The Great Crusader: Ken Loach's Blistering New Film about Britain's Migrant Workforce Attacks the Culture of "Flexible Labour". Gordon Brown Is Enemy Number One, He Tells Amy Raphael
Raphael, Amy, New Statesman (1996)
Ken Loach sits at an old wooden table, his corduroy suit crumpled, the collar twisted. The small back room of his Soho office is cluttered. Propped sideways along one wall sits a framed poster for Kes. The fireplace is filled with untouched boxes of champagne and cigars; on the mantelpiece sit a dozen awards, including, hidden inside an austere box, the Palme d'Or he won last year for The Wind That Shakes the Barley ("It's embarrassing that they keep it there. You can touch the holy relic, yes--it'll cure your rheumatism"). He talks softly, makes no assumptions that you have seen any of his films and, unusually, often asks questions back.
At 71, and after four decades directing, Loach is still driven to make films about people who remain largely invisible in society. His latest--It's a Free World ...--goes out on Channel 4 this month before being released on DVD, having already picked up the Best Screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival. It looks at the world of migrant labour in Britain, which, says Loach, he had been discussing with his long-time collaborator and screenwriter Paul Laverty for some time. "We were trying to get into the mentality of the people who do the exploiting. We wanted to say, 'It's not an aberration--it is the way people think society should be run.'"
The story follows Angie (played with great energy by the newcomer Kierston Wareing), a feisty, sexy single mum in her early thirties who sets up a recruitment agency for migrant workers. Increasingly seduced by easy cash, she starts to bend the rules and break the law. Along the way, she slowly loses her compassion, starts seeing the illegal workers she employs as a means to an end, and finally lets her entrepreneurialism give way to exploitation. Loach says that his primary motivation was not to effect change, but to examine "why [exploitation] happens. Angie's logic is inexorable ... The clothes are in the supermarkets. We're buying them. People are living in tin container sheds with no windows. That's central to our economy now. Families fall apart because of flexible labour--which is something Gordon Brown advocates."
Loach's disillusionment with Labour is well charted: he joined the party in the early 1960s and left in the mid-1990s--later, perhaps, than one might have expected, considering some of his views. "I stayed in the party throughout the 1980s because there was still a radical element that was critical of the leadership," he says. "Then, at some point in the late 1980s or very early 1990s, the party started paying subs by deducting money from members' credit cards or by direct debit. For me, it was the last vestige of the local organisation disappearing: no one was coming round to collect the payment and have a chat about politics any more. So it was a small but final straw that made me leave."
Naturally, Loach was a fierce critic of Tony Blair ("a right-wing careerist"), and is no more enamoured of his successor. "Gordon Brown is and always will be committed to the interests of big business, so there's no way I want to be involved in the Labour Party again. It would be of real benefit to those still left in the Labour Party to recognise it for what it is--as a party of business. I was also hugely disappointed by the failure of John McDonnell's camp to contest the leadership and by Brown's not even allowing his name on the ballot paper."
Loach still defends his association with the Respect party, which dates back years. "There seemed to be the possibility of a new left rising out of the anti-war movement, around the central ideas of opposing American imperialism, opposing privatisation and supporting publicly owned industries and public services. Around those central planks there was space for a movement of the left. So I was involved with Respect from the outset and am still a supporter. …