely with SP comrades over the Lindsey Oil Refineries Strike - which was itself another example of the need to intervene in the workers movement even when their are confused and even backward ideas prevalent and to argue the case for 'International Solidarity'. In the case of Lindsey, the SP was the only left organisation which intervened correctly and built up a base for socialist ideas and internationalism within the workforce. It should also be noted that, due to the intervention of the SP, the NO2EU election broadcast was the only political broadcast to specifically call for people not to vote for the BNP and to expose their fascist ideology.

3) I have already made the point that the name was poor - even crap!

4) At the National Shop Stewards Network conference last Saturday, this organisation/network came of age. The discussions were serious and representatives of EVERY major recent dispute attended. The comradeship between different Left groups was marked (even with some sharp critiques). For me, the highlight was the discussion on the lessons of the NO2EU campaign. All the points you raise over the name, the limited programme and the less-than-perfect position of some of the partners, were discussed. Most were in agreement on these points. The key point was that now the RMT, the PCS, the UCW, the FBU and the POA are having serious talks about a platform for the general election. In the PCS incidentally, our comrades are leading a branch-by-branch consultation on the issue of standing candidates so it will not be just a top-down approach from that union. Where I know we will disagree is on whether this is a step forward or not. For me, it is about how to reach the mass of working class people, trade unionists, youth, black and minority ethnic communities etc. with the ideas of genuine socialism. There is no vacuum on the 'left' as the SP, SWP, WP, CPB... etc shows - THERE IS A VACUUM on the mass political stage for a party to the left of Labour in which ideas can be tested and revolutionaries won. We cannot just stand by and say that all workers need to discuss Marxism without positively building and developing mass forces within which this can happen.

5) I have answered these points already.

On the question of the party... "Ultimately the development of theory and therefore the practice needs to be the property of the masses before and during the revolution". Sounds fine in words but how do the masses get hold of the theory, the history, the lessons in strategy and tactics, the very basics of revolutionary theory? This is one question you do not answer when you say that there should not be a revolutionary party. The idea that spontaneity is the answer has been proved false historically time and again. The role of trained, honest, self-sacrificing and theoretically advanced workers is essential to any possibility of successful socialist transformation of society.

On the final points you make about transitional demands, I'll save that for another time.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify in my own head what my own position is on the NO2EU campaign and the class struggle in general. It is often only when challenged that you can sort out your own thoughts and ideas.