Ken Loach: “Our job is to lay out the broad ideas”

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Socialist Review spoke to film maker Ken Loach about the benefits system, Jeremy Corbyn and where socialists should put their energies.

What made you choose the benefits system as the subject of your latest film, I, Daniel Blake?

Paul Laverty, the writer, and I started hearing stories, sometimes in the press, sometimes from people involved in campaigns, of people being sanctioned, or people being passed fit for work when they shouldn’t have been, and so on. The stories seemed quite extreme so we thought we should do a bit of investigation. We went to about six cities and towns across the country from London to Glasgow, but mainly in the midlands and the north of England, and the same stories kept recurring. So we thought, “Well, there’s a film in this.” Paul wrote two characters and then he wrote a script, which was very strong. He’s a fantastic writer, and so when our producers read it they said, “Yes, go for it.”

Do you see it as a campaigning film in the way that Cathy Come Home, about homelessness, came to be seen?

You can’t really think of it like that, not when you’re making the film. You’ve just got to think of it in terms of characters, what the situation is, the conflicts they’re caught in, their dilemmas, the choices they make, and whether the characters engage you, so the audience will want to know what happens next and how things develop.

The ideas underneath it can be borne out of an analysis of what’s going on and judgements about the politics of it, and the social and political contexts of why these arrangements have been put in place by the Tory government — and the Labour government before it. You come to a judgement about all that and that informs the story you want to tell. But once you’re writing, you’ve just got to be driven by the characters and what they would do, rather than manipulating them to make a point.

Do you think that radical film makers and other artists can make a special contribution when they investigate these kinds of subjects?

Yes. I think people who are not politicians but who are concerned, whether you work in films or you write, or do theatre, or poetry, or visual arts, or whatever, our job is to lay out the broad ideas and a broad view of what’s going on.

It’s for the people involved day by day to judge the tactics — OK, we’ll take a step back here in order to take two steps further in a year’s time, or next week, or whatever. That tactical judgement isn’t what artists should be about. We should be more concerned with saying, “Look, this is what’s happening,” and suggesting somehow in the texture of the film why it’s happening, and that here’s the reality. And what are we going to do about it? How do we understand it? So we deal more in the broad principles, and trying to actively reflect the reality with some indication of why it is as it is.

Moving on to more general politics, it has been reported that you’re considering rejoining the Labour Party.

Well, it’s a choice at the moment. Obviously the election of Corbyn has made a big difference. I think it’s a difficult question. It’s a tactical question. It’s not a question of saying, “Well, I’ve changed my views on things.” It’s a question of where I can pursue those views most effectively.

Do you think with the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn and the movement around him that Labour is different to how it has been in the past?

I think it is very different. I’ve attended several Momentum meetings this weekend [at the World Transformed event] and what’s clear is that the vast majority of the people attending are not interested in the small print of social democratic politics, which is a constant bartering of working class interests against what the right wing think the media will accept. They’re interested in the big ideas of how do we survive? How do we save the planet? How do we give people back their dignity? How do we give them somewhere to live? How do you get a job?

And the historical process as well; I’ve found a lot of interest when you raise that subject. I think that’s where all the energy and interest is at the moment. In the 1960s it was quite different. The energy was all in the left groups, whether it was the International Socialists or the International Marxist Group. The creative energy was there.

Now that half a million or 400,000 people have joined the Labour Party — one hopes there will be many more — that’s where the thrust of energy is and that’s where the people are who are open to a socialist analysis, a socialist discussion. I’ve done quite a lot of screenings of my films in the last year to Labour Party branches and others, to the public, or trade unions, and it’s clear that when you’re talking to people, they’re saying, “Are you with us?” I feel I’m slightly weakened when I say, “Oh no, I’m staying separate.” That makes it a difficult position to be in.

I’m not saying I would join the Labour Party immediately, because I think it’s a tactical question. The basic political analysis of conflicts between the classes, the inexorable demands of the ruling class, and the inevitability of struggle by the working class, and everything that flows from that, that’s non-negotiable. You don’t change that; it’s a reading of history isn’t it? And class loyalty. So that doesn’t change. It’s more a question of where are people open to that discussion. Are they mainly in left groups or are they mainly in the Labour Party? That’s the question you’ve got to answer. A lot of people will be struggling with that now. It’s not a question of becoming a social democrat, it’s a question of how do we engage? How can we best make whatever contribution we can make?

When left reformist parties have been elected, such as Syriza in Greece, they’ve run into difficulties. If Corbyn was prime minister there would be substantial pressure on him from the state and from the right. Can we do much to organise in preparation?

Absolutely. I think there’s a big weight on the trade unions. There’s got to be a big union movement where the unions mobilise their members against austerity on issues — big movements to save the health service — so that when Corbyn gets elected, if he gets elected, it doesn’t come out of the blue, there’s a whole movement there on every issue. I think that would be his strength.

The left will never win just as an electoral machine. The electoral victory is a product of a great working class movement on all the specific issues — health, housing, jobs, trade unions, and so on. That’s what will carry him to government, but more importantly to power. I guess the thing to add on to that is yes, the attacks on him will be overwhelming, from the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, if it still stands, and that’s where we’ll need international support.

In your films such as Days of Hope and Land and Freedom you’ve investigated historical periods that we can learn from. Are there any other periods you think would be useful to look at?

There are lots of films that need to be made. I’m not the person to do them because it needs someone younger. A film about the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians really ought to be made, no doubt. What was it like to be in Iraq? What was it like to be in Falluja when the Americans were raining it with weaponry and chemical weapons? There are stories in Latin America — the coup against Salvador Allende. We’ve been running hard to get this film launched, trying to get to as many screenings as possible and have discussions afterwards because you don’t want it to just evaporate in the air.

Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake is released in cinemas on 21 October. Read our review here