Neil McLeod: Why Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach won't get the fanfare in the UK he deserves

Writer Neil McLeod says 'I, Daniel Blake' director Ken Loach's work reflects a reality in Britain that makes the elite uncomfortable

A BUNCH of foreigners acclaiming a film by a veteran socialist director that shines a light on the harsh reality of those dependant on the benefits system in austerity Britain is the stuff of David Cameron’s nightmares, so that’s probably why it’s unlikely that the notable success of Ken Loach lifting the Palme d’Or at Cannes for 'I, Daniel Blake' will receive the level of effusive congratulatory patriotic tub thumping from the government that would usually ensue from an undoubted internationa success.

The UK film industry and the political establishment would prefer if it had been another seemingly innocuous costume drama or period piece in the vein of Downton Abbey, reflecting a cosy forelock-tugging past when everyone knew their place, were effortlessly witty and polite, only sexually assaulted the servants when they asked for it, and when the lower classes were actually hardworking and had a job they were jolly well grateful to receive a pittance for.

There are those who dismiss Loach as a 'propagandist', with an article by Michael Henderson in the Spectator on the release of his previous film, Jimmy’s Hall, in 2014 arguing he hadn’t made a decent film since Kes and that "he’s so keen to parade the virtue of those he feels have been robbed of a voice that his work sinks under the weight".

Read more – Fraser Stewart: What my job in a UK job centre told me about today's benefits system

Unsurprisingly, it’s the cheerleaders for austerity in the Daily Mail and the Murdoch media, those who propagate the clichés of the workshy, scroungers and the undeserving poor, that patronisingly dismiss portrayals like Loach’s as naïve or unrespresentative; "If only it were that simple," they tut dismissively. 

But actually, in my experience of 20 years in the welfare rights sector, it is that simple - if something that revolves around surviving an unwieldy, Kafkaesque system of bureaucracy designed to dispirit and dehumanise can be described as 'simple'.

The central premise of 'I, Daniel Blake' - that the eponymous character is found to be fit for work following a debilitating heart attack, but then deemed not fit enough to look for appropriate work and claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) - is no anomaly, but a very typical problem.

I personally would meet at least half a dozen people in this predicament every week over the last few years working in welfare rights in the north-east of Glasgow: lost in the system; fit for work, judged by the increasingly narrow and ruthless criteria imposed; sanctioned for failing to look for enough jobs. 

The only people we ever used to see sanctioned and denied JSA were those who failed to apply for a job or go to a job interview, but now this happens at the drop of a hat, for totally arbitrary reasons, and whistleblowers at the DWP have claimed they have quotas to meet for denying benefits.

The feckless wasters beloved of the tabloids, the rightwing broadsheets and poverty porn like Benefits Street, exist, but they are the exception, not the rule. The rule is folk who have worked for three decades and suffer ill health but are deemed fit for work and then sanctioned from JSA because they’re not actually fit to do any of the jobs available in the real world. 

They're trapped in a seemingly inescapable system that drives the physically unfit into mental health problems, and those already mentally ill to a state of suicidal
despair. They have a human face and each has a unique, but sadly familiar, story. 

I sat next to them through countless benefit appeal tribunals and heard those stories as claimants persuaded judges earning £1,000 a day to allow them less than £100 per week. This is the frontline of the battle of inequality.

I personally would meet at least half a dozen people in this predicament every week over the last few years working in welfare rights in the north-east of Glasgow: lost in the system; fit for work, judged by the increasingly narrow and ruthless criteria imposed; sanctioned for failing to look for enough jobs. 

These real stories and common problems faced not just by my former clients in Glasgow, but across Scotland and across the UK, are thanks to a benefits system designed by former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

Here is a man who spent years in opposition popping up in places like Easterhouse to announce he cared about the communities and individuals who lived there and would introduce a system of reform that aided them, then spoke like a man whose knowledge of the benefits system had all the insight and substance of someone who’d had a quick scan of the Daily Mail before drawing up a blueprint for a welfare state that seems to have had less time and effort expended on it than your average Telegraph crossword.

I started working in welfare rights when John Major was in power. We thought back then as Jobseeker’s Allowance was introduced and incapacity benefits were reformed that we were living in a punitive and oppressive benefits environment, quick to punish and scapegoat.

And we were. But in comparison to the unprecedented cruelty of the current system, the Major government was a socialist utopia.

Read more – Catch up on the latest from 62-year-old Jimmy Stirling in his DWP diary on CommonSpace

When asked why he thought the film had won the Palme d’Or, Loach said: "I think dealing with a cruel bureaucracy is something that crosses borders and people understand the frustration of being constantly trapped by call centres, by people who won’t give you the help you need. And facing a bureaucracy that is out to deny you what you feel is your right is something people understand."

This is not the calculated, tearjerking work of a propagandist, it is a reflection of the reality caused by the government. Putting a face on the faceless and holding a mirror up to society, it’s making people see something they don’t want to believe exists.

Many critics laud the value of films like this set in the developing world, showing sympathetic people trying to retain their dignity while being hungry. Even in a European context, the Dardenne Brothers of Belgium are feted for ploughing a similar furrow to Loach.

But as Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw points out, "the same thing set in modern Britain gets dismissed with an embarrassed shrug as strident or hectoring, as if going hungry is impossible for British non-shirkers".

Social realism used to be a familiar fixture on British TV. We used to have Play for Today, and the likes of Boys from the Blackstuff to reflect reality back at us. There has been a deliberate and systematic restructuring of the climate in TV that would allow for this kind of programming. 

If we dehumanize those suffering, it fails to become an issue we feel passionately about. Films like Loach's counter this and put humanity front and centre, making us rightly uncomfortable, making us think again and think more deeply. 

Our Friends in the North creator Peter Flannery recently remarked in the Radio 4 Documentary 'Working Class Heroes and Poverty Porn' that he wouldn’t have been able to get it made today and had effectively given up trying to get anything similar past younger producers and commissioning editors, concentrating instead on trying to sneak political ideas in as a Trojan horse on his George Gently period detective piece.

If the only attempts to portray working class life on screen are via the equally unreal genres of reality TV and soaps, we'll find cliché and stereotype obscuring our view of the bigger picture.

Obviously we all need films that allow us to pretend to be what we are not, but as a society we also need films to show us what we are.

If we dehumanize those suffering, it fails to become an issue we feel passionately about. Films like Loach's counter this and put humanity front and centre, making us rightly uncomfortable, making us think again and think more deeply. 

That’s why they’re so essential and that’s why the UK establishment and its media don’t like them, even if those at Cannes do.

The CommonSpace opinion section is an open platform for anyone who wants to voice their views and does not represent the editorial position of CommonSpace itself. If you'd like to have a piece published, email CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty at angela@common.scot

Picture courtesy of Cornerhouse

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