After the UK premiere of Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, in Liverpool at the time of Labour Party conference, I was filmed for a trailer. What did I think of it?
I had wondered whether I was a wuss, for blubbing, but when I looked everyone was crying or laughing or both. Daniel is a carpenter in his late 50s who has had a near-fatal heart attack and been told not to work by his doctor. His inability to fill in forms on the computer in a library, and his honest but naive answers, get him moved from disability benefit (ESA) to JSA. When he admits he can’t take the jobs he’s applied for, he is sanctioned, and spirals into the poverty of food banks and charity.
I’d worked in job centres and signed on, and so was ready to pick on every mistake. But I couldn’t work out how the film had been so accurate. I was saying so in the toilets after the film, then heard a voice: “I’d like to shake your hand, as that’s what I wanted to hear”.
It was Paul Laverty, the screenwriter. He said a lot of the actors were former jobcentre workers. I said I’d wash my hands first, and he said not to bother as he “likes to get his hands dirty”. (He has been a human rights lawyer in some of the worst war zones). It’s the ability to pick up on mundane conversations or little phrases that connects the movie so intimately to working-class experience so intimately.
Some right-wing reviewers think it too ranty, too anti-government, but that is because, in the words of Jarvis Cocker, they’ll “never live like common people”.
I feel this film could do for the 21st century what Orwell did in the 20th or Dickens (who, so Marx said, “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the politicians, publicists and moralists put together”) for the 19th century.
We see Daniel literally running the computer mouse up the screen (we all know someone older who can’t cope with computers or smartphones), but he is tenderly practical helping Katie, a single mother forced to move to Newcastle from high-rent London to save the state money. They form a touching sort of family unit, particularly with Katie’s boy Dylan, who has developed obsessional rituals from the trauma of being shunted through hostels and across the country.
The jobcentre workers are like prisoners forced to recite scripts. They say they can’t help because remote “decision makers” must decide. They mostly succumb to the pressures. One brave worker who tries to help is punished by bullying bosses. It isn’t a miserable film but rather inspiring, particularly at the point where Daniel makes a powerful “I, Daniel Blake” statement of defiance.
A few years ago, some good civil service union activists whom I argued with said that they didn’t think there could be a major campaign uniting jobcentre workers and claimants over sanctions as the “blame scroungers” culture was so strong. But then 18 months ago nobody predicted the popularity of anti-austerity politics, as reflected by the hundreds of thousands joining the Labour Party now.