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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) - Article - From Victoria to I, Daniel Blake

The film director, Ken Loach, did not like ITV’s costume drama series, VICTORIA. He saw it as bread and circus porn for the proles on a Sunday evening. He said:

It’s bad history, bad drama. It puts your brain to sleep. It’s the opposite of what a good broadcaster should do, which is stimulate and invigorate.

You might as well take a Mogadon as watch it. TV drama is like the picture on the Quality Street tin, but with less quality and nothing of the street (RADIO TIMES, 30th July 2016)


Yet for all its soporific qualities, the writers of VICTORIA inserted a historical passage dealing with the Chartists and the Newport Uprising. The Newport Uprising was the last large-scale armed rebellion in the UK. It was also the largest civil massacre committed by the British government during the 19th century.

On 4 November 1839, almost 10,000 Chartist sympathisers, led by John Frost, marched on the town of Newport, Monmouthshire. They were trying to release arrested Chartists who were being held in the town’s Westgate Hotel. About 22 demonstrators were killed when troops opened fire on them.

The leaders of the uprising were arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Queen Victoria, apparently, was not amused to see such acts of barbarism carried out in her name and the convicts were packed-off, instead, to Australia. There was not a dry-eye in the house at this act of compassion; at least from those who were still awake after a half a bottle of Gigondes.

What was not commented on in VICTORIA was the reason for the Chartists, their political aim and why this was one of the first political working class movements. The working class showed that they could organise politically and go beyond trade union action for higher wages and better working conditions.

So what would Ken Loach put in the place of Victoria to awaken the proles from their slumber? Films of social outrage like I, DANIEL BLAKE, no doubt.

Ken Loach’s latest Palme d’Or winner is about today’s benefits system symbolised as the new work-house for the age of austerity with its reinvention of the Victorian “undeserving poor”, food banks and humiliating tests and procedures for claimants. The film critic, Mark Kermode said the film was “neoliberal 1984 meets uncaring capitalist Catch-22” (OBSERVER 21st October 2016). Although, when has capitalism ever been caring? Capitalism is a system of class exploitation.

I-Daniel Blake, set in Newcastle, is an angry denouncement of attacks on the weak and the vulnerable; in frame after frame, in scene after scene, Loach shows the squalor and cruelty of contemporary capitalism and its brutal treatment of the working class on par with previous films of his like POOR COW and CATHY COME HOME.

I, DANIEL BLAKE is a film about the hardship endured by a fictional benefits claimant called Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), the type of claimant the DAILY MAIL and the SUN love to hate. He is a skilled labourer and carpenter in Newcastle who is unable to work because he has had a heart attack. Daniel also meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother newly rehoused from London as part of social cleansing of the poor from areas of the City ripe for redevelopment for the rich.

The film follows Daniel Blake, through the tortuous and bureaucratic claimant’s system where he finds out he is ineligible for sickness benefit. In particular, Daniel has to spend more than 30 hours a week applying for jobs he can’t take in order to qualify for support. “Tough love” the Tories called it.

I, DANIEL BLAKE is perhaps a film not for Sunday evening viewing. However it is a film with something more to say than the escapism of VICTORIA. Yet what the film has to say needs to be questioned and what the film does not say needs to be brought to the surface.

The film is a plea for social reform and “social justice” not socialism. It is a film for Corbyn’s Labour Party and Loach’s Left unity. Loach’s politics advocates a “caring sharing capitalism” rather than the brutal austerity and poverty we live under today. However, this is a utopian view of the world. You cannot establish a “caring, sharing capitalism”. The capitalist class own the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the rest of the family and this is the point where the social problems flow out into the working class.

Capitalism is as unpleasant as it is exploitive. In economic depressions the squeeze is always put on the working class whether it is lower wages or cuts in social services. The political question “what to do about it?” would be answered by Ken Loach: “Vote Labour”. This is no answer at all. In a trade depression a Labour Government would not have behaved any differently from the Tories.

So what is unsaid in the film I, DANIEL BLAKE?

First, there is no socialist critique of capitalism. There is no socialist argument against the widely held belief that workers will always have to endure wage slavery and periodic unemployment. Second, Loach’s career as a film director and political activist may have produced films highlighting the effects of capitalism but he has never set out a socialist political programme to abolish the capitalist cause.

Loach’s historic film, CATHY COME HOME, drew attention to the appalling housing crisis of that time. And here we are, decades later, and we have a worse problem of homelessness than in the 1960’s. And in response to the housing crisis the government is considering “micro-flats”, to be built for the working class – the slums of the future. Workers are told by government ministers to lower their standards and be prepared to rent housing with lesser standards.

Loach naively clings to the belief in social reformism instead of socialist revolution. At the end of I, DANIEL BLAKE there is a plea for compassion in economic policy. What should have been stated at the end of the film, loud and clear, is the urgent necessity for the working class to consciously and politically to abolish capitalism and establish socialism. However the characters in the film are passive and resigned to the system that exploits and humiliates them. There is no hope or scope for revolutionary change.

In this respect, I, DANIEL BLAKE, despite the social problems the film highlights in great detail, is as reactionary and conservative as VICTORIA. Not because the film is like a picture on a tin of Quality Street but because politically the film and its politics changes nothing.

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