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‘Topic avoidance’: how the main parties will avoid talking about social care at this general election


‘Topic avoidance’ is the academic study of how people avoid discussing important issues across a wide range of situations. Commonly avoided topics, apparently, include politics, money, sex, religion, work and relationships.

And, if the two main parties get their way in this general election, social care.

The two parties have different reasons for adopting ‘topic avoidance’ during the campaign. The Conservatives seem unlikely to want to draw attention to a problem that it cannot reasonably claim to have ‘fixed’, despite its promise in 2019. Meanwhile, Labour is entering the campaign without anything like a comprehensive plan for social care.

Of course, the parties can’t avoid talking about social care entirely. It will be raised for sure by the media, pressure groups and more than a few members of the public. It’s also going to be a key issue for the Liberal Democrats, who do have defined policies on social care. So the two main parties will have to say something.

A key avoidance tactic in the past has been to talk about a ‘plan for a plan’: a promise to put in place a process to create a plan or a strategy but not to give details as to what that plan or strategy might look like. One classic ‘plan for a plan’ example has been the idea of establishing a cross-party agreement on social care. This is the line the Conservative manifesto took in 2019 and Labour’s Wes Streeting resurrected the idea in an interview recently. But the precedent is terrible, with an attempt in 2009 still leaving bitterness on the Labour side, and there has been no serious attempt by Labour or the Conservatives to make it happen since. If it is raised during the election campaign, it is topic avoidance.   

Another ‘plan for a plan’ is some form of independent, even royal, commission. This can sometimes sound convincing, particularly if there’s a reference to the Turner Commission, which took a highly sensitive issue (pensions) and crafted a consensus that has prevailed. Yet there's nothing at this stage to suggest that the main parties will be proposing anything remotely as concrete as the Turner Commission. If it’s suggested during the election campaign, it is topic avoidance.

How do we know if the promised plan will be any good? How can we know if, in the intense white heat of government, it will even be delivered, let alone implemented?

Another plan for a plan is the promise of a long-term strategy, but only after the general election. Boris Johnson hinted at this in 2019 with his promise that he already had a ‘plan for social care’, and the Labour Party is currently promising a ‘10-year plan’ for social care if it’s elected. There is some logic to this position, particularly for an Opposition party that has not had the policy resources (ie, the Civil Service) to fully develop its ideas. Yet the problems are obvious. How do we know if the promised plan will be any good? How can we know if, in the intense white heat of government, it will even be delivered, let alone implemented? It is still topic avoidance.

A further approach to topic avoidance will be to throw in a ‘red herring’ – an idea that doesn’t work but which sounds plausible enough in an emergency. So you may hear that the key to fixing social care is to merge it with the NHS, as if by joining together two misfiring systems you magically create a finely tuned engine. Or you may be told that the solution to social care is private insurance, despite there being no country in the world where this works. Or it may be robotics, with promises of huge efficiency gains just around the corner. Deeply held though these beliefs may sometimes be, they are topic avoidance when it comes to the fundamental issues facing social care.

So how do we deal with topic avoidance during the campaign?

  1. Call it out. If you hear promises of cross-party talks, royal commissions or long-term strategies, sound your topic-avoidance klaxon.

  2. Insist on analysis. Ask spokespeople to identify the key issues that need addressing in social care. It may be reasonable not to have a complete set of solutions, but parties should at least have a clear analysis of the problems. The King’s Fund has a primer on the eight key problems in social care.

  3. Question the vision. Ask what the goal of these processes would be. What is the party trying to achieve in social care? What is its vision for a good system?

These tactics may not work – politicians are skilled at topic avoidance – but they may at least help you get through the next few weeks.