Regaining Radicalism


An issue that has been swilling around in my head for a while concerns the ‘reclamation’ of the radical tinges of the social work profession and whether or not we are moving into a potentially more dangerous era as the government whittles away at some of the assumptions made about the welfare state and an implied social contract to provide and sustain those who are least able to in a civilised society.

I wonder to myself what the role of social work is in this right-ward shifting of the national political agenda and by extension, what I can do while preserving the job that I genuinely love.

There has always been the undercurrent of ‘care v control’ in the social care sector. Where can we place ourselves when the ‘care’ is cut to the minimum and we are agents of rationalisation of funding and the ‘control’ implies a forced manifestation of a political will which we feel may be counter-productive?

I have a couple of main thoughts about this. One concerns communal actions and the other about personal actions.

I have been a member of Unison – the public services union since I joined the profession (excepting the years I spent overseas and the brief period when I had a personal spat with a shop steward and resigned in disgust – only to rejoin a couple of months later after he had apologised profusely – I know, childish but I WAS right Smile with tongue out)

Mostly I saw union membership as a protection against mendacious managers. Although I can’t praise my current managers highly enough, I have worked in teams where there has been some poor, verging on bullying practices and it is best to know the union can support and guide in such circumstances. More recently, though, I am espousing myself of the wider political ideas of unionisation and the communality of experiences across the public service sector.

I don’t always agree with everything Unison (and particularly said shop steward) does and says personally, but I strongly believe that the best way to focus political activism and engagement is through the union as – working in a local authority – the lines of communication are pretty clear and the ties are fairly well bound between the union and the employers.

I am sure that somewhere BASW and the embryonic College of Social Work have a place to pay in the regaining of political purpose and will of the profession. I hope there will be some kind of blurring and possibly merging of roles as they seem to sit in the same place professionally.

I have also been actively following SWAN – the Social Work Action Network. Indeed, I went to an event held in London a couple of weeks ago and was impressed by the strength of feeling on display. One of the attendees specifically asked about how we retain our radical roots and work ethically while retaining our jobs as practising front line social workers. That was one of the elements that shaped some of my thoughts about the issues.

I did note that most of the people attending the SWAN meeting seemed to be students. It was great, in a way, as we need (and this was discussed) a radicalised student base. Perhaps social work students (through their lecturers) increasingly see the role as one of a lackey of the state because the ‘care management’ and ‘procedural’ roles are emphasised through both training and placements and with increasing fees for training and courses being able to produce ’employment-ready’ social workers but I feel it is ever more important to ensure that there is scope for radicalisation within universities and colleges and that the profession actively promotes social  justice.  There is a role for social work outside the statutory sector but that seems to be forgotten in the hunt for statutory sector placements as ‘gold standard’ on courses.

Perhaps the social work course should be a route towards a new kind of social enterprise entrepreneur? Theoretically and logically, the studies that we partake in should be the best ‘lift-off’ point towards a career in the ‘third sector’.

But even within teams the place for radicalism does not have to be lost. It can be rediscovered through discussion and debate. Yes, we have a statutory role but the need for people who have a strong value base in implementing even quite cruel policies is all the more important.

Does it compromise my values to be the person responsible for implementing restrictions on access to services according to criteria? Well, that’s debatable, I’m sure some would say it does. I say, and I use the same argument to myself when detaining people under the Mental Health Act, that if the task is to be completed, when working with people who may be vulnerable for whatever reason, it is better that the job and the role is taken by someone who is compassionate and who is mindful of the impact of every intervention they take rather than a faceless bureaucrat who might not have an active interest in the implementation and effect of social policy.

I believe that being ‘on the frontline’ gives me a certain power to argue on behalf of those whom I work with, both service users and carers. Can I make differences to macro social policy? Probably not but I can ensure that my voice is not lost to those at more local levels and that I constantly feed up my concerns.

One day, we’ll be listened to but without us, crying up from the bottom of the ‘career ladder’ the authenticity will be lost.

A part of my bleating against management cultures is that I believe that  (and I am aware this is my own prejudice talking) a lot of people can’t wait to get away from the front-line and into cosy management positions (and academic positions) quickly enough. I fully understand that is an irrational and unfair accusation  but it just feels like that sometimes.

I think that the best way of social work changing and making and effecting changes is by work on the ‘front line’ and a strong and experienced workforce ‘at the front line’ who are not afraid of our own managers and will be able to engage in debate and conversation about policy without needing to ‘move upwards’ professionally.

