Having long stirred emotions across the spectrum of political opinion in Britain, Ken Loach’s most recent film has understandably drawn wildly different reactions from all corners of the bourgeois press.
Telling the story of Daniel Blake, a widowed carpenter whose doctor advises him to stop work following a heart attack, the film follows his tribulations in navigating the benefits system, first as he follows the instructions to apply for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), then, following a capability assessment, through which he is wrongly declared ‘fit for work’, his humiliating experience as he attempts to prove that he is seeking active employment, required for him to receive Jobseekers Allowance (JA).
No helpless victim, but a hardworking, highly skilled and energetic working-class man, Daniel takes on the challenge of sufficiently mastering a computer so that he is able to fill in the online application forms that the system has imposed on him. In this, he has the advantage over the many thousands who cannot afford either a computer or internet access.
Daniel is joined by single mother Katie, who has been relocated from a shelter in London with her two children to be rehoused in a poorly maintained council terrace in Newcastle, where the film is set, after he witnesses her being given a benefit sanction when she arrives late for her appointment at the job centre.
Much of the criticism of Loach’s film from a right-wing perspective stems from the assumption that he has portrayed the welfare system at its very worst – which is a rather witless stance to take, given the fact that the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP’s) own data revealed back in 2015 that over 80 people a month were dying shortly after being declared ‘fit for work’.
These figures were released only after repeated campaigning by friends and relatives of the deceased, who maintained that the trauma of being denied even the most basic social security provision contributed directly to the deterioration of their loved ones’ physical and mental health. It was thus revealed that a long list of claimants had committed suicide or suffered fatal heart attacks in the weeks following a ‘fit for work’ decision.
Of course, the events depicted in the film wouldn’t seem exaggerated to anyone who has experienced, or who has spoken to someone who has experienced, the indignity of having their meagre welfare payments stopped owing to circumstances beyond their control – such as having tried to use a privatised and inefficient local bus service to get to their appointment.
And while Toby Young, writing in the Daily Mail, blasted the film for asking its audience “to believe people who claim incapacity benefit are all upstanding citizens who would love nothing more than to earn an honest living if only they were able-bodied”, and for portraying the “evil Tories” as the conductors of needlessly ruthless and humiliating welfare reform, in fact the film paints a rather more measured picture of the variety of ways in which workers find themselves in invidious circumstances through no fault of their own – from the neighbour selling stolen trainers on the street to top up the insufficient pay from his agency job (which, he complains, calls him in to work at 5.00am, and sends him home an hour later after unloading a single lorry) to the security guard involved in grooming young women he catches shoplifting into prostitution as a solution to their financial problems.
Just as in real life, the ‘evil Tories’ responsible do not appear as a physical presence for the affected (or the audience) to vent their anger against. Rather, the protagonists are presented with an array of put-upon Jobcentre staff, who, whilst of varying sympathy or indifference to Daniel Blake and his circumstances, are ultimately depicted as being unable to escape the requirement for box ticking and fulfilling sanctions quotas, implying their own fear of becoming welfare claimants themselves.
So, although the knee-jerk reaction of right-wing commentators was to decry the film as unfiltered pro-Corbyn propaganda, directing vitriol at the Conservative government and absolving Labour of any responsibility for current problems, no such message actually emerges from the film, notwithstanding Loach’s publicly outspoken support for Corbyn as leader of the Labour party.
As the plot, from the main character’s point of view, hinges on what is presented as essentially an administrative error, the effect is quite the opposite of depicting his situation as being cruelly engineered by spiteful Tories full of ideological hatred for the common man, and more as a result of a vast bureaucratic system having been tampered with by successive governments to the extent where it’s completely incapable of providing the sort of service it’s supposedly designed to deliver.
The stress wrought on the characters from having to spend hours speaking to DWP call centre staff, waiting on hold to be connected to their colleagues, and the frustration felt when a misunderstanding directs them back to the original department, causing them to endure the ordeal over again, is not without light comic effect, but doesn’t obscure the notion viewers will have that for anyone with physical or mental health issues, such experiences, too often repeated, will be only too likely to have a negative impact on their wellbeing.
Overall, the film paints an image of an entire system in decay and a working class that is presently unorganised and undefended, helpless to fight back against continued assaults on their living conditions and basic rights. The fact that the film’s contemporary setting is not peppered with references to current Westminster personalities means that accusations from bourgeois pundits that the film is nothing more than an extended party political broadcast for Labour are entirely unjustified. While Ken Loach would undoubtedly be very happy for people to flock to Corbyn, the film in no way projects that message.
Rather, it is a powerful and poignant depiction of the misery and humiliation heaped upon some of the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the working class. As such, it deserves to be widely seen and discussed by progressive people. It offers no way out of the problems it so vividly portrays, but then again, if it did, it would certainly not have hit the big screen in the way it has been able to!
The task of communists is to bring together the outrage that a film like I, Daniel Blake naturally engenders amongst its audience with the scientific understanding and revolutionary organisation that will enable those who wish they could abolish the heinous conditions that the film depicts to move from anger to resolve, and from resigned passivity into determined class action.