The first part of the paper argues that the care relationship is crucial to securing care quality, which has implications for the way in which quality is achieved and measured. However, for more than twenty years, governments have emphasised the part that increasing market competition and, more recently, user choice of services can play in driving up the quality of care. The second part of the paper analyses the development of social care services for older people, from the reform of 1990 to the changes following the general election of 2010. The paper goes on to examine whether competition and choice are in any case enough to result in ‘good care’, given the evidence of limitations both in the amount of choice available and in how far older people are able or willing to choose. It is argued that if ‘good care’ depends disproportionately on the quality of the care relationship, then more attention should be paid to the care workforce, which has received relatively little comment in recent government documents.