I once applied for a senior post. The post itself was actually deleted before the interview so it didn’t end either in success or failure but was one of those posts that just rattled along and is unlikely to be reinstated.

I applied partly because I felt I should. I meet people who started before and after me as they climb up the professional ladder and partly felt an element of competition but I’m so glad now of exactly where I am. It has allowed me to distil a lot of my thoughts. It gives me a very powerful voice to express the needs of those whose homes I visit every single day and I can’t remove myself from the relentless nature of the work – because I’m doing it.

My hope remains with the potential ‘advanced practitioner’ professional development route which we have been promised through a new (hopefully improved) career development structure.

As for radicalism, it needs to take different routes and we need to fully embrace the social media in a way that hasn’t yet happened across the sector. Just through writing this, I know I am able to get the message from the ‘front line’ out to a far wider audience than I would by relying on verbal communications and perhaps collective activism.

Perhaps the true change will come when it doesn’t have to be done anonymously but I do think we have the power to embrace widening and broadening social networks to use our expertise, knowledge base and engagement with the issues across the social spectrum to affect, promote and encourage policies that promote social justice across the whole of society, not just the ‘middle section’ that the government seems to obsessively pander towards.

A few months ago, I attended one of the ‘College of Social Work consultation events’. Amongst social workers from very different sectors and different local authorities, I was somewhat depressed when I was involved in a discussion where my colleagues were telling each other how they wouldn’t want their own children to become social workers. Partly due to the pay and hours and partly due to the feelings of powerlessness and stigma of working in the profession. I never even considered not encouraging people to go into social work. We absolutely can thrive with good people in the role. OK, the pay could be better, that’s true but it could be a whole lot worse too (perhaps that comes from my background as a care worker where I was paid poorly but as I didn’t have anything to compare it to and just felt grateful to have a job, I didn’t really consider it). I am actually comfortable with my salary. I have somewhere to live and can live comfortably with enough left over to put away some ‘rainy day savings’ so perhaps different people just have different expectations. As for the powerlessness and stigma about being a social worker – we absolutely have the power to change that. We must if we want to be effective in our role. I often say I never went into social work to be loved, and it’s true but being respected would be a fine start.

Powerful and independent voices from within social work have the power to nudge, prod and appeal to the social conscious of the nation. You CAN be independent minded and comfortably (and happily) employed by a local authority. I am.

In fact, we are obliged to do so in order to work actively towards promoting social justice.

6 thoughts on “Regaining Radicalism

  1. Thank you. This is a question I have struggled with for a while: I know there is a lot in the current system that is very wrong, and I know the concept of radicalism is appealing… but what does this mean in practice on a day-to-day basis (at the micro/personal level – i.e. beyond political activism which isn’t unique to social work). I think you have helped me answer that. And you have (again) made me believe that I am right to feel proud about pursuing SW as a profession and that SWers have much to proud off (contrary to what some SWers and many others besides seem to believe).

    • p.s. Sorry if I am starting to sound slightly sycophantic! I will say when I disagree with things… I just find that I am agreeing with a lot of what you are writing about lately!

  2. What an inspiring blog! I definitely agree that radicalism is about staying in front line work and being an independent thinker.

    I suppose I’m coming round to the idea that radical social work is essentially ‘good social work’ where social workers go the extra mile in helping clients. My views have changed since I retired (and am more detached from practice) and I now think that radicalism is impossible in the present climate. It was an idea that was relevant when we believed that society could be changed for the better but sadly I don’t believe this will happen now.

    I’ve seen how my own local authority has run up huge debts because of lack of controls on spending – and a large proportion of the overspend has been on on social care. It may be hard for social workers to face up this but they need to understand that the economy is not going to recover – we’ve enjoyed the benefits of an economic bubble and now its pay back time – and most people are going to get poorer and services are going to deteriorate. Sorry to be so depressing.

    On a more positive note, I have been quite impressed with some of the things this coalition government is doing. It’s certainly more libertarian than Labour was e.g. by getting rid of ContactPoint . Abolishing Quangos and setting up the Munro Review are also very welcome.

    I realise that social workers face difficult times ahead. They have always acted as gatekeepers of resources and as the cuts bite their decisions will be disputed even more than ever before. Perhaps the only realistic way to improve efficiency, and to achieve social justice, is to let experienced practitioners decide priorities.

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