Ken Loach’s reputation as a film-maker is extraordinary. From his breakthrough TV piece Cathy Come Home, shot verité style and focusing on the housing crisis tearing poorer families apart in 1966, up to his two most recent works of cinema, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, exposing the life-threatening cruelty in both the 2010’s UK benefits system and the bogus self-employment offered in gig-economy Britain. His candid view of systemic injustice and its impact on ordinary people is unstintingly truthful, compassionate and condemnatory. Loach’s lengthy career has seen him not only present international struggles such as the Spanish Civil War (Land and Freedom) and that for Irish independence (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) but has returned again and again to depict the dangerous erosion of labour rights in films like Riff-Raff, The Navigators and Bread and Roses. These stories often follow characters with whom we readily identify, the political points arising naturally in the protagonists’ attempts to overcome systemic obstacles that block or destroy their simple aims of having a decent life.
Very, very few film-directors portray characters and predicaments such as this, and to do so consistently for almost seven decades, shows an astonishing dedication to telling it like it is for those at the bottom of the capitalist heap. This commitment, together with the humanity of his stories and characters has earned Loach the love and gratitude of huge numbers in the UK and abroad, especially for his ability to so precisely portray the contemporary inequities besetting people via housing deficiencies, welfare bureaucracy or employment exploitation. Somebody cares enough to show this! Audiences watch in thanks as truth is told movingly and eloquently to power, shaming the legislators. Fêted internationally, Loach is the only director to have twice won the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as having been lauded with honours such as university doctorates, a BAFTA and an Honorary Golden Bear in Berlin for his lifetime achievement.
He easily fits then, into categories of both national treasure and people’s champion. In addition to producing works of fiction that rigorously represent facts, he has authored a number of superb documentaries, not least the most recent The Spirit of ’45 made in 2013, about the triumphant post-war Labour government that went on to create the NHS and other aspects of social provision. For a 21st century Britain endlessly pumped with militaristic nostalgia by the media, this was a people’s history seen shockingly rarely but instantly and lovingly celebrated. It provided a stark contrast with the austerity people had been experiencing since 1979 at the hands of governments who had long since torn up the social contract and sounded urgent warning bells about how the health service could be lost through stealth privatisation. It also offered a sobering compare and contrast exercise between the pioneering socialist spirit of Labour in 1945 and the bland, ineffectual opposition nominally led by Ed Miliband, who went on to lose the general election two years later.
After Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour party leader in 2015, Loach not only rejoined the party, but also shot and directed election broadcasts such as Let’s do it differently in 2017 for no fee. Watching it now, one can see how Corbyn’s message – “to give everybody a decent chance” – is the longed-for antidote to the plight of people suffering like Loach’s characters. The surge of relief and gratitude seen on the streets and workplaces in the broadcast conveys the poignant sense of the possibility of an oppressive spell being lifted and that Corbyn, like Loach, is someone who has not only listened and seen what is wrong but is determined to put things right. In #We Demand, again in 2017, Loach lets the people themselves speak to camera. Young, old, black and white, their message summed up by the young woman who looks into camera at the end and says “We demand a chance to be all that we can.” Labour was tantalisingly close to winning that election. Murkier deeds may have played a role in the result being short of a victory, but more of that later.
Of course there had been attempts to remove Corbyn as leader from within by disgruntled MPs who hadn’t signed up to serve these kinds of socialist principles. Loach criticised Tom Watson (for a time Labour’s Deputy Leader) and other members of the PLP for lack of solidarity, and for trying to destroy the socialist programme the Corbyn leadership was offering. He suggested that sitting MPs should reapply for their jobs before each election so as to be judged on their records. This calling to account clearly didn’t sit well with people who preferred to think of their parliamentary positions as uninterrupted trajectories of influential prestige, untroubled by something as grubby as mere party democracy and giving members some say. Telling truth to power started to get Loach into trouble with those who began to see him as less of a party asset and more of a threat, mostly to their jobs.
Despite his great popularity with the electorate (increasing the share of the Labour vote since 2010 substantially even in defeat) and with the Labour membership, Corbyn lost the 2019 election. Tory propaganda about the supposed bright sunlit uplands of Brexit had supplanted Labour’s transformative anti-austerity and Green Industrial Revolution messages. The Conservatives had ditched the dithering Theresa May for rumbustious and cunning clown Johnson, who seemed to some voters so funny and loveable he couldn’t possibly be lying. Continuing the deception of the Leave campaign, the Tories purported to hold the NHS as sacrosanct.
Despite the harrowing result, Ken stayed in the party as did most members, hoping that what had been built in the last four years could be strengthened and maintained and that everyone, together, could galvanise in the fight against the Tories. Keir Starmer presented himself as the “unity candidate” and also promised in 10 pledges to continue the direction of social justice set since 2015. On the basis of these promises, he won the leadership but within just seven months, several pledges were broken and others on shaky ground. Then, far from the unity promised, Starmer began to jettison left-wing Cabinet members like Rebecca Long-Bailey, herself the author of the Green Industrial Revolution and even Corbyn himself was suspended and the whip withdrawn from him.
