Ken Loach talks to SWU

SWU General Secretary John McGowan (right) with film director Ken Loach (left) for an interview before the release of The Old Oak film (2023)

With the release of his latest film The Old Oak, celebrated film director Ken Loach spoke to SWU General Secretary John McGowan about poverty, politics, and social work.

Ken Loach is one of Britain’s best-known film directors. He started his career in the BBC Drama Department in the early 1960s directing episodes of the police series Z Cars before moving on to direct a series of movies with strong social themes.

His ground-breaking 1966 TV drama Cathy Come Home tackled homelessness, poverty, and a mother having her children taken into care. His second feature film Kes released in 1969 is widely considered one of the best British movies ever made. In more recent times, works such as I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You have borne powerful testimony to the human cost of austerity and the exploitation of zero-hour contracts.

Throughout his career, Loach has been a champion of the underdog and depicting the hardships and struggles of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. His latest film The Old Oak is due out on September 29th and explores the struggles of Syrian refugees in a neglected former mining community in the north-east.

Ahead of its release, the celebrated director sat down in his London studio for an interview with John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union, and proved that at age 87 he’s every bit as outspoken as he ever was…

What do you think are the biggest social ills, difficulties, and problems in the UK today?

This is a hugely important question and there are professionals who know the answers to this much better than I do, so I will answer with some humility. The bottom line is poverty and insecurity. Insecurity in income, in work, in having a home, in all the concrete things that give you stability in life. That insecurity combined with poverty, that economic pressure [of] where is food coming from for the kids – I won’t eat to feed my kids, they are freezing, do I feed them or keep them warm?

There is a level of poverty and I think mixed with a sense of anger. People know they are being cheated; they may not know exactly how but they know they are being cheated. Insecurity and poverty give rise to all the symptoms – people lash out at the people nearest to them, they can’t cope with their kids and the people around them. I mean what would you do if you couldn’t feed your kids? I’d nick something and I’m sure anyone else would.

And alongside this you’ve got an economic system based on greed, based on people at the top stealing from other people’s labour to take profit. The injustice of it and the raw suffering and increasing levels of poverty of course give rise to the problems social workers are confronted by and then [they are] faced with a hostile press as well.

What needs to be done to address the issues you have raised?

I think we are past the stage now of sticking plaster politics; there is a fundamental change needed in the whole economic system.I’ve got my old membership card in my pocket now from when I first joined the Labour Party, and I think what should be done is what I’ll read – what it says is:

“What we do: Secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible for on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

I don’t see a way of doing it otherwise. Apart from the inequality and the poverty, the destruction of the planet is based on the greed of big corporations in the market competing as hard as they can to make more products from which they can extract profit.

We’re actually going backwards – we had the eight-hour day and full employment, holiday pay, and sick pay but the economy is slowly removing that so the system is going back. If there ever was a high point it would have been in the decades after the war but Thatcher ripped that apart and where we are now is a consequence of that.

I think the only way is to reboot the whole economic system based on common ownership so nobody is robbed of the value of their labour. They talk about putting in regulations but you can’t control international capital like that with parliament saying, ‘Well just do it in a slightly kinder way’. It’s rubbish. It can’t work and if we don’t do it soon the planet is gone.

It’s interesting you’ve touched on the Labour Party; can the Labour Party be seen as the wave of the future? I’m not sure a lot of social workers know what labour stands for anymore.

Blair removed that clause because he didn’t believe in it; they are pale Tories now. The Labour Party has always done a job for the ruling class and, to use old fashioned language, nothing will change. However, the establishment has to prove it’s a democracy. They’ve had 13 years of the Tories so there has to be a change of government, otherwise we’re a one-party state. How can they make certain that the choice is really no choice but looks like a choice?

You have a Labour Party that will ensure that the property relations stay the same, that’s there’s no serious inhibition to business, that the profits will be protected, because in their view that is a progressive system: companies make money, you tax them, they pay for your public services.

The alternative view is that we own what we produce and part of the value of what we produce goes on public services; no one is making a profit out of it. It’s a different system but the Labour Party is there to keep the profit relations intact, keep corporate power intact, and that’s his role. Keir Starmer is discredited and unprincipled and we should have nothing to do with him. He made a number of pledges that things like water and rail would be nationalised and on economic justice, social justice, and human rights. He’s broken every one. He said that to get elected, knowing he would want to destroy half the party, and then he’s broken them one after another; he put his arm round Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 knowing he would stab him in the back given the first opportunity. To me, the man is beneath contempt.

I also saw that Rachel Reeves [Labour’s shadow chancellor of the exchequer] was quoted as saying that Labour is not the party of people on benefits, it’s the party of business. If that is the case, I think this is why it cannot, for the foreseeable future, be a party that can represent the interests of working class people.

We are overloaded now by celebrity culture and dumbed down reality TV. Do you think there is a future of working class and socialist writers ever returning the likes of Cathy Come Home to mainstream media?

It’s very hard to see it. I think it’s very difficult because the BBC is the leading broadcaster and the terrestrial channels take their lead from the BBC. The streamers are straight commercial; they will make again the kind of work that made the money last year and it reduces and reduces the content just as food gets reduced to hamburgers.

