The Left Needs To Start Again: Interview With Ken Loach
Loach's new film, Spirit of '45, is an impassioned account of the unity that built the post-war welfare state, contrasted with the dismantling we are witnessing today. Oliver Huitson talks to him about the film, welfare, Thatcher, the unions and the modern Labour party. Can we recapture the spirit?
Oliver Huitson: Production of the film was announced very shortly after the passing of the Health and Social Care Act, in March 2012. To what extent did the passage of the NHS reforms influence your decision to make the film? Was it more a response to the general attacks on the welfare state since 2010?
Ken Loach: Obviously the Health and Social Care Act is just one rung on a downward ladder. The idea of making a record of the spirit after the war is something that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. I had the chance to do this documentary and I thought this is the moment to try and do it. The other thing was that people who have sharp memories of it are… we need to capture them while they’re still here. So there’s an urgency from that point of view. But also the biggest reason was that the economic system we have is so manifestly failing on every front. And the more it fails the more its proponents push it and try and prop it up with ever more desperate results. I thought it was time we remembered what happened after ‘45 and try and learn from it. It’s been written out of history because it’s in none of the main parties’ interest to remember it. Of course the Tories don’t want to remember it, nor the Liberals, and the Labour party certainly don’t because they are vehement free marketers themselves.
OH: Have you been surprised in that regard, in terms of what’s happened post-2008, in the sense that many expected a sort of reversal of neoliberal trends of the last 30 years - have you been surprised that they’ve gone into overdrive rather than reverse?
KL: No not at all because the more desperate people get the more they go to the [extreme] of their essential ideology. Labour even doing what they did in ‘45 were still social democrats and social democrats believe capitalism is progressive and they just have to manage it, rather better than the Tories. So the more desperate times get, the more they are prepared to sacrifice the social wage and social benefit in order to keep capitalism propped up. And Tories don’t care because that’s their agenda anyway. Labour and Miliband, with his idea of benign capitalism, so misunderstands the nature of the system that you wonder where he’s been living. It’s certainly not how he was brought up. If there’s one thing he would have learnt from home, it’s that capitalism is based on class conflict not class collaboration.
OH: Ok let’s come back to the modern Labour party later. Obviously in terms of the legislative creation of the welfare state, you cover it a lot in the film, but what was the spirit of those years?
KL: It was one of working together. The experience of the war was that clearly the armed forces were organised by the state, not private armies going off to fight. There wasn’t, like we have now, private contractors going off to do the work of the military; they were armies of the state. Some of the industries were taken over because they couldn’t be run by private companies, they were so inefficient, like the mines had to be taken over. And clearly the sacrifice and the bombing and the home front as well as the soldiers brought people together, people just had to be good neighbours, so that engendered a feeling of collectivity, of solidarity, so that was one element.
Another element was the depression and mass unemployment of the 30s, the conflict of the 20s, the rise of fascism, and the dictators, and a general feeling that in order to solve the problems of the peace, why shouldn’t we use the ways we solved the problems of the war, which was working together? And it was a matter of common sense, not a question of ideology. We’ve been working like this for six years, with good results, this is how we should continue to work together to build people's homes and look after them and establish the industries again.
OH: There was a long history of advances within the labour movement, but do you think without the war the creation of the welfare state would have been possible?
KL: I think war was the catalyst. I think then, like now, there was a feeling of resentment, of desperation, but the 30s were a very quiet period. The general strike was well before, in ‘26, and the big coal strikes were right at the beginning of the 20s. So in the 20s there was industrial struggle, in the 30s unemployment settled down to 2.5m to 3m. That was a very quiet period, and it needed, with hindsight, you could say it needed that terrible jolt, and what a terrible thing that was, but without that jolt it’s difficult to see what would have shaken people out of the despair of the 30s, to get organised, and elect a Labour government with elements of a socialist programme. It wasn’t a socialist programme but it had elements of a socialist programme.
In the film you covered the creation of the welfare state and then we sort of jump to ‘79, Thatcher, privatisations - how in your mind was Thatcher able to not just win the election in ‘79 but a further two elections on a platform of reversing many of the gains made post-war?
Well… the long Tory government of the 50s, and the Labour governments of the 60s and 70s didn’t regenerate the idea of common ownership, they didn’t establish any industrial democracy. They stayed as state organisations where they were run as private corporations, where there was still conflict between the management and the workforce. They didn’t regenerate, they didn’t invest properly, so the concept fell into decay and the industries themselves fell into decay; they were ripe to be taken over. And Thatcher of course pursued that by refusing to invest so everybody got fed up with the notion and she could then present privatisation as a remedy, and I think that was quite a conscious decision.
