I accompany Ken Loach to our meeting room, our way slowed by the gatherings determined to greet him. I am struck by the enormous warmth which surrounds him. Loach responds as if catching up with old friends: his eyes light up as he sees a face in the crowd he recalls from a previous screening event several years ago; hands are shaken, their stories and their faces remembered.
Loach is a man with a genuine curiosity in human stories; insight he shares through his films – such as Kes (1969), about a Yorkshire boy and his kestrel; The Navigators (2001), about a group of railway workers following the privatisation of the railways in 1995, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), a Palme D’or winning film about two brothers in the Irish War for Independence and Irish Civil War.
What is evident throughout all of these films is that, whatever they are about, the grit of the human story lies firmly at the heart of them; a desire to ‘tell it how it is’ – without judgment or criticism: two brothers; a boy and an animal; a group of friends. Through his films, Loach gives a voice to those who might so easily be otherwise forgotten. Now aged 80, he is a man who does not forget anyone. Every story matters.
I ask Loach about his latest film, I Daniel Blake. Screened earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Palme D’or, it is now being screened on general release. He tells me it’s “just a little story” about a man approaching retirement who has a heart attack, and is told he can’t work, but is re-assessed and told to work by the job centre:
“It’s about the trap he’s caught in, and the friendship with a young woman. A single mother with two kids, and she’s moved out of London because the rents are cheaper. It’s about their friendship and what happens to them and it gets quite dark in places.”
Another human story. Another relationship.
In September, Loach will once again be leading the way at ‘The World Transformed’ in Liverpool – a Labour Party conference fringe event with over 150 hours of workshops, speeches, exhibitions, gigs and other events to offer a positive vision for the future.
Of The World Transformed, he tells me:
“It isn’t a high powered thing that you have to be rich or well educated to enjoy.
People wanted to say: ‘politics is about big ideas and about imagination and how we grow and how we can live together’ and just discuss it in a really wide sense.”
The World Transformed event aims to be an important step in developing a new politics of participation and involvement.
I am speaking to Loach at the Quad in Derby, where he is launching this spirit of participation with a screening of The Spirit of ‘45 – a documentary about the achievements of the Labour government of 1945-1951, how and why it came about, and what happened to its legacy, complete with interviews from ordinary people of the times. This is followed by a Q&A session, in which he invites the public to explore how we re-energise our country with a new ‘Blitz Spirit’ to create a new social justice in the face of a currently divided nation. I ask Loach what inspired him to make the film, originally released in 2013. His reply is revealing:
“Well, I think it’s largely been a forgotten period of history and yet it was the time when so much of what we cherish in our society was established and huge advances were made. I think huge mistakes were also made but nevertheless huge advances were made and everything we now say we would defend to the death was established in the five years, in the six years after 1945.”
Loach points to the National Health Service as being the prime example, but adds that there were many other publicly owned industries. The Attlee administration of 1945-1951 brought roughly 20% of Britain’s economy into public ownership, including the Bank of England, civil aviation, coal mining, the railways, road haulage, canals, Cable and Wireless plc, electricity and gas, and the steel industry which was mostly privatised by Churchill in the 1950s and re-nationalised under Harold Wilson in 1967. Loach says:
“We owned a huge amount and there was a sense that people could work together; they weren’t in competition with each other; they worked together for the common good. There was this sense that what we do together is better than what we can do as individuals.
So I wanted to tell the story of that spirit, how it came about and what it achieved.
I think it’s very important to remember your history, because then you know what mistakes to avoid and all the good things that you’ve done.”
Loach’s expressions, both as a director and a public speaker, continue to resonate.
The World Transformed, hosted by Momentum – a grassroots organisation of activists born from Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership campaign – is described by its host as being about participation, inspiration and the “reclaiming [of] politics from Westminster”.
I am curious as to his personal motivation to take part in The World Transformed. His answer is clear and direct:
“Well, there’s no choice is there? There’s no choice because that’s why we [directors] make films – why a lot of people are involved with theatre, artistic work. You want to reflect the world but you also want to imagine how it might be different.”
In support of this event, Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said:
“I’m going to be there, because I want to see a world transformed […] Doing things together benefits us all, educates us all, makes us strong, and does change the world.”
Loach is noted for his long standing socialist views and, more recently his vocal support of Corbyn. I raise the current situation in the Labour Party with Loach, and he tells me about how the Labour Party has moved on from being dominated by MPs:
“I think […] the MPs came to power under Blair and under Brown, committed to privatisation, committed to, for example, allowing private contractors in the NHS, and prepared to follow America in foreign policy, even to the extent of an illegal war and I think very much in the aftermath of Thatcher and to pursue Blair’s agenda.
I think people have moved on from that, moved on to something different. And I think Jeremy Corbyn embodies that difference.”
Since Corbyn was elected as Leader of the Labour Party, party membership has gone from under 300,000 to over 600,000, one of the fastest increases in membership of any British political party in history. For Loach, this is an unambiguous testament to the leadership of Corbyn:
“To have made that change and then to be told you’re unelectable and you’re unpopular so flies in the face of the evidence, that you know it’s nonsense.”
Love or hate Corbyn, you cannot deny that he has enthused a great many people to take a greater interest and involvement in politics. Loach goes further:
“It’s a critical moment and if Jeremy Corbyn can stay as the leader and if we get a party apparatus that will support him, and some MPs that have the same vision that Jeremy and John McDonell have, then we’ve got a really serious party.”
If Brexit, the SNP winning Scotland, UKIP and the rise of Corbyn have taught us one thing, it is that many people are feeling taken for granted. But Loach is not a man to take anyone for granted; people matter. Perhaps it is to this sentiment that, as well as offering hope for the future of Labour, Loach also offers a warning:
“If this clique of MPs and their friends in the press – even the Guardian – not to mention the BBC, succeed in removing [Corbyn], then I think there will be a rage in the country that will be very great.”
When asked if he had a message for our readers, Loach was clear:
“This is a really critical moment – it is. We have at the moment a leader in the Labour party who has done what no other Labour leader has done: he has actually stood alongside people on the picket line, as leader, which no Labour leader has done, I believe, in the whole history of the Labour party going back over a century. Certainly not Kinnock, Blair and that grubby shower and I don’t think Attlee did either – Attlee sent in troops to break strikes.
So we have the opportunity of a leader who is now in place who really represents the interests of working class people, who understands their interests. His programme is quite different to any programme we’ve had in the Labour party before, and I think he means it, unlike some of the others.”
In summing up, he said:
“I think it’s very important [Jeremy Corbyn] is re-elected and it’s very important that we pass the message. Because he means what he says, everyone is out to get him – from the so-called left wing Guardian, including the BBC, and there’s a real consensus in the establishment to remove him, so that’s why we have to stand by him and work really hard – tell everyone you know – and if he gets back, make it the basis of a mass movement that will win the next election.”
I am struck by the fact that Loach is right. It looks like Labour is indeed becoming a mass movement again. However far Labour succeeds in this ambition, one thing is clear: Ken Loach, for one, is ready to embrace this movement and its vision of a World Transformed.
The World Transformed will run parallel to the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, from the 23rd to the 27th September. It is open to the public and free to attend.