The difficulty with the BBC now is that because they are in this harsh commercial environment and because of political appointments – the people at the top are Tories – their view of public service broadcasting is like the Americans. It is the same with the National Health Service – they want it to be the residual treatment at the bottom for the poor and everyone else takes out private insurance.

The clever Tories realise that the BBC is the acceptable voice of the ruling class – it’s our bane, it’s self-deprecating, it will laugh at itself, but when the chips are down it’s ruthless. That’s the BBC, always has been. Back in the 60s it was more confident, therefore it allowed you more leeway, but it was always the voice of the ruling class and the ruling class can have a liberal voice.

We had great freedom. The head of drama would see dramas like Cathy Come Home the night before it went out. Now it’s micromanaged at every stage so things will get cut out because they are so concerned about attacks from the right wing, The Daily Telegraph, and whatever. You don’t have that freedom now and people I know who work there say at every turn there is someone above you saying, ‘What about this and what about that, we don’t like that casting and here’s a comment on the script and do this, do that’.

Social workers often complain about having a poor public image. Do you have any thoughts on why that may be the case?

We did one film called Ladybird, Ladybird where the social workers themselves were very human but the story we had suggested there had been a bad decision. It was a story told to us by a social worker, and it was about a woman who’d had her children taken away. They thought she was an unsuitable mother but she actually turned out to be a good mother and it was about how do you escape that stereotype.

So as far as we contributed to that I apologise to social workers, but the people themselves were not presented in a bad way. They were struggling with the decision.

I think the hostility comes from the hostility to the poor because the basic principle of this right-wing society is that the poor are to blame for their poverty: if you’re homeless, what’s wrong with you?

And it’s reflected in the financial sanctions for benefits: you haven’t jumped through all these hoops, we’re going to cut your money. We know you’re going to get hungry, we know you have nothing, that’s why you are on benefits, but we’re going to make you suffer, we’re going to make you hungry. The people whose job it is to nurture people with problems are more or less in the same category – they favour punishment rather than generosity.

The morality of the middle classes and ruling classes is ‘God helps those who help themselves’. It’s not ‘look after the poor’, it’s not the welfare state. If you’re poor it’s your own fault, so [you get] minimum support, learn the lesson, do better – instead of understanding and support.

Is there anything you think we could do as a profession to encourage folk to become a great social worker in today’s society?

Looking in from the outside, I think the difficulty is that social workers are trying to serve two masters. One is to look after people who need them in the best way they can and that’s why people become social workers. The other is that they are constantly being cut, their wages are not adequate, the instructions from government are to cut back, to make harsh decisions, and people’s needs may demand more than the government department are prepared to give. In that case you are torn, do you stay within budget or do you do what’s needed?

And you are constantly in that position so there is a danger people can get hardened and immune. We saw it in the DWP and we did it when we filmed I, Daniel Blake. In I, Daniel Blake, everyone we had in the film’s benefits office, apart from the two main characters, were benefit workers. These were people who had worked in benefits and many of them had left because of the demand put on them. They were torn, they’d see people come to them and know there was a genuine hardship but they were being told, ‘No, you’ve got to cut their benefits. The decision maker will be in touch.’ It sounds like something from George Orwell but they were caught in that; they knew people needed help but the government said you must cut their benefits and I imagine social workers are in the same dilemma.

If social workers were in charge of their own publicity they could say, ‘This is hugely valuable work, please join us, please help us. If you’ve experience of it, you’ll know how valuable it is. We need to be a profession that helps you like the nurse in a hospital or the social care worker in the old peoples home. We are here to help, we should be here to help. Help us demand that the government provides the support’.

The private sector is seeping into social work, I wondered what your views are as the private sector is really active in children’s social care. For me it’s not a good way the profession is going with private companies running children’s homes and fostering and adoption agencies and hedge funds organising children’s homes and mass profits.

There is no place for profiteers in social work, or any care work. It’s outrageous. Why are they making money out of people’s despair? It’s disgusting, absolutely disgusting, you can say disgusting on that one.

Good, glad you share our views. Do you have any message you would like to say to the current Prime Minister if you had the opportunity to sit down with him?

Not really. I’d just say, ‘Get out’.

I’d sit him and Starmer together. Sunak and Starmer, you can barely put a blade of grass between them. What did they say in the civil war – ‘In the name of God, go.’

It’s probably unfair to ask, but what would you say is your favourite film that you’ve made? Is there one that really stands out and you think I was really happy with that and that’s the one I go to if I was recommending to social workers or anyone with an interest?

You can’t answer it because they are all your children, and the ones that seemed not to work as well you are most protective of because they were good people you know. It’s moments, really. There were moment in Kes with the boy and the bird, moments in Land and Freedom, the Spanish Civil War one, some moments in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, in I, Daniel Blake, lots and lots of them. They’ve all had moments and people in them that I was pleased to have been involved with and there are mistakes in all of them. It’s the same in any job – you have to learn the same principles over and over again.

Film director Ken Loach shakes hand with SWU General Secretary John McGowan after an interview for SWU.

Click here to read SWU’s review of the (possibly) last film directed by Ken Loach. The Old Oak will be in theatres from 29th September 2023.