Around Easter time in 2020, a leaked report seemed to indicate deep factional hostility at Labour HQ towards allies of Corbyn in the run up to the 2017 election, and even hinted at behaviour and actions that may have undermined Labour’s chances at the ballot box in the last crucial days of campaigning. Allegations about the lackadaisical attitude of party officials in dealing with accusations of antisemitism, behaviour at complete odds with the party’s avowed claims to be doing the opposite also surfaced. All these things were said to have occurred before Corbyn ally Jennie Formby took over as General Secretary, painting a picture of vicious, factional hostility towards the left and a disingenuousness about tackling all forms of racism. Starmer’s response was to set up an inquiry into whether all of this was true, which was supposed to publish its findings early this year at the latest. We’re still waiting.
The suspensions have continued, usually of left-wing members, regularly left-wing Jewish members. Some of these suspensions have been fought in the courts, not all members have been reinstated. The promised unity has melted into thin air and we have instead a war of attrition against the left-wing membership. The vigour and robustness with which this has been pursued contrasts steeply with the underwhelming opposition to the government. Inevitably the membership is dissatisfied not to say outraged. But even this dissent has been curtailed by the unelected General Secretary, preventing discussion in branches on high profile suspensions like Corbyn’s and even putting an embargo on discussion about himself. To say this is a sea-change from the inclusive, participatory, enlivened democracy of the party Corbyn headed is the understatement of the century. In lieu of being able to discuss these things within the party structures, innumerable groups have sprung up on social media. Some of these groups themselves have now been “proscribed”, that is membership of them means a five year auto-exclusion from the Labour party.
Ken Loach, unwilling to denounce those he considers comrades or basically play along with this charade of moral rectitude, is the highest profile member to have suffered this fate. Yes, the 85 year-old world-renowned film-director, famous for championing the oppressed and exposing the savage inequities of neo-liberalism has been kicked out of the Labour Party. What a demolition of your ‘brand’. If the eruption on social media is anything to go by, hundreds of members promptly resigned at this news saying more or less that not only did the party seem not to stand for anything under Starmer, it seems positively hostile to democratic socialism, the description it still bears on its party card. The haemorrhaging of members, unhappy at the current mixture of external blandness and internal aggression has already starved the party of funds and very little financial support has been forthcoming from an attempted schmooze of big business.
So one has to wonder, who is this PR disaster actually aimed at? Do the leadership and advisors think that expelling a paragon of compassionate socialism puts them in a good light with voters? Do they think that being strict like this will bring the membership into line, and they’ll deliver leaflets like good little boys and girls with nary a critical peep? The answers are clearly no and no, with polls lacklustre, election results dire and a membership shrinking by the day. And of course, Ken is only the highest profile victim of the latest purge. I have heard of members who have had threatening letters citing that a couple of ‘likes’ on Facebook posts (before any of this proscription business was announced) constitutes gross misconduct and said members must prove they are not members of such abruptly unacceptable groups. Calling this McCarthyism is letting it off lightly, being more akin to accusations of ‘thought-crimes’, sending the message that social media groups may suddenly become verboten at the capricious wish of a party official. Woe-betide you if you’ve ever attached any kind of positive emoji to some quip or comment.
Interviewed by the BBC in 2016, Loach described the UK benefits system as “a Kafka-esque Catch 22 situation designed to frustrate and humiliate the claimant to such an extent that they drop out of the system and stop pursuing their right to ask for support if necessary”. Frustration, humiliation, dropping out. But why would Labour wish to frustrate and humiliate its members into dropping out when they are the ones who give it money and work on its behalf for free? One answer in terms of timing might lie in the looming dates of the party conference starting 25th September. This annual event was online only last year but is traditionally where MPs and leaders meet the membership, where policy is thrashed out, where disagreements are had, sometimes loudly, where in other words, democracy happens. Could it be that those in charge wish for as little dissent as possible in this arena and hope that the big public expulsion of Loach will demoralise those still clinging on in the hope of some socialism? It’s only a theory.
But why would they not want a vibrant membership full of progressive ideas? That’s a good question and perhaps one only partly answered by this Tony Benn quote from 1982:
“If the Labour Party could be bullied or persuaded to denounce its Marxists, the media – having tasted blood – would demand next that it expelled all its Socialists and reunited the remaining Labour Party with the SDP to form a harmless alternative to the Conservatives, which could then be allowed to take office now and then when the Conservatives fell out of favour with the public. Thus British Capitalism, it is argued, will be made safe forever, and socialism would be squeezed off the National agenda.”
Carol McGuigan is a socialist living in Berlin who will vote for the first time as a dual-citizen in the coming German elections.