Ken Loach’s new film is an unflinching exploration of the reality of government welfare reforms. The powerful performances illustrate the effects on people at the receiving end of this Orwellian nightmare. Their stories, though fictional, find parallels with many who have found themselves at the mercy of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in recent years.
Along the way we meet a mother-of-two forced out of London by the housing crisis; a sympathetic Job Centre Plus (JCP) worker who attempts to support claimants; and our main character, Daniel Blake, a skilled carpenter who has been instructed not to return to work after suffering a near-fatal heart attack on the job.
These characters possess many of those human qualities deemed worthless by capitalism: kindness, honesty, integrity. It is these very qualities that tend to land them in trouble as they navigate their way through a system which increasingly reveals itself to be designed for one thing only: to force people off benefits.
The story revolves around Daniel’s trials and tribulations in seeking support from the state after he is declared “fit for work” in a work capability assessment, a measure introduced under New Labour and extended by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
The scenes have a sense of authenticity. Viewers who have claimed Job Seekers Allowance recently could well experience deja-vu: the life draining call-waiting times to the DWP; time consuming visits to the Job Centre which focus more on catching out claimants than assisting them back to work; and the terror induced by a referral to a nameless, faceless, and seemingly omnipotent decision maker.
With his rare talent of portraying the reality of working class life accurately and without sensationalising, Loach explores the interconnection between welfare “reforms” and food banks, mental health and the variously creative, dangerous and degrading ways people find to get by.
Much to its credit, the film also deals with the internal conflict among JCP advisors, with a workforce caught between the right’s campaign against benefit claimants and their own instinctual urges to offer support to some of the most disadvantaged in our society.
Figures from the DWP show that in just over a two-year period, 2,380 people died after their Employment and Support Allowance was stopped due to a work capability assessment ruling them fit for work.
Welfare reforms over the last decade have wrought suffering and misery on the lives of thousands of people, while the media and the politicians have lined up to tell them their misfortunes are the result of their own private, personal failures. On the contrary, these are failings of the system, and the injustice should be laid out in plain view for all to see.
This is precisely what I, Daniel Blake does.