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Artillery Row

The Passion of Ken Loach

Expelled from the Labour party, Loach can once again present himself as a rebel

The other day, I noticed that Sir Ridley Scott’s name was trending on Twitter. Briefly fearing the worst for my favourite octogenarian epic filmmaker, I was soon reassured to find that it was in fact a rebuke to the social media agitator Owen Jones, who had described Ken Loach, upon his expulsion from the Labour Party, as “Britain’s greatest living film maker, whose films have moved and inspired millions”. Many people were quick to come forward to suggest that the director of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator (as well as, in the interests of balance, A Good Year and GI Jane) had a considerably greater claim to such a title, along with the likes of Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle, Paul Greengrass, John Boorman, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears. And, yes, some wag suggested Guy Ritchie, too.

  Yet it remains Ken Loach who has a near-fanatical fan base on the Left, both for his filmmaking and his political stances. From his 1966 BBC TV drama Cathy Come Home to his recent Palme d’Or winning I, Daniel Blake, he is an uncompromising director of hard-hitting social realist films, often revolving around the harshness and unfair nature of modern society, usually under the Conservatives. It is perhaps fortunate for Loach that, over the course of his half-century career, the Tories have generally been in power for most of it.

It was typical of Loach that, rather than leave the party quietly, he came out with a ringing denunciation of Starmer

During the 13 years that Labour were in power before 1997 and 2010, Loach showily left his former party, describing Tony Blair as a “fake leftist”, and pledging his allegiance to a rag-tag assortment of marginal factions including Respect and Left Unity. He returned under Corbyn, signing a letter before the December 2019 election that declared “Labour’s election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership offers a transformative plan that prioritises the needs of people and the planet over private profit and the vested interests of a few”, before failing to come to an accommodation with Keir Starmer.

It was typical of Loach that, rather than leave the party quietly, he came out with a ringing public denunciation of Starmer, who has attracted both praise and criticism for his attempts to proscribe the hard-left factions of the party that rose to prominence under Corbyn. He declared that “Labour HQ finally decided I’m not fit to be a member of their party, as I will not disown those already expelled. Well … I am proud to stand with the good friends and comrades victimised by the purge. There is indeed a witch-hunt … Starmer and his clique will never lead a party of the people. We are many, they are few. Solidarity.”

Some pointed out that it was a bit rich for Loach to attempt to portray Starmer as an establishment figure, living high on the hog, when one of his most notable cases as a barrister was to defend the environmental activists David Steel and Helen Morris in the 1997 so-called “McLibel” case against McDonalds. Loach, meanwhile, notoriously directed an advertisement for McDonalds in 1990, something that he has subsequently described as sitting “really badly on my conscience”. His son Jim emotively revealed that it was a choice between taking the McDollar or moving house. The only surprise is that Loach has not yet directed a suitably heartfelt film about the ethical and moral compromises that a middle-aged Oxford graduate had to make after making several critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful films.

Loach has attracted some controversy for what might be kindly described as an “ambivalent” attitude towards the anti-semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes pedalled by many in the party under Corbyn. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that he once said, when asked whether he supported debate about whether the Holocaust existed “I think history is for all of us to discuss. The founding of the state of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing, is there for us all to discuss, so don’t try and subvert that by false stories of antisemitism”, and perhaps, in retrospect, he might have regretted calling for MPs such as David Lammy —  hardly a firebrand of the right — to be thrown out of the party in 2018 for daring to attend a rally in Parliament Square against anti-semitism, which he perceived as a lack of support for Corbyn and his supporters.

The single-minded rigour of his films inadvertently leads to a black-and-white view of the world

In fact, Loach’s politics are merely an expression of an unreconstructed Trot’s lifelong anti-Israel, pro-Palestine perspective on the world. There is little point in being personally offended by them; one might as well attempt to start a fight with Tariq Ali. Instead, it is Loach’s work as a filmmaker that seems perplexingly overrated. He built his initial reputation on Cathy Come Home and the excellent Kes, which remains by far the high watermark of his career, and thereafter devoted himself to polemical cinema, with increasingly limited returns.

If one watches the likes of Land and Freedom (Spanish civil war), Ae Fond Kiss (romance between a Muslim and Catholic) and Route Irish (the aftermath of the Iraq war), one knows more or less what to expect, thanks to the scripts from his usual collaborator Paul Laverty. There will be denunciation of the uncaring ruling and capitalist classes, usually delivered in strong regional accents by working-class actors. Most of the primary characters will either be driven to criminality, or impoverished, or both. The humour, such as it is, will be broad. And if the Tories feature, they will be as pantomime villains. That Loach once voted Conservative as a younger man (as Harold Pinter, that lifelong Leftist, famously did in 1979) will certainly never be mentioned.

Compared to his near-contemporary Mike Leigh, an infinitely more interesting and versatile filmmaker, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Loach’s continued ability to get films made lies far more in his socially acceptable politics and attitudes than in audiences especially wanting to go and see them. They make their budgets back, but his biggest commercial hit, IRA drama The Wind That Shakes The Barley, managed $25 million at the box office; hardly The Full Monty levels of success.

It is hard to evade the suspicion that the single-minded rigour of his films inadvertently leads to a black-and-white view of the world. His most recent picture Sorry We Missed You, which dealt with the perniciousness of the modern-day gig economy, was, as usual, praised to the skies. Yet its overall message is no more sophisticated than that of The Lego Movie. Most people who watch it will have been aware that poverty is terrible and soul-destroying; that corporations are monolithic and unfeeling; and that unexpected acts of kindness can save the downtrodden from the depths of despair. But for Loach, the opportunity to make such statements is not merely an artistic opportunity to preach to the converted. It is a credo. 

His most recent picture, Sorry We Missed You, had a message as sophisticated as The Lego Movie

And so it is, expelled from the Labour party, that the now-85 year old Loach can once again present himself as a rebel, fighting against the status quo with all his might. Many will applaud him, and continue to believe that he is a vital, important figure in British society and culture. Yet others will look at his remarks, his films and his television adverts, and might suggest, quietly, that he might now think about retiring to his home in the well-known ghetto of Bath. There, he can spend his days looking at his many prizes, writing furious letters to newspapers about the iniquities of the current government, and rejoicing in the certain knowledge that he was right all along, and opinions of others be damned.

It would be a fitting end to a long, occasionally distinguished and perennially troublesome career. Let us see whether Loach is now tempted to embrace it.  

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