I’m writing this having just returned home from seeing Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake -a powerful, visceral but – in my view – flawed film about one man’s struggle with the vicious, bureaucratic mess that is the UK benefits system. Because the film was obviously made to expound a political message, I think it is revealing to reflect on the politics of the film – where it succeeded and why, ultimately, it fails.
Where the film triumphantly succeeds is in its portrayal of the absurdities and casual cruelties of the benefits system. It opens with a “trained healh professional” reading through questions on the fifty-page ESA application form, and the growing exasperation of Daniel Blake, 59-year-old carpenter with a heart problem – at those questions’ total irrelevance (and it’s worth reflecting how that irrelevance is an order of magnitude greater for ESA applicants with mental health problems, who are required to fill in the same fifty-page form with its questions focussed on physical conditions). It illustrated the basic cruelty at the heart of the benefits system – that Daniel Blake’s doctor and consultant had told him he couldn’t work, but the assessment had declared him fit for work, and he could only claim JSA by proving that he was looking for work. Otherwise there was nothing for him, apart from food banks. Loach understands the way the system is designed, not for support of the claimant, but to force claimants back into work whatever the human cost, while undermining genuine health professionals through the use of standard questionnaires. It’s a system that sets up the vulnerable to fail; a huge number of cases are overturned on appeal.
But, as one moves away from this central point, Loach’s touch is much less secure. In my view, his film descends into bathos and sentimentality, most notably in its (wholly predictable) ending (no spoilers here). As so often, the most politically interesting part of a Loach film is not what he says, but what he skates over and glosses. In a pivotal scene, Daniel Blake takes a can of spray paint to the wall of the local job centre to demand his appeal; passers by clap and cheer, and are portrayed as being on his side. Would that happen? Hostility to claimants is an undeniable fact; anyone who has canvassed for Labour on an estate knows that. At no point does Loach grapple with the fact that all parties have seen benefits-bashing as a potent source of votes. And it is that failure to get to grips with the complexities of society’s relationship with social security – to ask the kind of awkward questions that might illuminate why people react so negatively to social security – that, in my view, leads the film into a sentimentality that, in the final scenes, seems to echo Dickens at his most mawkish.
I watched the film at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, as part of an impeccably middle-class audience that was obviously moved, and that clapped loudly at the end. And, I reflected, here is part of the problem. I strongly suspected that my partner, with her professional background in social work, was in a small minority of people who had the direct experience of actually supporting a claimant through the ESA process; and who could really understand what it means to expect a person with a severe mental illness to fill in a form that takes two days of a skilled professional’s time to complete adequately. Camilla Long, in a provocative review in the Sunday Times, described the film as “misery porn for smug Londoners” and, on Twitter, called it a “povvo safari for the middle classes” – and unleashed a storm of fury on social media for doing so. But while I completely disagree with her that the film did not portray the benefits system accurately, it was hard to avoid the feeling that she had a point – looking at this audience and this reaction. It was preaching to the converted and privileged, for whom the easy answers were enough.
And the wider political reaction has been of a piece with this. The film has been taken up by the Corbynite Left, for obvious reasons. And the system it portrays is utterly unacceptable, and needs to be changed; and Labour has to take its share of the blame, both for the fact that it introduced some of the least humane parts of the system in office, and was too morally timid in opposition to criticise the ideologically-justified cruelties the system produced. But of course the system can only be changed from a position of power – the people at its sharp-end cannot afford the luxury of an opposition party that is more concerned with creating a mass movement than with winning elections. The questions for democratic socialists must always be, “so what do we do? How do we gain the levers of power to change this?” And the simple fact is that, faced with the cruelties of the UK social security system, the intellectual and moral self-indulgence of the Corbynist left is simply not good enough.
Ultimately, then, this film is Corbynism on celluloid. And, sadly, that is precisely the reason why it will change absolutely nothing.