I, Daniel Blake: Corbynism on celluloid?

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.

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4 thoughts on “I, Daniel Blake: Corbynism on celluloid?

  1. Hi, you say “the fact that all parties have seen benefits-bashing as a potent source of votes” but that is not the full story. The SNP has not, and is trying to use the marginal devolution of welfare powers to Scotland to end this farce.

    Now judging by the letters and comments section in say the Scotsman, plenty of people here do buy into the ‘skivers’ narrative – so it takes a degree of political courage, but in the end a party clear that this is wrong will take that stance. The problem for Labour is that all of IDS’ cruelties are simply an extension of New Labour policy and during the period when Reeves was shadowing IDS never opposed?

  2. While the film on its own may change nothing, hopefully it will motivate people into doing what they can to change things, even from the opposition or outside parliament. Also, note that the SNP and Greens don’t demonise claimants as far as I can tell, and Corbyn/McDonnell/Abbott and other allies of Corbyn likewise are socially liberal and supportive of claimants.

    Your points about hardened attitudes in some of the working class towards claimants is a pertinent reminder to me when canvassing in future against both economic and social injustice. Keep up the good work!

  3. agreed. too much of “the left” sees itself as caring about the poor (not part of it), sees advocating more generous benefits as helping the poor, and then is mystified when (many of) “the poor” react with hostility to that idea. Or if not mystified, attribute it to demonisation of benefits claimants in the press, without giving any weight to the possibility that the press is the mirror of something already there.* Whilst I agree with I think it was Flying Rodent who said much of this stuff is apocryphal and always second hand, rarely about immediate friends and family, (many) people who drag themselves into a job they dislike for shit pay *really* don’t like the thought of their neighbors having their rent paid etc. because they can’t be bothered to work. Even if that only describes a small minority of benefit claimants, many people on poor estates will know (or claim to know) at least some genuine “scroungers” (my evidence for that claim is anecdotal, based on speaking to residents of Lawrence Western in Bristol).

    I am just trying to describe facts here, not arguing that hostility to welfare claimants is “understandable” or anything like that, and I am not sure what the implications are. I just think this is a blind spot for many middle class lefties.

    * I think (not sure) I have read that even in isolated villages in sub-Saharan Africa, where most people cannot read let alone buy tabloid newspapers, there can be some hostility towards hand outs for the extreme poor. That sentiment is not, I don’t think, a creation of our contemporary Western capitalist society.

    [also, I am a useless political strategiser,so take this as you will, but I think that there might be some pockets of natural allies on the right, who see the state bureaucracy as cruel and inefficient and support reform. Most of us hate filling in long forms and dealing with inept and rules-bound functionaries, so hammering on that aspect, as opposed to trying to garner sympathy per se for those who (imo) deserve it , might be fruitful. Place a few stories about the experience of people like Daniel in the right wing press – spun as human interest stories of the good and deserving poor suffering at the cruel hands of the state – and you might find some Tories wanting to burnish their compassionate credentials willing to do something about it?]

  4. sour grapes because Corbyn won. The failure of Blair and his coterie to stand up for the Welfare state is why there has been a reaction to the left. May be you should consider how consistent it is to call the pre corbyn leadership socialist? Pandering to Capitalists including billionaire press Barons is what lead to PFI in the NHS and cuts to the welfare state. But do waste your time attacking the Labour Party as your faction does not control it for the moment.

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