SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 203 November 2016

Britain’s workhouse state

I, Daniel Blake

Directed by Ken Loach, 2016, 100 mins

Reviewed by Kevin Parslow

From the first scene of I, Daniel Blake you should be angry. Daniel is sat before a ‘healthcare professional’ answering questions for his claim for Employment and Support Allowance following a heart attack. She is working for a government-appointed contractor carrying out the assessments. He is turned down: he hasn’t got enough ‘points’. Never mind that his cardiologist, GP and physiotherapist have signed him off for another month, he is deemed ‘fit for work’.

Thus begins Daniel’s entry into the UK benefits system. It is a descent on which Dante would model his Inferno if he had been writing today. This new film directed by Ken Loach from Paul Laverty’s screenplay graphically illustrates the social security regime in Britain. It is no longer a welfare state. It isn’t really a ‘workfare state’ either. What we have is a workhouse state with all the compulsion of the Victorian era’s method of dealing with the jobless poor except that the workhouses are yet to be built.

Daniel, a joiner with 40 years work experience in Newcastle, intervenes on behalf of Katie, a single parent of two forced out of London by a council which could not offer them a home near to family and friends. Her children have been forced out of a school they love and are separated from their grandmother. Daniel and Katie bond in human solidarity but neither can prevent the other slipping further into the abyss.

Daniel is forced to try for Jobseekers Allowance to get some income but it’s a Catch 22. He cannot work on his doctors’ say so but he has to spend 35 hours a week looking for work. He has to turn down a job that comes his way, which itself causes friction. Katie starves herself for her children, and Ken Loach shows the role of food banks in feeding the poor in Britain today. He depicts the pointlessness of looking for work where almost none exists. He delves into the degradation that some fall into in despair.

Daniel also has a good relationship with his young neighbours on the estate. They are in precarious employment: casualised jobs and some ‘ducking and diving’. Their lives are every bit as unstable as Daniel and Katie’s, yet they have some money coming in and, for the moment, they are happy-go-lucky. But what does the future hold for them and us? Three years ago, Shelter said that eight million people are one pay cheque away from a missed housing payment. Recently, it was revealed that 16 million of us have less than £100 in savings to fall back on in case of a financial catastrophe.

As well as dehumanising those entering the benefits system, management methods are shown dehumanising the staff in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) too, with one exception. Even she is reprimanded for showing compassion and giving assistance to Daniel. Ken Loach has thanked necessarily anonymous DWP employees and PCS members (and section president Fran Heathcote) in the credits. I did wonder, though, whether the film is overly harsh on the majority of benefits system workers.

Where I think the film is weak is in showing a way forward. Daniel commits an individual act of resistance against the system but that is it. Blame for the benefits system is put on ‘the state’, without explaining who runs it and in whose interests. In a sense, the absence in the film of the organised working class through the trade unions reflects their weakness in society today. Nonetheless, their potential for collective action around a fighting programme is the only way out of this morass.

There is no happy ending to this film but there isn’t for the vast majority of those living in breadline Britain. Happy endings will come through struggle for a better, socialist society. Your anger at watching this film should be taken out of the cinema and directed to fighting to end this brutal system that destroys millions of people.

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