How we talked about social care during the 2019 General Election

In November 2019, we decided to harness the opportunity of the general election to deepen our understanding of how social care is discussed in the public realm.  To do so we worked again with Carmen Dayrell and Elena Semino from the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) at Lancaster University, who conducted language analysis of how the main political parties (Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats) talked about social care and how social care was talked about on Twitter during the election. This short blogpost draws out some of the key findings.  It builds on the previous work they have carried out for us exploring how the print media talks about social care, which have now been combined in this new briefing paper.

Turning first to the language used by the political parties, the analysis looked at the party manifestos and at speeches made by party leaders to launch them.

Social care policies in the manifestos were included under sections on health and social care.  Labour’s manifesto chapter on health and social care began: ‘The National Health Service is one of Labour’s proudest achievements’ while the Conservative manifesto said ‘The NHS represents the best of this country’.  Here we see theNHS positioned not simply as a health service but as the embodiment of our national story and shared values, and hence any commitment to it is to uphold those shared values.

The Conservative Party went on to begin its section on social care with a further values-statement, asserting that  ‘It is a basic, compassionate Conservative belief that we should care for those in need – helping those who cannot help themselves’.  Based on the work that #socialcarefuture and Lancaster University has done on the current narrative and thinking, this statement spoke strongly to dominant public values concerning social care, albeit not to those among the #socialcarefuture network given the way it characterised those requiring support as passive objects and social care as a safety net.  It did go onto say that ‘we need to have a system to give every person the dignity and security that they deserve’ before adding ‘nobody needing care should be forced to sell their home to pay for it.’ These statements are interesting in that they lean towards intrinsic universal values of benevolence and protecting individual dignity.  However, the focus both rhetorically and in policy on protecting property wealth spoke to more extrinsic values of family security and achievement, which is perhaps not surprising given they are conservative values. Moreover, the ‘we’ in ‘we should care for those in need’ was not defined and could just as easily mean family, as it might the State or voluntary and community sector.  By contrast, Labour’s section on social care offered no values-led vision or statement, beginning ‘Social care funding cuts have left 1.5 million older people without the care they need’.  Nor did it provide its view of the role of social care, despite proposing a National Care Service.  This can be contrasted with the section on education which began: ‘Education makes our economy stronger, our society richer and our people more fulfilled.’ To these ends, The Liberal Democrats section on health and social care began by stating that ‘Everyone should be able to live a healthy life with the support they need in their local community.’  This is the closest purpose statement to the vision elaborated by the #socialcarefuture network, though it does limit it to health, rather than a broader conception of wellbeing or a life of meaning.

Echoing the previous work carried out by Lancaster University, we found that all of the manifestos characterised social care as either in crisis or under pressure, albeit attributing this to different causes.  The Conservatives attributed pressures to growing numbers of older and disabled people, asserting:  ‘Thanks to decades of economic growth and scientific innovation, people are living longer, healthier lives. But this, alongside the rise of dementia and other chronic conditions, means that the pressures on the elderly care system are ever-increasing. There has also been significant growth in the number of working-age people with disabilities who need care at a younger age.’  Labour attributed the crisis to cuts, saying: ‘Almost £8 billion has been lost from social care budgets since 2010. This is having a profound impact on unpaid carers in this country, with 2.6 million carers quitting their jobs to provide care to family members.’  The Liberal Democrats invoked pressures on the NHS asserting: ‘Too often, people are left stranded in hospital after they finish their treatment and no longer need to be there because the follow-up care and support they need to go home is not available in the community.’

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats used metaphors of social care as a building or physical structure, with the former suggesting ‘The current care system is at risk of collapse’ and the latter ‘Cuts have left hospitals and community facilities crumbling’. 

With respect to discussion of social care on Twitter, using the software kit tool FireAnt, Lancaster University collected all tweets that:

  • were posted between 27th Oct 2019 and 14th Dec 2019 (one day before the election was announced and two days after the election took place), and
  • contained one or more of the following terms: ‘social care’ OR ‘free personal care’ OR #socialcare OR #freepersonalcare.

This search resulted in 897 tweets (over 35,695 words in total). This number is surprisingly low, which is in itself interesting finding. For the sake of comparison, Lancaster used the same software, same method and the same time period to collect two additional datasets. One consisted of tweets that contained either the word ‘NHS’ or the hashtag #NHS. The second set included tweets that contained the word ‘Brexit’ or the hashtag #Brexit.  The figure below displays the overall number of tweets for each search.

As can be seen, the overall numbers of tweets about NHS and about Brexit were much higher than those about social care (nearly 20 and 40 times higher respectively).  This is an interesting finding, which concludes that social care was not a dominant topic on Twitter during the 2019 general election campaign, particularly as compared with the NHS and Brexit. This is in contrast with polling carried out during the election, one of which  found ‘care for older and disabled people’ came third in voters priorities after Brexit and the NHS (though this may of course simply represent differences between the sample who were polled and the demographic characteristics of Twitter users).

Turning to the language used by Twitter users when discussing social care, the results need to be interpreted with caution, as the twitter data is biased towards the Labour narrative. A high number of tweets were from Labour party usernames such as @UKLabour or @jeremycorbyn. There were no tweets from the official Conservative account (@Conservatives) and very few from the LibDems.

Key findings from the analysis of the contexts in which ‘social care’ co-occurred with each of the words above (Figure 2) revealed that social care was often mentioned alongside other pressing issues such as healthcare (cf. ‘health’), education (cf. ‘schools’ and ‘education’) and ‘housing’. The tweet below from the @SocialistVoice illustrates this point:

The social care crisis is killing the NHS- and the Tory-Lib Dems’ 2012 Health & Social Care Bill is responsible With A&E waiting times at the worst levels ever, sorting social care is the key to helping NHS hospitals # VoteLabour # GE2019

As we found for the press and party-political material, social care is often associated with a ‘crisis’ and with financial issues (e.g. ‘funded’, ‘cut’, ‘cuts’). More specifically, some Twitter users blamed the social care ‘crisis’ on cutting in funding by the Conservative government. Here is an example:

@ JeremyCorbyn: “We have a social care crisis on our hands and it was created by the Tories. I want everyone to be able to live with dignity, which is why we will start by introducing free personal care for older people.”      (FolPoliticsUK, 08.12.2019)

With regard to social groups, we found that the Twitter data followed the general tendency that had been identified in the analysis of newspaper articles and the manifestos. The emphasis was on older people – the category was the most frequently mentioned. 

While many tweets referred to cuts in the funding of adult social care, there were also tweets that highlighted either the vital importance of adult social care to help people live full, independent lives or the value of those who provide the services.  For example:

Everyone deserves the right to live a full & independent life. Adult social care helps make this happen. With just 3 weeks to # GE2019, it’s absolutely crucial that social care & support is at the top of the next govt’s agenda   (LGAcomms 2019-11-20 07:36:04)

In sum, the analysis shows that, during the 2019 election campaign, social care received relatively little specific attention in manifestos and speeches by the three main political parties in England. When it was mentioned, it was often used to make party-political points against other parties, although two of the parties (the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives) suggested cross-parties initiatives as possible ways forward. On Twitter, social care was also massively overshadowed by both Brexit and the NHS as a topic of discussion. When it was talked about, the analysis provides further evidence that social care tends to be framed in a negative way. Whether in the political parties’ manifestos and speeches or in tweets, the findings point towards a general tendency to focus on the scale of the challenge, the lack of resources, and the vulnerability of those who need social care (especially older people and people with disabilities). This does not provide a positive narrative that could contribute to generating creative and inclusive long-term solutions.

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