Why did the Tories get elected? Because Labour failed as social democrats. I guess the world economy was against them, but that’s through what some of us would call the inherent conflicts in the system itself, inherent contradictions; capitalism goes through these cycles. It was failing, and the Labour party still tried to prop up capitalism like they have done ever since, and they paid the penalty. Thatcher could come in as a new broom, as finding a solution to the tired old nationalised industries, attacking the unions because the Labour party had bore the brunt of working with the trade unions but being in conflict with them. And the Tory press of course, we should never underestimate that, and Thatcher could come in as a new broom. But she still had to defeat the unions, and some of us would argue that the privatisations happened because the unions were defeated and the miners were beaten into the ground with police trunctions.
If we go back to welfare for a moment, you’ve talked elsewhere of the impact on community life and families over the last few decades. If we look at welfare provision of housing, for example, is there a sense in which welfare itself has removed elements of community and weakened them by transferring what would have been done by local community ties to an impersonal state?
Well, there’s a lot of assumptions in that… but where to begin unpicking them. The fact that it’s done collectively, for which you might say the state, it isn’t necessarily impersonal - it can be impersonal, I don’t know really. The most potent democratic way is for housing, and the whole location or area, to be planned through the municipality and the council; done with direct labour, as direct democratic participation; done with good architects and good planners, where housing is planned, green spaces are planned, schools, hospitals, and most particularly work. Because to find ways for people to live well, work and employment has got to be part of the picture. And you can’t plan that if you’re just trying to tempt private business. So the whole idea of planning will fall down if you can’t plan employment, and that means common ownership in the end, and I think it’s foundered on that point.
So now we have a situation where we’re desperately trying to build houses in the South-East, but some of the areas in the North where industry drained away we have empty houses, and the market economy can’t solve that. So the state can be impersonal but it just depends how you organise it. Big Business is always impersonal because they’re accounting to shareholders - not local people.
The film itself is openly polemical. What do you think of the response of popular culture to the financial crash and austerity in general, where this sort of polemic seems quite rare?
Difficult to say, I’m not sure what popular culture is. There’s a culture that’s developed through the new media, which can be quite subversive and critical, a product of the austerity cuts and the rest. But inevitably that’s like a firework display, it won’t lead to a coherent movement with a coherent program, but its nevertheless an inevitable response. I think the popular media in terms of the mainstream press and broadcasting is as you would expect, it’s very favourable to the government. It promotes divisions amongst working people, it finds scapegoats, benefit claimants are demonised, unlike the tax evaders who float in and out but on the subject of permanent attack, anyone claiming benefits is made to feel guilty. There’s a huge attack on immigrants, which is traditional, they always have to find scapegoats when the economy is crashing. It’s never the people that caused the crash, or are benefiting from it, it’s the people who are poorest off, so there’s no surprise there.
The danger of course is it’s a breeding ground for fascism. There’s mass unemployment, targeted scapegoats, no representation for the left politically. We have no representation, not in a political movement, not in broadcasting, not in the press… The articulate left barely exists and yet there’s a huge groundswell of anger about what’s happened, but its not focused in a political movement, and kept out of focus by the mainstream media
And finally, on that point, if we talk about Labour as it exists today, is there any hope for a reformed Labour party or has the time come for a mass democratic organisation beyond the Labour party?
We’ve been talking about reforming the labour party for a century haven’t we? Since Ramsay McDonald walked away from the general strike… And the 1945 government was a blip really, in the Labour party’s achievement, but I can’t see the Labour party developing a socialist leadership. I can’t see it. I’ve been on the fringes of politics for 50 years and this is what people have said at every point, and the Labour party has moved consistently to the right in its leadership.
I think the key role is played by the trade unions. If the unions said we’re going to do what we did a century ago, we’re going to found a party to represent the interests of labour, and we will only support candidates who will support policies of the left then we could start again. But we need a new movement and a new party. And it needs all the people on the left of the Labour party who’ve spent their life complaining about it to get out and start a new one, with the unions.
It needs the unions because they have resources. If Unite, Unison, GMB, you know, said we’ve had enough… But they’re like dogs, the more you kick them the more they creep back to master. And they actually need to wake up and say this is not going to happen, we’re not going to reclaim the Labour party. I mean the last [Labour] leadership election the left didn’t even have a candidate, this was after decades of people saying reclaim the Labour party - couldn’t even get a candidate because it had been purged by Blair and his gang. The unions have got to cut the ties, start again, with everyone on the left, with all the campaigns, the NHS campaign, the housing campaign, the community services campaigns – everybody. And let’s begin again, and then we could really move.